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The totem in the cave

August 3, 2020

This is one I’ve only recently finished. It is likely going to be part of a larger story. Critiques are welcome, so let me know what you think.

 

I needed to get out. If I didn’t, I was done. “Let me show you the power,” Rich had said as he began to chant, obviously casting a spell. His bland but pleasant enough demeanor was gone, replaced by an arrogant sneer. Eyes which had been boringly droopy now burned with a Manson-like intensity. Even worse, I was sure that spell would be directed at me. I knew that if I did not escape, he would kill me.

***

Predictable. That’s the word. Owners of shops like Cassandra’s Mirror, an occult bookstore outside Sheridan, Wyoming, were predictable. So were the conversations. Samhain, “lifting the veil of Isis,” and the ignorance of the unenlightened mundanes, the conversations were as predictable as the owners. From the candles and incense (what is it about spicy wax and sandalwood, anyway), to the owner’s black pants and black graphic tee which proclaimed, “I brake for elves,” it was all painfully, boringly predictable. The owner, Richard “just call me Rich ’cause everybody does” Corvinus, topped it all off with, of all things, a black, nylon taffeta robe.

My name is Kevin Douglas Munro, Jr and I am a Sentinel. You may have heard of Sentinels, if your reading tastes tend toward tabloids printed on someone’s home inkjet printer, or if you listen to amateurish podcasts that are never going to be listed in any of the respectable directories. We’re occasionally semi-big news for those who live in that non-mainstream world where belief in the occult overlaps conspiracy theories; a sort of otherworldly Venn diagram, if you will.

If you haven’t heard of us, we are investigators of those events and creatures which are no longer considered real. Whether it’s claims of real magic or beings out of myth, we investigate them, and often deal with those involved. Trolls, ogres, giants, almost anything you care to name, they all have their origins in fact. Quite often, they’re violent, vicious beasts that need to be put down before they do (more) harm. There was a time when their existence was widely accepted. That made a Sentinel’s work very straightforward. Blame it on Francis Bacon if you like, but the shift to a more rigorous, scientific approach to understanding the world around us really changed things. “I’m a Sentinel and I’m here to take care of your werewolf problem,” isn’t a viable approach when no one believes in werewolves, anymore, and doesn’t want to. They’re real, though, all those monsters and mysteries you’ve heard of, and a myriad of them you haven’t. They live in closets, under beds and bridges, and in that old, deserted house where that mysterious thing happened years ago that no one talks about. Which brings me to how I came to be in Cassandra’s Mirror on Halloween.

Sentinels don’t advertise themselves as such, and calling yourself a “paranormal investigator” instead doesn’t do much for your reputation. Most of us have regular jobs and do the Sentinel gig on the side. In my case, I’m a private investigator with a real practice. I’m also on retainer for a family with a very real interest in the occult. I had been sent to Sheridan, officially, to look into the viability of investing in a renewed petrochemical industry, with a focus on quality of life issues. Yeah, okay. To quote Tom Lehrer, “this, I know from nothing.” My clients knew this, but they had heard about something not quite right in the area. The investment cover gave me an excuse to flash my PI’s ID, look around and ask questions about what was normal and what wasn’t. I had driven from my home in Tennessee in my “skoolie,” a school bus I’d converted into an RV, Jeep in tow, and pulled into town a few days before Halloween. In three days of wandering around, asking questions and making a nuisance of myself, I had turned up a lot of nothing. The closest thing to a lead had come from a waitress in a grimy little greasy spoon. Three days of eating bad food and tipping too much for mediocre service had induced her to tell me about “one of them weird bookstores,” several miles outside of town. Thus, there I was, listening to Rich expound upon his patently nonexistent knowledge of the unseen world. Predictable. Time to pump for information. Maybe he knew something he didn’t know he knew.

“You’re a long way out of town, Rich. I wouldn’t think you’d get much business out here.” That was true enough, given that “here” was quite literally a wide spot in the road. As far as I could tell, the store was miles from anyone or anything.

Rich leaned his tall, angular frame my way. His long, thinning and greasy hair fell into his face as he answered in a flat tone, “Most of my customers come from out of the area”

I nodded. “Makes sense, I guess, but it’s out of the way for this kind of shop. Even Sheridan’s not on most people’s got-to-see list.”

He leaned in a bit more, belching as he did so and giving me the full benefit of a diet that centered around Nacho Cheese Doritos and Coke. In the same tone as before, he whispered in a cloud of his preferred foods, “They come here because of the power.”

