Authors: Morgan Blayde
Tags: #Dark Fantasy, #Horror, #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction
“Secrets hide best behind other secrets.”
An hour later, showered and dressed in black slacks and a red tee—with a black-winged skull on it—I lit a little bonfire on the front drive. My dragon flame left only white ash where Clifford and Crusher had been. Of course I took their wallets to reimburse me for the cost of cremation; a man’s gotta make a living.
The evacuation was in progress with Deedee handling the details, so I was free to turn my attention to the chapel basement and the formerly hidden tomb. I returned to the scene of the crime with a pickax I’d located in an old, disintegrating garden shed. I carried an outdoor LED lantern Christie had loaned me. It cast a wash of white light at the hole in the wall where the bodies were. I used the wedge end of the pickax to pry out some loose bricks so I could go around the bodies without disturbing them. This let me reach the back wall of the chamber.
Reaching through the ether to my Malibu mansion’s armory, I magically summoned a stick of C4 and broke it into four pieces. The explosive putty formed the corners of a three-by-three-foot square. I plugged in the wires of my push-button detonator, exited the chamber, and walked twenty feet away for extra protection. I pushed the button.
The explosions would have sounded unison to a human. To me, they were each distinctive with my dragon hearing. The concussive wave widened the hole already there, distorting the bricks that still managed to stand. Dust swirled. Blown free, a large number of bricks hit the concrete floor with multiple
bouncing, scraping, and tumbling freely.
A lot of the old mortar was blown out, and some of the chapel flooring from overhead. I heard beams and boards splintering, falling. The LED lantern fell and skidded over to me, but kept working. The thing was built tough. I picked it up and waited, letting the dust settle a bit.
A few minutes later. Pickax in hand, I went back in, kicking fallen boards out of my way, dodging splinters. I could now look up into the sanctuary and see the ceiling. None of the ghost lights swarmed in to complain, but I apologized to the badly damaged corpses for the noise.
The inner wall had a hole of its own now, one I widened with the pickax, dislodging bricks that were ready to fall. I pushed through, entering the rest of the basement that I had seen in my dream. It smelled of hard, damp mold and dust. I expected worse. The not-so-bad quality of the air told me there was another way in to here.
Of course there is.
In the dream, I remembered the naga coming from dark shadows beyond the girls’ make-shift altar. He hadn’t appeared by magic, it had just seemed so. There ought to be a naga entrance, a tunnel to slither through.
Pickax leaning against one shoulder, lantern in hand, I went forward. The trappings from the dream were gone. The place had been given a makeover by someone with snakes for brains; snakes were a reoccurring motif. An under-ceiling of stone had been added, supported by a row of columns along the walls. The C4 hadn’t damaged a thing in here. The columns had carved snakes winding around them, each pillar an oversized, wingless caduceus. The concrete floor was hidden as well, layered by green and white marble tiles.
I went on to a stone altar. The thing looked to be one piece, chiseled green stone: not jade, tourmaline, I decided. The top edges of the sides had a six-inch strip of carved figures: snake and half-snake males engaged in energetic sexual exploits.
Staring across the altar, I saw the back wall. Framed between two square block columns was an intricate statue of a behemoth twin-hydra snake. There were nine heads connected to a vertical body. The body branched near the floor, forming a profusion of swirling, intertwined tails that could just as easily have been knotted roots. The central head was female with rubies for eyes. Her mouth was open, baring fangs. A rippling tongue protruded, polished garnet. Smaller rubies formed lines down her checks, tears of blood.
I wondered who she wept for.
My inner dragon roused and took in the image. In my mind, he grew still, rigid in the grip of overwhelming greed, drooling amid his shadows.
I understood. I shared my counter-part’s fondness for jewels. “Bear in mind,” I said, “that jewels on idols are often cursed, and usually protected by deathtraps as well.”
Could be worth the risk.
“I’m a greedy son of a bitch, too,” I said, “but you can’t hoard what you’re too stupid to steal. Look, we need someone expendable who’s not too smart. A canary in a mine-shaft.”
Dragon blinked at me.
“In olden days, miners carried canaries in cages into mines with them. Mining can accidently release pockets of methane gas that can prove deadly. The small birds would be affected first. When a miner saw a dead canary, he knew to haul ass out of there. We need a canary to find out if this is a
An idea struck. “Thorn, of course.”
You’re sworn to protect her. You can’t let her get hurt.
“She’s a seer. She’ll see any danger present and will refuse, or she’ll see the manner of her impending death and know how to avoid it while getting me my stones.”
My dragon’s eyes flared bright gold.
“I won’t do it without an equal share of the rubies. I have my college fund to think of,” Thorn said.
I turned and saw her advancing on me.
Shiva was right behind her. “Hey, I want a cut, too.”
“You’re an employee. You don’t get a cut.”
Shiva pouted. “That’s not fair!”
“You want fair?” I smiled at her.
A sudden tension went through her.
I told her, “Go pluck off a stone. If you live, you can keep it. Isn’t that fair?”
Shiva bent down and loudly whispered to Thorn. “You go first.”
Thorn rolled her eyes in her head, flashing their whites. Eyes back in place, she came up to me and stopped. “An equal cut.”
“Sure, one for me, one for you, and one for my inner dragon—otherwise he’ll be totally grumpy and hell to live with.”
Thorn studied my face a moment, and then nodded curtly. “A third share is acceptable—as long as I get one of the two eyes from the face in the middle.”
