Chapter 40 – Wednesday, June 18 – Lair of the Vile Ones
The sun was rising in the east, casting long shadows across the burnt barrens. The gully between their ridge and the cave-pocked escarpment was still an inky trench. Raven puttered about the fire, tossing in wood and clattering the pots and pans.
Sapphire sat up and peered darkly at him. “I hope you’re making something with caffeine in it.”
“Well I’m boiling water. I’m not that familiar with human beverages.”
Flummox and Animus leapt up and started seeing to breakfast.
Raven sat down lightly beside the warming fire. “So, are you going in, today?”
Sapphire nodded. “Yep, that’s the plan. After we’ve had some good breakfast, and some stretches. And after I’ve had time to do some reconnaissance. Are you joining us?”
Raven shook his head. “I’m afraid the Queen might not view my involvement in the best light, should I get too entangled in your raid. I think it best, politically, if I joined Batty and Tutu as distant observers.”
“But you could be a great help in finding Green and The Visitor. Surely you know the secrets of these caverns?”
“Alas, I have not set talon inside. I can only relate what I have heard, and this I have already done. I’m sorry I cannot give you more. But, I will offer one bit of advice.”
“The Seer knew you were here, before they came out. Surely he told his allies inside all about your approach. You are expected. You must find a way to turn the tables on those who would mostly likely try to ambush you.”
“Hence the reconnaissance.”
“Very well then. I wish I could say, ‘until we meet again’, but… I will just say, may Bog look the other way at your time of need, and may the sun warm your return to greener lands.” Raven stood, dipped his beak, and began a rapid sprint for the hills.
Animus glared at his disappearing back. “He could have helped us more.”
Flummox shook his head. “I think his hands… or whatever they are, were tied. But I do wish he’d have stayed to take care of the mule.”
Foggy Bottom brayed, and bobbed her head.
Sapphire laughed. “Careful what you say – this one is smarter than she looks.”
Sapphire’s reconnaissance, partly clairvoyant and partly utilizing air sprites, showed that the huge lizard, Raptor, was crouched watchfully, a few turns inside what was clearly the most direct route inside. Several core rooms were piled with odd bits of equipment of all kinds.
A side passage was found that lead to a dining room that was not too far from where Caboose lay on a stone slab, immobile.
Doc Green and The Visitor seemed to be going about their business without undue haste. Doc Green wore her usual green scrubs with a surgical mask, and was preparing her breakfast, while The Visitor, dressed in top hat and tails, was changing out glass vials in his medical bag.
Sapphire picked up a stick, charred at the end, from the fire. “I think I have us a route. We go in the passage to the left of the main passage.” She began scratching a map onto the dry, hard ground at the top of the ridge. The char left a dark line. Quickly the others agreed with her plan – they were pretty confident that they could take two non-combatant, non-magic users with ease. The only worry was Raptor.
They left the mule tied to an iron ring just inside the cave mouth, and proceeded inside. There were many twists and turns, and a bewildering number of side passages. They went in deeper than their target at one point, and approached the dining room from the backside.
Animus was in the lead, with no need for a light due to his elf sight. He used an arrow to brush aside a spider web that spanned the tunnel, careful to watch for stinging insects.
Sapphire came up behind him. “Hey, that was no normal spider web. I sense a magical aura about it – we might have just set off an alarm.”
Animus shook his head. “Hopefully the lizards got the alarm, and the humans remain ignorant of our approach.”
Flummox kicked at the irregular stone floor. “Bog! Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. What do we do now?”
Animus wiped the arrow off on his trousers. “We hurry. Follow me close!” With that he sprang ahead. They were very close to the dining room, and burst through to it in moments. What they saw there caused them to stop in their tracks.
Candles burned on an elegant table laid with white linen, silver and china, and a tea service. The table was actually an outcrop of rock that jutted from the left wall, smoothed flat. Behind the table on the left was The Visitor, on the right was Doc Green.
Doc Green held up a teapot. “So you finally made it. Tea?”