Now, that was interesting. Conspiratorial whispers and flat don’t go together. Time to pump more and play dumb – and remember to exhale when Rich was talking. “Power?” I inquired. “Like oil from fracking, maybe?” I can do dumb.

Rich shook his head as he explained, with his first hint of enthusiasm, “No. Not like that. I mean real power. Power from the Other Side.”

“You mean like magic, right?” I asked incredulously. “Really?”

He nodded. “And not the fake stuff. I’m talking about the real thing,” he insisted even more enthusiastically, obviously thrilled to be sharing his big secret with someone. Then, he paused, concern drawing his bushy eyebrows together. After all, I wasn’t a cop, but in the minds of many people being a PI is close enough. Still, he was clearly desperate. I doubted he got to share his secret all that often. Time for more baiting.

“Yeah, okay, Rich,” I chuckled. “Tell me another one.” That did it. Human pride, the desire to be taken seriously, reared its head so quickly I almost felt guilty.

“You can believe what you want, man, but I’m telling you there’s power in that medicine wheel up in the Bighorns.” People always want to screw around with what they don’t understand. Usually, it’s inconsequential, but magical energy tends to concentrate in areas like the Bighorn Medicine Wheel. There’s even more energy around events like Halloween. Humans are good at explaining away things, but when someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing messes around with that much energy, there’s no telling what will happen, or how people will respond. An FBI raid on a coven of inexperienced witches, explained away as “terrorists” after they accidentally blew up the nearest Walmart, is just a modern form of village folk with torches and pitchforks.

“Come on, Rich. You expect me to believe that? How do you know there’s power there?”

“I know,” he intoned seriously, with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes, “because I’ve seen it and used it myself.” I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up. His shift from banality to intense seriousness had been swift. Sometimes, that’s just people playing a role. Other times, it means I’ve miscalculated and thought we were playing one game, when we were really playing another. That’s usually when I get hurt.

“What’d you do, man? Use a Ouija board to spell out answers to questions?” I asked, mockingly. Most people are ignorant enough to see Ouija boards as harmless entertainment. That’s not always the case, but I was hoping Rich would view me as ignorant and seek to enlighten me.

He gave that same almost smile, again. “Not exactly. I performed a spell, a real spell. Not like you find in this claptrap.” He waved his hands at the books and items on the shelves around the store. “I’ve been given real magic. Powerful magic, that I’ve learned to use. Observe and be amazed.” The room began to darken and I could hear a wind begin blowing outside. I have no magical abilities at all, no spells, no second sight, no ability to sense magical auras, and I still knew damn well I had miscalculated.

Rich was actually casting a spell. I had seen it, before. People ignorantly mess around with magic, thinking they can gain power at no cost. There is always a price to be paid. The lucky ones learn from experienced wizards under rigidly controlled conditions. They learn to use self-control to minimize the price they pay. The others go from nothing to real power and become insane, depraved or dead. Right now, insanity was way ahead.

I ran, okay? The intrepid Sentinel did his version of brave Sir Robin and fled, with tail tucked between his legs. It wasn’t the spell, though. It was the words.

***

“Let me show you what I can do,” he sneered. “Let me show you the power.” He began to chant, softly.

“That’s okay, Rich. Appreciate the offer, but I have to go.” I was backpedaling, reaching behind me for the door. Rich fixed his eyes on mine for a moment as he paused in his chanting.

“No, you should stay. It’s not every day we get a Sentinel as a guest.” He resumed chanting, louder, now.

I felt the sudden sweat and dry mouth of unexpected fear. I turned, bolting for the door, hitting it at a dead run with my shoulder, knocking it open and scurrying outside. The wind began to pick up, whistling and moaning its way down from the Bighorns, filling the air with dust as I headed for my old FC-170. I pulled my great coat from the cab, and my pack, with rifle attached, from the pickup bed. My hands began to shake. I could feel the temperature dropping, but that wasn’t why my hands were trembling. Rich had known I was a Sentinel. This was bad. Sentinels don’t advertise, ever. Even once I had the coat on, the trembling continued.

When ignorant, undisciplined people start mucking around with magic, bad things can happen. I’m not talking about black cats disappearing, glowing lights in an abandoned house, or weird sounds from a graveyard.  Those don’t usually warrant intervention by a Sentinel. But when a person with unexpected magical talent calls up a windstorm and identifies me as a Sentinel, I start to worry. As far as I knew, my name had never been mentioned, not even in the most exhaustive of tabloid articles, and yet he had known. If he had that kind of power, and was willing to exhibit it, there was no telling what kind of havoc he could wreak on other people. More than one serial killer had been an unhinged practitioner. Maybe Rich could be reasoned with or maybe not, but he had to be stopped. As much as I didn’t want to go back inside, I took a deep breath to steady my nerves. Then, once my hands were under control, I slung the pack over my shoulders and headed for the door.

