I had to give the guy props: Rukk was patient. As patient as the stones that made up his throne. As patient as the bones at his feet. I could do nothing but thank him for his patience with a wave of my hand from the floor. He stared at me impassively. It had taken me more than nine hours to negotiate the underground labyrinth, and that didn’t count the dozens of fracking traps that launched at me from every fracking crack in the fracking wall.
Dragging my backpack near, I opened up two hourglass shaped bottles, their red vitality sloshing around inside.
Until today, I had been a little lazy about arranging a more durable carrying case for these things. I was so accustomed to the feel and shape of the glass bottles in my hands, I couldn’t imagine switching to a hard polymer of some kind. But right now, I’m thinking I need a nice, velvet lined, bomb proof box.
Pulling the spike from my neck took a little effort but it felt good to toss it to the ground. I rubbed the gaping wound while it healed. As soon as I was sure there would be no leaking, I slammed down both bottles. Normally, that much vitality would have given me a buzz, but my body craved it so bad, I had no chance for enjoyment. It was absorbed like a drizzle in the desert.
“You know. You could put up some kind of sign at the start of your cave here.” I removed four more spear heads from my lower body and arms. My armor plated bikers’ jacket saved my torso, everything else was fair game “You might get more visitors that way. When was the last time you had someone here?”
“Three thousand, six hundred and forty four growing cycles.”
Did I believe he had been in there that long?
Yes I did.
Toltec icons made of pure gold, bolts of once-fine material, these things suggested massive age. Rukk himself was done up in true finery, with mildew-marbled robes, heavy jewelry, and a solid gold and turquoise headdress.
Unfortunately, the finery did nothing to make Rukk himself more appealing. Lumpy, oversized head perched atop a body that resembled a refrigerator covered with grandma’s tablecloth.
The more you looked at him, the more he looked like an infected butternut squash with a nose.
The bottles of vitality started to work their magic on me and I was able to get to my feet.
Rukk stared patiently.
I stared back a few heartbeats “Ah, shut-up already.”
Along the adjacent wall stood The Door.
I heard it was imposing, but… wow. A double door, each one twice as wide as my outstretched arms. It was the kind of barrier built to repel savages at the gates of a medievial city, not buried half a mile underground and set in solid rock.
I placed my bag near the entryway into the labyrinth, adjusting it for easy access, then pulled a gun out of the bag and unfolded the stock. Rukk craned his neck to see what I was doing, but I held out a placating hand. “Relax. It’s an offering.” It wasn’t until I balanced the rifle on its oversized barrel that Rukk settled himself.
I was surrounded by Idolatry from through the ages. This chamber used to be the pinnacle of honor. Pilgrims from elite ranks of their sects had come here to pay tithe to Rukk at the chamber of Moamar… Moomam… Moam… well, I never got a fix on the exact name. The faith died out over eight hundred years ago.
Rukk didn’t care. Rukk remained.
The objects left to honor the living god were as vast as human imagination, but The Door held court over all other idols. I couldn’t stop looking at it. The carvings and inlays were exquisite. I could read the Spanish and Incan Languages, but there were at least three other ones that would have caused a massive stir in the universities. The crossbar spanning the full width of the door was the only part left unadorned.
The bulk sat in his throne, complacent. I took a seat on the ground, the better to rest up for round two. “So, when you had people coming here on a regular basis, what did they do?”
Rukk sighed, squinted into The Door across the cavern. “Flames. Many flames burned in this room. Questions asked.” He looked at the piles of bones at his feet and cocked his head. “Curiosities.”
“What kind of questions did they ask you?”
“The future. The present. The beyond.”
We stared in silence. Two quasi-immortals with nothing better to do.
I started to feel like I was interrogating a mute. “Holy hell, Rukk. Why wouldn’t anybody worship you?” I muttered.