Sapphire stared at him. Let’s find out what we can about Caboose’s condition. We can take these two any time. “We’re just here to talk. I don’t think we’ll be drinking any of your tea, thank you very much.”
With her other hand, Doc Green pulled out the chair at the end of the table. “So you do understand caution – that is good. But please, sit, and let us discuss what we can accomplish – together.”
The Visitor nodded encouragement. “I’d be surprised only three of you came, if it were not that ambition is a man’s domain.”
Sapphire frowned, but sat. “Are you trying to insult me? You aren’t pretending that you don’t know the difference?”
Animus lowered his bow. “Normally it’s the other way around, for me.”
The Visitor sat next to the wall. “Oh my dear, leadership is not just a matter of testosterone and gonads! A bull dike like you, or Doc Green here, has domination in your blood, in a way that a wimp like Rufus will never appreciate. He took the rest of the girls off to play in the water while the true leaders of the group, you three, came here across the desert in pursuit of the fruits of our work. I rest my case.”
Doc Green gave a little bow and sat as well, by Sapphire.
Flummox sat on his side, next to the wall. Let’s bait him. “What do you mean your work? You mean Dr. Gnoll’s, don’t you?
Doc Green waved a hand. “That fool was trying to stop the effects, but we saw the potential. Everlasting life. That is what you’re here for, isn’t it?”
Say what? Sapphire leaned forward. “That depends, doesn’t it? How far have you gotten?”
Green nodded. “We hold the key. It was properly elevated level of sedatives.”
Sapphire nodded. “That’s what Marvin said. Why did nobody listen to him?”
The Visitor smiled. “After we made sure everyone understood the absurdity of a machine designed to navigate starships trying to give medical advice – that and a few other well-placed whispers – well, I’m surprised they let him stay in the lab at all. We made sure Dr. Gnoll never got enough sedative to break through his heightened metabolism, and I’m sure you’ve seen the results. With the proper dosage, well…” He spread his arms and bowed.
“So you’ve both completed the treatment? Is it everything promised?”
“It seems so. We’re unkillable. Like the undead, mere wounds and blood loss don’t affect us, and yet hits on critical organs, nerve damage and the like, regenerate like with the lycantropes. We have the best of both worlds.”
“So what about Caboose?”
Doc Green raised his eyebrows. “The hobo? He will be an adequate source of the requisite cells for the immediate future, especially without your colleagues. Once started, the process is self-supporting.”
The Visitor cleared his throat. “By all accounts, you and your… friends have been very busy. Stopping the buccaneers and the rat reign of terror, uniting the Trogs, fixing the roads. You’ll be running everything in the valley soon. I assume that’s your plan.”
Sapphire glanced at the others. He knows about the mouslings! “The Earl will have something to say about that, I imagine.”
The Visitor waved his hand. “I think you’ll not have much to worry about there. We’ve set his castle guard to bickering with one another over who should lead, and neutralized the boss of the new town guard. You’ve dispersed most of the rest of them, and only the girl is left – and she has her hands full tending to Chief Grief. An interesting case that one, but he’ll succumb in the end, just like Sister Maude.”
Animus: They don’t know Maude’s soul is still hanging around.
Flummox: I bet some of this they got when they were in town, but a lot of it from this Seer fellow. Probably visual observations, not through the spirit plane.
Sapphire leaned back and stared at The Visitor. “You left out solving the rash of jewelry thefts uptown. But of course you’re not concerned about mere money, any moe than we are. But in the process, we’ve worked a lot with Sherlock. In fact, he’s been keeping a close eye on you. He says your real name is Jack, for instance.”
The Visitor fiddled with a silver utensil on the table. “I’m sure he’s told you he thinks I’m a notorious criminal. But then, you yourself have been heard discussing the metaphysics of our situation in the inn, analyzing the nature of we… summoned ones. Jack the Ripper was either a complete fiction, or a composite of opportunistic copycat criminals, with a taste for blood.” He glanced at Doc Green. “But I… I am myself, a unique soul, pulled from the ether by the Earl’s clumsy summoning, trapped here in this ridiculous place. Well, I presume to make the most of it. As I assume you do, too.”