***

I was recruited into what I do just like every other Sentinel. I saw something from the Other Side and didn’t do any of the things normal people do. Most people, when confronted by magic or monster, simply explain it away rather than accept that the universe is not like they thought it was. Of those whose minds can’t explain things away, most either freeze and frequently die, or they go insane. Had I done any of those, I would have been nothing more than a messy corpse on an Arizona mountain. If I had somehow survived, I would have been locked up for murder, or put away for being crazy, had it not been for an old Apache di’yin. William Bashain was a Sentinel himself. He befriended me and eventually became a sort of surrogate father when I had to leave my family.

William had gotten me to the Sentinel’s governing body called, I kid you not, the Board of Directors. The Board guides the Sentinels. They also continue and protect our ancient traditions, including the Initiate Trials for potential Sentinels. The Trials are brutal for all participants and often fatal for those who do not pass. One would argue, given that I both survived and passed, that I have what it takes. According to many Sentinels, one would also be wrong. In an ages long tradition of people who tend to be wizards of one stripe or another, I stand out as the only Sentinel in history with no magical abilities whatsoever. As far as I could tell, my “abilities” consisted of being healthy, being able to take a beating and keep coming, and healing well. None of those are magical. I’m also pretty good at killing things. Always a bonus in my line of work.

***

When I turned away from my Jeep and started back toward the bookshop, the wind increased. The whistling and moaning redoubled with the force of the gale. By the time I reached the door, I was leaning forward in a crouch just to take one, slow step at a time. The wind buffeted my body, threatening to knock me off my feet. The dust and sand stung my face and I could barely see through squinted eyes. I staggered the last few steps, barely able to stay upright, and lunged to seize hold of the door’s large brass handle. I had to brace both feet and pull with both hands as I struggled to open it against the wind. Even then, it didn’t want to budge. The whistling and moaning increased to a scream that hurt my ears. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my Jeep, its light rear end sliding slowly sideways as it pivoted on its front wheels. I gave my own scream, unheard even by my own ears, shrieking my defiance at the wind. Finally, with a backwards lunge that almost landed me on my rear, I managed to open the door enough to slip inside. Rich was nowhere to be seen.

I took a moment to catch my breath. The wind was still screaming its banshee song outside and for a moment I thought about my Jeep. I hoped it would be okay. I really liked that Jeep. I shook my head and told myself to focus.

The shop wasn’t very large and was deeper than it was wide. There were bookshelves lining the walls on each side and display cases in the open middle area. Those had the standard crystals, stones, pewter figurines and the like in them. The counter ran almost from wall to wall across the width of the shop and was itself another display case. An old, mechanical cash register, resplendent in its cast brass case, sat on one end. There were a few tall, narrow bookshelves behind the counter. My guess was that those held the things Rich told his customers were “special” books and items. Between the two centermost of those, there was a narrow aisle that stretched backward into the shadows, seemingly further than I could see. The smell of sandalwood was still heavy in the air.

I paused for a moment to slip my pack off my shoulders. Inside were all sorts of things to assist the only Sentinel with no magical abilities, at all. That included my .44 Magnum revolver, a Taurus Tracker. I clipped additional speed loaders for it onto my gun belt, separating them by the type of ammunition they contained. All of my ammo contained, somewhere within it, either silver or iron in addition to the more mundane lead. Some of the things Sentinels face are sensitive to one or the other. Using one when the other was needed could be inconvenient, so I was always careful to keep them separate. The silver-bearing rounds had superior terminal ballistics, but I wouldn’t want to be shot with either one. Sometimes, you just had to kill something with kinetic energy and the .44 packed a metric ass ton of KE. My rifle, a Marlin 1894, was chambered in the same caliber and I had extra rounds for it in loops on my gun belt. I considered taking some holy water, but it seemed unlikely that Rich was a vampire, so I left that behind. I tossed a couple of chem lights into a coat pocket along with a small first aid kit. I looked at some of the other contents but salt, garlic, wolfsbane and assorted other items seemed unnecessary. I left them in the pack. Then, I chambered a round in the rifle and headed into the back of the shop.