Those eyes were much bigger. The snakes to either side of the central figure were side-profiles with single, smaller rubies for eyes—clearly lesser stones. “Fine. Deal.”
“I want the other eye,” Shiva said. “I’ve got a damaged transmission to fix.”
“Then you go first,” I said. “No risk, no ruby. Feeling lucky?”
“You’re not going first,” Shiva objected. “How do you rate?”
“I’m the boss, remember? So, are you going to be first?”
She thought about it. I could almost hear the gears in her head spinning, grinding. I was beginning to think she’d hurt herself.
I said, “If you smell smoke, stop. If you’re not used to thinking deeply, it can be dangerous at first.”
“Fuck you!” she said.
“Not for a ruby,” I said, “but I might be willing to cover your mechanic’s bill.”
Thorn sighed. “Such children.”
I glared at her. “What?”
She showed me a sudden waif-like innocent. “Nothing. We have a deal, so I’ll let you in on a little secret.”
“What?” I asked.
“No curse, just a dead-fall trap. It’s safe enough as long as no one steps on the floor within two feet of the idol. There’s a whole row of pressure plates there.”
“I’d have died!” Shiva shouted.
“Good thing you have a little common sense.” I handed her the lantern. “You’ve got stone magic. Animate the stone figures and have them hand over the rubies.”
“Hey,” Shiva’s voice boomed and echoed. “I could have done that when you said I could go first.”
“Coulda, woulda, shoulda…” I sighed heavily with false sympathy. “Until you understand your own strength, you’ll always be weak.”
“I really hate you,” Shiva said.
I said, “Careful, or I won’t let you sleep with me.”
Shiva glared. “I’d rather sleep with a snake.”
I looked at the altar with its carved pornography. “A lot of that going around actually.” I took out my camera and went around the altar, and stopped a safe distance from the idol. I took pictures to preserve the thing for posterity. “If anybody asks, grave robbers were here before us, damn them. We have no idea what kind of stones were here.”
“Stones?” Thorn said. “What stones.”
“Exactly,” I said. “Now you two get to work. We’ll divvy up the plunder later.”
“I’ll know if you try to cheat me,” Thorn said.
Such a trusting soul
. “Less talk, more work,” I said.
Thorn and Shiva came up to join me. Thorn and I watched Shiva unleash her stone magic. She knelt so we had a view of the top of her shaved head. Her hands, a pale blue-gray, looked like soapstone as she touched the pressure triggers in the floor. Her hands deepened to green, veined with white, taking on the coloration of the marble tiles. A growl of thunder echoed underground, a big muffled
Shiva withdrew her hands. They paled to their original color. “There, that ought to do it.”
Thorn nodded. The trap will no longer activate. It’s safe to harvest.”
I held out my hand.
Shiva looked at it.
“A hand up,” I said.
She stood on her own, and loomed over me like an ancient titan. “I look weak to you?”
“Everyone looks weak to me.”
All on its own, my battle-mask slid over my face. It does that sometimes, coming without my calling. My lips stretched into a taunting smile, humor that never quite reached my eyes. I knew from past experiences that when the dragon in me slumbered, I had my father’s eyes, the eyes of a slayer: black holes, bottomless, adamant—gates to all the darkness of my soul. Those were the eyes of my mask. Where my slayer-half nature fit into my life was still being worked out.
Only one person was stronger—Selene, the Red Lady, Mistress of the Red Moon—but that thought was one I didn’t mention.
I never knew when she might be listening, or when she might pop in out of nowhere to surprise me. Before becoming a kind of Goddess, she’d been a red dragon. She and my inner dragon were soul-mates, a level of intimacy I hadn’t reached, even with Izumi.
Shiva turned to the idol. Her hands framed the central fanged face of the snake goddess. Shiva drew in a deep breath and held it. As if breath and life were transferred to the stone figure, it grew pliant, swaying forward a little, then back. The branching snakes to either side turned to look at Shiva. They rippled closer to her, giving her their total attention. She cupped her hands under the statue’s face and the ruby tears slowly slid down the face. The stones fell into Shiva’s hands. One by one, the snakes left their eyes as well. All that was left were the two large rubies of the central figure. Those fell out. Shiva caught them.
I held out my hands and Shiva passed them along. I used my tattoo link to my treasure vault to send them to safety, letting the rubies vanish into ether.
“Hey!” Thorn protested.
“We’ll settle up later,” I said.
I thought she was going to argue, but she reined herself in and nodded. “Yes, we will. Take the garnet tongue, too. You’ll need it.”
I stared at her. “Something you see in my future?”
She nodded. “Trust me.”
I reached over and used a bit of dragon strength to snap it off. Garnet isn’t very strong. In medieval times, the stone was often ground into powder and put in wine to treat fever and jaundice. I held the wavy blade, staring at it. Kinda like a knife with no hilt.
“Put it in your boot,” Thorn said.
I did. “Happy?”
Thorn smiled, staring into a vision that was hers alone. She said, “Yes.”
Shiva went back to touching the snake goddess. The idol flattened, losing definition. A moment later, there was only a bare wall standing between the two block pillars.
“You didn’t like the décor?” I asked.
“Kinda creeped me out,” Shiva said. “Especially after I animated her. I hope she stays out of my dreams.”
“Let’s get out of here,” I said.
Thorn summoned a magic ball of light to brighten our path as we walked away from the wall, past the altar, crossing the chamber to the fresh hole I’d made. We threaded the burial chamber and entered the other half of the basement.