The cave smelled of stale air and rodents – bats to be specific. It was dry in here, though the water marks on the wall suggested it periodically flooded. I really couldn’t tell if this chamber had formed as a lava vent or if it was carved by hand and ground smooth.
I felt like I was at the party, waiting for the guy with the beer to show up.
“You have any luck finding this light warrior person? Take out any personals? Go on any blind dates?”
Rukk glanced at the bones at his feet. Ugh. I don’t want to think about it.
I heard a commotion in the labyrinth behind me. Rukk looked that way as well, all the emotion of a hood ornament.
“You ever think about not being a demigod, anymore?”
He closed his eyes in a flash of pleasure that was in sync with a muffled thud from the darkness. That would be the boulder trap I avoided. The sounds of straining echoed through the cavern, and a second thud shook the earth.
I didn’t have much time. “Just so you know?” I hooked a thumb to the labyrinth “There’s a pretty boy gonna be here in about a minute…” another muffled thud “…um, give or take. And he’s going to want to get in there.” I re-hooked my thumb at The Doors. “So be ready for when he makes his move.”
Rukk put his hands on the arms of the throne, tense, a look of alarm on his face.
And: Quentin Mandrake. Made his Entrance.
Quentin’s entrances were always capitalized.
He was the only being I ever met who could walk around in a cloud of his own theme music. Quentin wasn’t hard to describe. He looked like a dozen supermodels were thrown into a blender, and the puree poured into a mold carved by Bernini. Swathed in white finery, he had less dust clinging to him than I did before I entered the gauntlet/labyrinth.
I walked to Rukk’s side. “You watch my Vault. I’ll handle this.” I felt Rukk’s puzzled stare as I stalked forward, glowering at the majestic freak. “You aren’t allowed here.”
Quentin glanced at the huge doors, triumph shining in his eyes. His speaking voice sounded like he was singing.
“Marcus. You let too many people know where you were moving your cursed artifacts. By order of the Catholic Church, I relieve you of your duties.”
“Those orders were rescinded the same day they were made, moron. How many times do you need to be told to mind your own damn business?” I was edging away from Rukk and the doors.
Quentin glided toward The Door, keeping the two of us in sight. “I was assured the position of Keeper of the Sins would be mine. I am stronger than you, I am faster than you, I am best suited for the task.” He drew a gilded rapier and a short length of silver pipe from a sheath on his back. I took my Gibraltar Impact and my battered meat cleaver, settling them deep in my hands for close fighting. Quentin was taller than me, and his weapons favored a long strike. I had to nullify that advantage right away.
I rushed him, angling my weapons back to offer my head and neck as an easy target. He took it with that unreal reach of his, so I deflected it with the cutlass slung under the muzzle of my gun and pivoted to his outside, spinning along the blade to get close to him. I saw movement and brought my cleaver up, blocking the short length of pipe before it could land. As he withdrew the weapon, I noticed the ends had been cut at an angle, very sharp. If he pierced me with that, he could bleed me off, weakening me.
I was positioned ideally, but his sword arm was covered to the elbow with a heavy leather gauntlet, and now I found out why. Predicting my strategy to move close, he spun the long blade around his hand and grabbed it halfway down the length. Now, one end could stab, the other could club, and he still had all that reach in his arm.
I was on defensive now, looking for an opening, but Quentin wasn’t willing to give me one. I was tempted to make my own opening – my Gibraltar Impact had a concussive shell in the chamber – but it wasn’t time, yet.
Rukk watched with mild interest. Rukk was patient.
When Quentin’s back was to the door, I swung my weapons in a double arc, knocking both of his to each side. I braced my Impact, put Quentin’s chest in the crosshairs…
The golden boy recovered, reared back and kicked me clean off my feet and across the chamber, where I slumped against the floor.
Quentin turned on Rukk, put the point of the sword under his chin. “And you?”
Rukk cocked his head at the three feet of steel, but did not move.
Quentin strode to The Door, his sword still drawn.