I had only taken a few steps when I flipped on the flashlight slung underneath the rifle’s tubular magazine. The bright LED lit up everything quite nicely. The gunsmith I’d paid to attach it had insisted that doing such a thing to a classic rifle like the Marlin was an abomination, but she had taken my money, anyway. She was probably right, though. It was equally likely that she wouldn’t have approved of the red dot sight I used, either. That was okay. She didn’t hunt things that could chew off your face or melt your flesh. I mounted the rifle to my shoulder and swept it slowly back and forth as I advanced, left, right, left, right.

After maybe 15 steps I realized the shop was much deeper than I had first thought Otherwise, the area behind the counter was unremarkable, with multiple shelves of identical “rare items” and “only known” copies of generic books on everything related to the paranormal and the occult. Mass-produced garbage, it was designed to separate the gullible from their money.. None of it would explain how Rich had whipped up a major windstorm. I had the light set to its widest cone, which meant I could sweep left and right and still get a decent amount of light on the drab concrete floor and the old, crumbling plaster ceiling. Mostly, it was a lot of empty space.

After a few moments, I saw the shadowy outline of a door almost straight ahead. There was a barely reflective sign on it which read “exit.” I thought I saw something on the floor just a few feet in front of the door. When I got close, I knelt down to take a look. It was a feather, black, glossy and maybe 15 inches long. It looked like a raven feather to me. Well, crap.

Since I can’t use magic, I do what I can to make up for that deficiency. Part of what I do is read voraciously. William had insisted I read a lot as soon as it became clear magic was never going to be my thing. He had me start with American Indian folklore so he could help me learn how to pick out details in writing that would be important to me as a Sentinel. Raven is a powerful and major figure in a lot of that folklore. In the lore of some tribes and peoples he is associated with creation, but not so much in others. In most of them, he is a trickster. Either way, Raven is associated with primeval forces. If Rich had been taught to manipulate those forces, that could be bad for anyone who got in his way, especially if he didn’t know as much as he likely thought he did. It could be disastrous for me if I had to face him and couldn’t get him to listen to reason. I started to worry, again.

I wasn’t particularly brave, as Sentinels go. Sure, I had faced a lot of threats over the years. Small, big or enormous, they had one thing in common. If I screwed up, they could have hurt me badly or even killed me. I didn’t want to be hurt, and I certainly didn’t want to die. As I thought about what I might be facing on the other side of the door, my hands started to shake again, just a little. I was nervous, maybe even a little scared. But I couldn’t go back. Even knowing no more than I did right then about whatever Rich was involved with, I had an obligation. I had sworn the oath of Sentinel, the same one that had been sworn by Sentinels as far back as we had records. The job didn’t offer a lot of “oh, I can just let it go” situations. If one of us was involved, it was almost always a situation only we could deal with. If I was honest with myself, I would have admitted that even if I hadn’t been a Sentinel, I couldn’t have just walked away. It simply would not have been right. One of the things my dad had drilled into me from as early as I can remember was that a man did what was right, even when it was hard and he really didn’t want to do it. He had been my hero, my model of what a man was supposed to be. He wouldn’t have walked away. I could no more refuse to go through that door than I could fly. I was going through for the same reason some artists paint and some writers write; doing otherwise was not acceptable. Yet again, crap. I sighed as I turned the knob and opened the door.

The door opened onto a narrow, tight little hallway that stretched ahead as far as I could see with my light. There were hurricane style lanterns hanging from the low ceiling every 15 feet or so, providing a dim illumination. Other than the lanterns, the hallway was featureless. “That’s odd,” I murmured softly as I switched off the flashlight. Then I remembered that all the light in the shop proper had been provided by candles and windows set high in the walls, and that the cash register was old and mechanical. In fact, I didn’t recall seeing anything modern or electronic there at all. Did you ever read any of the old adventures for tabletop role playing games from back in the 1970s and 1980s? Occasionally, you would find some reference to technology just not working right in a magic heavy world. That wasn’t too far off. People who use magic don’t really get along well with technology, especially the more advanced tech. As they become more experienced and more powerful the not getting along only gets worse. That had implications for what I might be facing. Rich had called down one heavy-duty windstorm. He used candles and kerosene lamps for light. There were no electronics to be seen. I muttered something rude about Agnes and told my hands to stop shaking. “Pull it together, Kevin. He’s only one man. You can do this,” I said to myself. I pushed on, the meager light from the lamps lighting the dim and dingy way.