Sapphire shook her head. “So let’s see now, how many have you killed here in the valley? Capone and his two stooges, may as well have done for Gnoll and the two other patients in the lab. Let’s credit you with at least one Trog and Maude too, since they would have been cured by now without your interference. Oh, and Caboose is lying on a slab somewhere around here. That’s nine – how many did you kill in old London?”
The Visitor lifted the silver utensil to his lips and puffed on it. It was something like a stubby pipe, but no smoke came from it. “I’m sorry you look at it this way. Perhaps you’re not the hardened witch I thought you were. I think you must be a softie inside.”
Doc Green lifted the lid of the teapot. “Are you sure you don’t want some tea? It’s still quite hot.” She looked up at Animus, who was still standing, back to the wall, bow in hand but haning slack at his sides.
Animus suddenly looked over his shoulder at the passage through which they had come. “I think I hear something.”
“Really, I insist you have some tea, while it is still hot.” Doc Green then threw the teapot at Animus. His head slammed back into the rock wall behind, and his breath hissed as the scalding water ran down his front.
A scaly shadow sprang from the passage and grabbed Flummox’s right elbow in its jaws. The front claws also sank into his arm, while his hind claws reached up for a disemboweling stroke with razor talons.
Flummox twisted and took the blow on his side, blood spurting from the gap in his leather jerkin. With a ‘pop’, a large bunch of red flowers appeared in his left hand. He beat Raptor’s head with the bouquet, and the lizard let go of his arm and sank his teeth into the flowers. A small knife appeared in Flummox’s right hand and jabbed weakly into the skin behind Raptor’s left shoulder. The Raptor slumped to the ground.
Animus stared wide-eyed. “How did you kill that lizard with such a puny blade?”
Flummox took a deep breath. “I didn’t. Leastwise, it’s not dead. I blush to admit I, uh… liberated a bit of that nerve agent you used on the lycanthropes when you weren’t looking.”
“No worries. We can fix that.” Animus stepped forward with his blade, poked it in at the base of Raptor’s skull and twisted. There was a snapping sound. The lizard’s limbs continued to quiver, but its breathing stopped. He straightened up and looked across the table.
Doc Green was behind Sapphire, a knife at her throat. Sapphire’s wand was on the ground. The Visitor was nowhere to be seen.
She looked pleadingly at Animus. Metabolic poison in a critical nerve area. That’s the only way.
Flummox dragged himself to his feet. A bloody hand extended toward the doctor, and he giggled. “Is there a doctor in the house?” He then gagged and collapsed on the table in a shower of broken crockery and flying candlesticks.
Doc Green turned her head at the commotion, and Animus planted a silver arrow in her left ear. It went in very deep. As she collapsed, the knife in her hand cut a red streak down Sapphire’s throat and across her chest. Thankfully no blood spurted – her veins were intact.
Flummox rolled over, right hand pressed against his side. “Here it is.” With his left he held up the silver utensil that The Visitor had puffed on, and brought it to his lips and blew. There was no sound. “Ultrasonic whistle. Called the beast.” His right arm dropped from his side and he swayed. “My arm is starting to hurt, but I can’t feel my fingers.” He then sat down suddenly, breaking the chair and sliding to the floor.
They pressed a number of linen napkins against Flummox’s side, and tied them in place with strips torn from the tablecloth. He got again to his feet, insisting that he was okay, just a bit light-headed. A lesser treatment of Sapphire’s wound was all she would accept. She declined any assistance in wiping blood out of her cleavage.
There was not much they could do for Animus. The back of his head was matted with dried blood. He opened his tunic as much as he could, and tried not to touch the bright pink flesh thus exposed.
They recovered Sapphire’s wand, Flummox’s knife, and The Visitor’s whistle. The red bouquet was shredded beyond use. Then they headed deeper into the tunnels.
In the room where Caboose lay, they found several bottles, some of which were labeled ‘manna’. Flummox drank one and said he felt a bit better. They dripped one into Caboose’s mouth and he shot bolt upright on his slab. He insisted that he wanted out of ‘this horrible place’ immediately. They reassured him that he was safe, and enlisted his aid in supporting Flummox. He clung to the blanket that had been over him, but he complied.