That was the one thing Rukk wouldn’t allow. His patience ended. He emitted an otherworldly shriek and bolted. As he moved, he grew. The creases in his face deepened and when he reached Quentin, he looked like a stone golem comfortably over seven feet tall.
Quentin thrusted with barely a glance, burying his blade deep in Rukk’s chest.
Rukk staggered back, a puzzled look on his face as he pondered the sword sticking out. His chest heaved, and in the tiniest of voices, he asked “Are you the creature of the light?”
Quentin simply narrowed his eyes, so I answered for him. “Sunlight sustains him, Rukk. Yes. He is a creature of the light.”
Rukk tore his gaze away from the sword buried in his chest, giving me a look of hope. I managed a little smile for him. “You. Are free.”
Rukk’s jagged, angular face shifted, then. The ugliness slicked away from his shapeless face. He closed his eyes, the picture of pure joy.
Quentin slammed the flat of his hand against the butt of his sword, driving the blade to its mark. Rukk folded onto his knees and instantly turned to ash. No glamour, no fireworks. No grand show to mark the end of countless milennia of existence. Just a pile of ash and a flaxen haired twit digging around for his sword.
“Oh Quentin?” I sung. “Duck.”
He looked in time to see me snugging the unfolded stock of the grenade launcher against my shoulder.
The grenade hit the cross beam, shattering the hell out of it. While Quentin shouted a challenge at me, I pulled my bag closer to me so I had better access to the ammunition inside. I cocked my Gibraltar Impact and stuck the tip of the cutlass in the sandy floor. My cleaver took up a similar position on the other side. I popped a new grenade in the chamber and took up a shooters’ stance.
When The Door groaned and opened outward, Quentin’s face fell. He was closer, so he was the first choice for the rush of nightmares. Basically, dog-sized lizards made of pools of oil, they charged with bristling mouths and hollow eyes. I emptied all the grenades I had through the open door and the thriving, pulsing, nauseating mass within.
Four hours later. Four freaking hours later, I killed the last of the nightmares. It was nearly at the opening to the labyrinth when I tackled it, wrapped my legs around it, then cut off its freaking head with my cleaver.
I went to The Door, now bent and askew and splintered, its majesty crumbling as it hung. All the power that kept the ancient wood intact had vanished back into the earth where it came. Just inside the chamber within, a blue stone glowed. A cursed artifact, capable of creating and controlling the nightmares. Rukk might have been formidable before the time of Christ, but today’s technologies and weapons made him obsolete. The tainted artifact he guarded was a liability I couldn’t leave alone.
Rest in peace, sentry.
I wandered over to Quentin, lying on top of a mountain of nightmares. His green blood mixed with the creature’s yellow sludge, making a sickly blue. He was too tired to be angry.
“This… wasn’t your Vault. You weren’t moving your artifacts here.”
I shook my head.
I looked to Rukk’s remains. The nightmares had avoided the pile of ash. “You destroyed an artifact spirit. He wasn’t really alive. But the millennia of quasi-living gave him… an existence… kinda. He was trapped here until a ‘warrior of the light’ set him free.
“I looked around, and you were the closest thing I could find to filling that definition. Rukk needed you to release him. The only way to open the door was to first destroy the spirit of The Door.”
“You used… ME?” I could smell his dignity smoldering. I swore it smelled like coconut. “You USED me to open the door, AND fight these things?!”
Was it wrong to be enjoying this? “I hope the trail I left behind wasn't too obvious, ‘Q-Bert’.”
He must have gotten some of his strength back, because he gave me a level stare and said through gritted teeth. “I will take the mantle of Keeper from you, Marcus. I will take your artifacts and I will bear the burden of Keeper better than you ever could.” His head rolled back after exerting so much energy.
“Karma makes sure everybody gets what they deserve, Quentin.” I left him to lay there and wonder about what I meant.
On the other hand… Karma can take too damn long.
I kicked him in the crotch.
Creature of the Light
A Keeper of the Sins Story