It was cold in the hallway. It grew colder the farther I went. Often, that was a sign of either spirit or magical activity. Heading to my doom, that’s what I’m doing. I shook my head to clear out the self-defeating thoughts, buttoned the top few buttons on my great coat and remounted the rifle to my shoulder. Shortly thereafter, the hallway came to an end. Ahead of me, there was a large wooden door, bound in black and silver metals. When I got closer, I could see the door was made of oak. As for the metal bands, they looked like real silver and iron. Swell. There was a large “L” shaped bracket on either side of the door and a large oak 4×4 on the floor to one side. I took another look at the door. Sure enough, the hinges were on my side. Which meant the metal bands and the wooden bar were intended to prevent something on the other side from coming this way. This just kept getting better and better. For a moment I considered simply dropping the bar into place. Then, I could call for help. It wouldn’t do anything for my reputation with the Sentinels, but they’d send someone to help me. Someone who could use magic. It was a reasonable plan, maybe even a good plan. It even had the advantage of me not getting hurt or, you know, killed. I’m very big on not getting hurt or killed. Then, I heard a scream from somewhere on the other side of the door.

Screams can convey tremendous meaning, even without words. There are screams of delight, joy, and pleasure, just as there are screams of pain, suffering, and agony. This was a scream of absolute hopelessness and despair. There was no way I could turn my back on whoever had made such a woeful sound, not if I wanted to be able to look at myself in the mirror. I cursed silently (I do a lot of that), opened the door and stepped through.

Falling, falling, falling. Falling in absolute darkness and in every direction at once. That’s what it felt like as I fell for an eternity. Or maybe just for a second. I couldn’t tell. All I knew was that I was falling for what seemed like forever and then I wasn’t, and it felt like only an instant had passed. The falling sensation was replaced by a feeling of disorientation and nausea. I flicked the flashlight back on, which helped with the nausea and also let me see. I was standing in a massive room. I took in my surroundings, sweeping the light around me, and the cavernous room revealed itself to be, well, a cavern. I wasn’t sure how I’d gotten there, but my best guess was some sort of magical portal. Wizards, I’m told, can often detect such things, so they don’t enter them accidentally. I promised myself that if I survived, I would try, once more, to learn magic so I didn’t do something this stupid, ever again!

The floor beneath my feet was uncut rock, as were the distant walls and ceiling. The nearest wall, the one less than a foot behind me, had set within it a door that appeared to be identical to the one I had just stepped through. Far ahead of me, there was a faint, feeble glow of light, but no wall that I could see. The air was cold and damp, with a strange and unpleasant odor I thought I ought to recognize, but which I couldn’t quite place. Some small part of my mind, way in the back, was trying to tell me what it was, but it was like a person yelling at you from across an empty football stadium. You know they’re talking but you can’t tell what is being said. It would come to me eventually. My mind would make the connection, but I would have to wait for it to happen. I continued looking around for a bit, but saw nothing moving. There seemed to be nothing to do but head toward the light. “That’s it, Kevin,” I muttered. “Head through the dark toward the light. What could possibly go wrong with that plan?” Sighing, I flicked off the light, which made the distant glow stand out more, and started forward. In the dark. Toward the light.

As I walked, I felt the texture of the floor change. It became softer, slippery and almost squishy in places. And the connection was made. “Chickens,” I thought, as the smell became even stronger and my feet began to sink deeply into whatever it was. “It smells like chickens…like a lot of chickens. I’m walking in bird sh–” I stopped that thought. I’m not squeamish as a rule, but gross is gross and the realization that I was more than ankle deep in bird poo pretty much pegged my gross-o-meter. Because I often encounter some nasty smells in my work (ask me sometime about zombie pigs), I keep a small jar of Vicks Vapor Rub and a cravat in my coat pocket. Instead of thinking about what was happening to my boots, jeans and the lower edge of my coat, I concentrated on pulling that jar from my pocket and smearing some of the ointment liberally under each nostril. I tied the cravat in place, covering my mouth and nose like a bandanna. That helped me flip the off switch on my gross-o-meter. I picked up my pace and trudged more quickly through the sludge.

I had not heard any screams since I arrived in this cavern. That was odd and something about it was wrong. An alarm rang loudly in the back of my mind. My heart raced and pounded in my chest. There was something very wrong. What was going on? I thought furiously, following the chain of events. I had heard screams; pitiable, heartrending screams from the other side of the door. But when I stepped through the door I came here, and there were no screams. But why? I was pretty sure the door was a portal and that it had brought me here. What did it mean? I ran through it once more, the alarm ringing ever louder. I had stepped through because of the screams. Stepping through had brought me here. There were no screams here. That meant the screams and the door were…a trap.