Leaving everything else untouched, they headed back to where they had left Foggy Bottom, but the mule was gone. The iron ring had been pulled from the stone. There were lizard tracks in the dirt and powdered stone that lay about, but no blood.
Resigning themselves to searching for the mule, they headed across the gulch and back up the ridge. Caboose and Sapphire supported Flummox while Animus scouted ahead.
Raven and Foggy Bottom were a welcome sight, waiting just beyond the crest of the ridge. “Good thing she remembers the smell of dragon essence. She had quite a scare and came running – right to me.”
Animus took the reins. “Foggy Bottom is a mule – a hybrid. It is not a ‘she’.”
Raven cocked his head and looked into his eyes. “You think so, do you? Anyway, it looks like you’ve found your human. Best of luck on the return journey – I don’t expect we’ll be meeting again soon, and I must run now. Peace be with you.” Without further ado, Raven sprinted off into the hills with an odd jerky gait.
Sapphire turned to their new undead companion, who was trying to fashion a hood and cover from his blanket. “Caboose, could you get Flummox up on the mule? I seem to be bleeding again.”
“Happy to. Thanks for getting me out of there. I’m not sure I’ll be welcome back in town, though. This sun is murder on my poor skin, since the change.”
Animus had been peering at the tender flesh of his chest. Now he let his tunic drop loosely in front of him. “You’ll find a lot changed; they think they have a cure now. We’ll tell you all about it on the way back. Sapphire, are you going to be able to walk that far?”
Sapphire gritted her teeth. “I’ll make it, even if I have to figure out a flight spell. We’ll probably have to camp tonight, and see how things are in the morning. Let’s get going.”
Caboose had enough of his lips left, despite some evidence of rot, to whistle as they marched.
The others spent the morning in minor pursuits around town.
Grace of course helped care for Dick and Dora, and prepare the lab for a larger number of patients to start the cure next week, assuming all went well. Maude was surprisingly helpful, when she wasn’t suggesting pranks Grace could play. She had a creative flair for organization, and helped iron out their plans. Grace also visited each of the werewolves, and made sure they had everything they needed, assuring them that their cure would begin the following week.
D-Stract spent the morning caring for Upsie and Downsie while the Ironborgs spent some quality time together.
Rufus took Parrot on a hike up Monolith Mountain. There they played with Eeek and convinced Mama Yeti that a move to the old mine would give Eeek more toys to play with than he could ever imagine. They were so eager to go that they said they’d move during the night, and live in the dry upper levels until the water was drained from the lower ones. They had very little of their own to take with them, that had not been ruined by the wicked witch and her flying monkeys.
Cleo spent time going through every herb and spice in the Apothecary, and brought several back with requests for Spamwich to try out. She shook her head when she saw how much time C.K. spent hanging out with Olivia.
All in all, they spent a much more peaceful morning than their friends in the burnt barrens. As soon as they heard about their friend’s injuries, D-Stract insisted on heading out to meet them halfway with first aid supplies. Cleo went along as escort, and Grace went along to help.
Rufus was still up the mountain, and told them to go on without him. Upon his return to town, Tinker asked Rufus to fire the clay top of the first culvert, which he did with a few fiery passes of his staff. The performance troop looked on, muddy and glum, with clay on their cheeks and in their hair, but happy to see that progress was being made to escape this drudgery and get back to performing. Strong, Duncan and Trixie were then able to move the heavy materials on to the next culvert down the road.
The night was dark and moonless, and camp was blessedly quiet, except for the eerie whistling of Caboose.
The rest of the week was spent either in bed rest or tending of wounds. Rufus fired two more culverts, and D-Stract split her time between the invalids and the Ironborg kids.
They all looked forward to the festivities on Market Day. Rumor had it that the performance troop was going to take a break from roadwork and give a final farewell performance before they climbed aboard the wagons and headed back to civilization sometime next week.