I felt more than heard a strong, pulsating blast of air from my right. Before I could act, something hard and sharp raked the right side of my neck and face. It knocked me off my feet so hard that I slammed into the floor of the cavern. My left shoulder made a loud cracking sound when I hit. I felt my rifle leave my hands and heard it as it rattled on stone somewhere in the distance. The filth on the floor surged up onto me in a wave of putrescence as I slid through the muck and across the floor. From somewhere there came a loud, screeching sound. My mind screamed at me to move, to get to my feet before whatever had attacked me returned, but I was stunned and unable to make my muscles respond. Finally, I started to struggle, trying to regain my feet, but when I tried to use my left arm and lever myself into a sitting position, a sharp, searing pain lanced through my shoulder and upper arm. I bit my lip so hard I drew blood to keep from crying out and giving away my position to whatever was in the darkness. Even through the ointment under my nose, the smell of the filth was everywhere. I could feel what I was sure was blood running down my face and neck. Slowly, breathing deeply despite the nastiness all around me, I placed my right hand in the mess that was the floor and brought myself slowly to my knees. Stifling a whimper, I rose painfully to my feet. There was no sound except my pained breathing and the pounding of my heart. I felt no air movement.

I tried to move my left arm and felt nausea wash over me like a giant wave rolling over a child’s sandcastle. When that wave washed back out to sea, I used my right hand to unbutton all the top buttons on my coat, except for one at about the level of my solar plexus. Wincing, I grasped my left wrist and placed it in the cradle formed by that button, shuddering with pain and more nausea as I moved my injured arm. The bandanna had kept the yuck off my nose and out of my mouth, and pure dumb luck had done the same for my eyes. I pulled it off and used the inside to wipe away as much as I could from my forehead and from around my eyes. I really wanted to wipe the wound I could feel dripping blood, but the risk of infection was high enough, already, and my first aid kit was not equipped for a situation like this. I would have to live with it and hope the bleeding stopped soon. It hurt, but it was nothing compared to whatever had happened to my shoulder. I felt a good case of the body shakes set in as pain and fear began to take their toll.

I was scared and I was hurt. Me, the great Sentinel, driven to the ground, no into a steaming, stinking pile of bird crap. “I don’t deserve to be a Sentinel,” I muttered softly to myself, but even as I said the words, I felt anger welling up. Deserve it or not, I was a Sentinel. I had not only survived but passed the brutal testing to claim my place as a Sentinel. I had done it without magic or anything other than my will to survive and win. I would, by God, not be brought down by some damn bird, or by the jackass of a wizard who had perhaps summoned it. I would find Rich and bring this to an end, not simply because of my pain and humiliation, but because if this was his doing, I would not let him do similar things to other people. I pulled a couple of chem lights from my coat, activated them and tossed them a few feet ahead of me and to my left, the direction in which I thought I had lost my rifle. Then, I unsnapped my holster and drew my revolver. Gritting my teeth against the pain, I stumbled toward the light.

As I got closer to the light, I slowed my staggering, stumbling pace and kept to the shadows as best I could. The cavern narrowed abruptly here, and the floor rose slightly. Even better, the over-my-ankles deep sludge of bird droppings tapered off and then ended. The light came from four large torches, one at each of the four corners of a square, stone platform. Beyond the platform I could make out the cavern’s far wall. Apparently, it had been too far away to see when I began my trek through bird crap caverns. In the center of the platform was a Raven totem. As I crept closer, I got a better look at it. It was finely carved, but distorted and deformed. I had never seen a Raven totem so misshapen, though I had to admit the red eyes were a nice touch. Easing closer, I could see a figure, draped in black, prostrate before the totem. I took a moment to listen carefully. The figure was mumbling, perhaps chanting, softly. The voice was hard to identify, but the black taffeta gave it away. It was Rich, no doubt. Looking around, I saw no evidence of anything moving, certainly nothing that could have put a gash in my neck and face and knock me topsy-turvy. Of course, I hadn’t expected Rich to call up a major windstorm, either. I paused for a moment, just to think, then thumbed back the hammer on my revolver. It locked in place with a muted click. If I had to shoot, I wanted the accuracy that came with a lighter trigger pull. I looked around quickly at the floor. It looked smooth enough that I shouldn’t have to worry about catching a toe and tripping. Whatever happened, I needed the advantage of position, so I moved around the platform as quietly as I could, sticking to the shadows as much as possible. Finally, I was behind him. This side of the platform had a single step leading up. This close, I could tell the mumbling was definitely some sort of chanting. I placed one foot slowly and silently on the platform. The chanting stopped immediately. I resisted the urge to point the gun at Rich. I like guns and I use them well, but I don’t like to kill people. If talking to Rich kept me from having to shoot him, I would talk.

“Hey, Rich?” I inquired. “It’s Kevin. You know, from your bookstore earlier. What are you doing?” I kept my voice calm and light. Calm and light could mean no shooting, no killing.

Rich’s silence gave way to a deep chuckling. “Why, I’m gathering power, of course. It’s not every day a Sentinel walks through our door.” That was the second time he had used a plural pronoun. I was starting to like this situation even less. I realized he was still speaking. “After all,” he said, “I still haven’t demonstrated my real power to you.” He turned to face me. His face was elongated and thinner than I remembered, suggestive of a bird, but twisted and distorted like the face of Raven on the totem. I’ll admit it, his appearance startled me into inaction. He took one long step toward me and then leapt forward…but not at me. What I had thought to be his robes from earlier spread outward into wide, furiously beating wings. He took to the air while I just stood there with my mouth open like an idiot.

I was startled, but I snapped off a one-handed shot, anyway. The .44 went off with an almighty crack and a roar which echoed in the cavern. I missed and he vanished into the darkness somewhere overhead. I peered into the shadows, but could not see him. He blended in too well. I could hear him, though, both the thrumming of his wings and his voice taunting me.

“You missed, Sentinel! Behold, I am become Raven!” His voice was both louder and harsher than before.

“Rich!” I called out, ignoring the Oppenheimer allusion, “I’ll admit it. You do have power. I’m impressed. Why not come on down so we can talk about how you got it?” I turned, trying to find him in the shadows. No luck.

He laughed, his voice growing ever harsher. “Do you want it Sentinel? Will you, too, serve the one who crossed over in exchange for real power?

I knew his attack was coming. I just didn’t know from where. This time, there was no vibration to be felt, no sound to be heard. He dropped out of the darkness, an ebon thunderbolt which struck me in the chest with two taloned feet, ripping my coat and knocking me ass over teakettle into the totem. Although I didn’t land on my shoulder, the pain was excruciating, and I screamed in my agony. Somehow, I managed to not drop my gun, that time. Trigger discipline had kept my finger outside the trigger guard, so it hadn’t gone off. When Rich turned, without climbing into the cover of darkness, to drop down again, I was able to fire another round, but again I missed. He turned again and vanished into the shadows. I considered moving, but with my back against the totem, I was protected from attacks from the rear.

I realized my thick and now filthy coat had not completely protected my chest. Looking down, I could see blood staining my shirt. Hooking my shirt with my right thumb revealed two deep gouges in my chest. Blood ran freely from those gashes. Although I was filthy, I realized that if I did not end this soon, I would bleed to death long before infection became a concern. I squeezed up tighter against the totem. It was warm on my back, relieving some of the chill that made my shoulder ache. I took the time to cock the revolver, again, and waited. On a hunch, I pulled my knees up to form a rest, since I was shooting one-handed.

My hunch was correct. Rich may have been able to transform into a bird, but his knowledge of tactics was limited. He plunged down again, coming in fast but from straight ahead. The first round went off with the lightest of touches to the trigger, and the big gun roared, again. Two more bullets followed the first as Rich screamed and faltered in the air, but then pulled up and away. I could hear him cursing me from somewhere toward the ceiling, and then taunting me. “Is that the best you have, Sentinel? Already my wounds are healing! What about yours? Are you bleeding out? Do you feel the cold as your life’s blood leaves your body?” What a jerk.

The Taurus was only a five-shot revolver. I needed to reload, which meant I would need to use my left hand, at least a little. I hit the thumb piece, pushed the cylinder out, slammed the ejector rod onto my knee and dumped out the empty cartridges. Between pain and blood loss, I was starting to shiver. The next part was going to hurt, so I made sure my left shoulder was pushed up hard against the totem, both to minimize movement and for warmth. I reached down to pull a speed loader from my gun belt while my monkey brain screamed at me. Warmth? Crap!

It wasn’t graceful, but I pivoted on my rear and began shoving myself away from the totem with my feet. The eyes of the totem were not only red now, but glowingly so. Perfect. To make things even better, my back was now unprotected as I continued my butt scootin’ boogie across the platform. “Hey, Rich? There’s something weird about your totem! I don’t think the eyes should glow like that. Where do the batteries go?” Thank God for predictability. Rich screamed from behind me. Apparently, he wasn’t a fan of humor. I rolled onto my right side and he shot over me, pulling up at the last moment to avoid the totem.

“Fool! He is the source of my power. Mock us at your peril!” Why do they always use words like “peril?” Who talks like that, anymore? Rich’s words were becoming harder to understand, taking on more of a cawing sound. That, combined with his pronoun choices, probably wasn’t good. I managed to get my feet under me and bolted for the relative safety of the shadows. As soon as I reached a dark area, I stopped. It wouldn’t do to pile head-on into the rock wall. I dropped down, panting with pain. When I looked back at the totem, I could see it had changed. The eyes were still glowing, but the wood was taking on a more lifelike appearance. The carved feathers, now looking more like the real thing, seemed to almost move. That was definitely not good.

Silver and iron have different occult properties. Silver is effective against abominations, things that should not be or things that have become corrupt in their nature. It has long been used against creatures like vampires and werewolves. Iron, on the other hand, is effective against things that aren’t from this side of reality. That includes the various Fae as well as Outsiders, like demons. Which brought me to the totem. What did it represent? Raven, in a lot of the folklore with which I was familiar, was not necessarily evil. He wasn’t necessarily good, either. He was a trickster. Tied up in a lot of creation myths, he may have originally been part of this world. I didn’t know, for sure. What I was pretty sure of was that thing on the platform was not a true Raven totem. I was guessing it was an Outsider, evil or not, demon or not. I was going with iron. I hoped I was correct. If I was wrong, I was dead.

Since the cylinder was already clear of the frame, and empty, all I had to do was use a speed loader to reload it. I used my left hand to help. I can’t describe the pain that accompanied that simple act, but I got the speed loader free and the gun reloaded. I winced as the speed loader tinged on the rock floor.

“I heard you, Sentinel. Time to end this game!”

I crouched as low as I could, hoping Rich would miss me, but his attack came from behind and I felt another claw rake the back of my neck and head, driving my forehead into the floor hard enough to make my eyes water. Again, I felt warm blood running down my neck. I had been wounded three times. I probably wouldn’t survive a fourth. I blinked away the tears and saw the eyes of the totem, now glowing so brightly they seemed to burn. Even worse, it was absolutely beginning to move. I needed to focus on dealing with it, regardless of what Rich might do. I sat and pulled my knees up, again. Slowing my breathing, I shifted my concentration from the totem to the front sight of my gun. In all the world, there was only the front sight. Even against the flickering light, I could see the striations in the metal. Distantly, I was aware of the click of the hammer being pulled back, squeezing the trigger and the boom of the gun going off.

Click. Squeeze. Boom.

Red spouted from the totem. Somewhere far away, there was the sound of someone screaming “No!” followed by a crunching noise.

Click. Squeeze. Boom.

More red flew from the totem. The sequence continued, over and over, until I pulled the trigger on a spent cartridge. The totem toppled over, slowly. I repeated the painful reloading process and climbed unsteadily to my feet. Stumbling forward, the gun shaking in my unsteady hand, I stepped up, onto on the platform. What had been a wooden totem, and then something else, was wood once more, with four holes in its head and a huge crater in the back. I had missed once. On the far side of the platform there was a crumpled figure. I made my way to it, gun still at the ready. It was Rich, now back in his taffeta robes and nerdy tee. His face looked like he had scraped it along the floor of the cavern. His neck was bent at an extreme angle, so that his right ear was almost resting on his shoulder. His eyes were open and staring. I holstered my gun and felt for a pulse. Nothing. Dammit. I’m sorry, Rich. I didn’t get to you soon enough. I closed his eyes and got back to my feet. I was still bleeding. I needed to get to my Jeep and its large first aid kit before I passed out. I also needed to get my rifle, pick up my spent ammunition, and leave or there could be questions that had no acceptable answer.

I pulled my tiny first aid kit from its pocket and opened it with an uncooperative hand. Inside, there were some bandages and a tourniquet. There was also a small, white envelope. A gift from a wizard friend, it contained a single pill. On the envelope, in large capital letters, was written: FOR EMERGENCIES ONLY. This qualified. I took the pill, swallowing it without water. Seconds later, my entire body was numb, but I was on my feet. It’s all black after that, until I found myself standing in my skoolie, my wounds freshly dressed. My filthy clothes, dirty dressings I had apparently applied after exiting the bookstore, and a partially used vial of antibiotic were on the floor. The shower floor was as dirty as the clothes. I managed to dial one number on my cell phone. I don’t remember what I said, but the next morning two other Sentinels, both lawyers, arrived. They ran interference with law enforcement, hooked up my Jeep, and tended my wounds until I was able to start the long drive home.

 

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2 Comments
  1. OldNFO permalink

    Very nicely done!

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