Steven yawned and stretched his arms. He stood, pulling himself out of the chair and rubbing his eyes. He wasn't sure when he drifted off, but he had to have been asleep for a few hours--the clock said 11:34, and he could only remember sitting down after they'd arrived last night.
He took a few steps toward the restroom before hitting his toe on something soft. Gazing down, he saw the book he'd been reading, laying face down and open just a foot and a half from the chair. He picked it up, checking briefly for bent pages, when he head a voice say, "God, you're reading that garbage again?"
Steven turned to see Yvonne standing in the bathroom doorway, tying her hair into a ponytail. A smirk stretched across her face. He briefly glanced at the title--Visitors From Beyond: 18 Terrifying Tales from the Other Side. "Yeah," he said with a smug grin, "It's better if you think of it as fiction."
Yvonne laughed, turning back into the bathroom and shutting the door behind her. With a shrug, Steven slipped the book into a grocery bag. He began to ruffle through it, searching for something to snack on, when it suddenly dawned on him that Roderigo wasn't in the room. He peered out the window toward the patio, which was bare, frowning when he saw that one of the chairs had been disturbed.
“That's odd,” Steven thought, closing the curtain. He noticed the new netbook on top of the entertainment center, and touched it--ice cold. Yvonne had bought it to browse for airline tickets, but it clearly hadn't been used for at least an hour. Not that that bothered Steven, who was well aware that his uncle was more likely to work from his phone.
Still, it wasn't like Roderigo to leave without telling anyone, especially when he was under any kind of stress. Even a medicated schizophrenic had a chance of relapse, and with Roderigo's history of wandering off during episodes, this kind of behavior bugged Steven. “Hey Yvonne,” he asked, “have you seen Rod?" Steven asked.
"No, I haven't. Did you check outside?"
"Yes," Steven said. "He's not there."
Yvonne emerged from the bathroom. "Maybe he's gone to get something to eat," she said. “Did he leave a note?”
Steven scanned the room, looking for anything Roderigo could have written on, but there was nothing. “No, no note,” he said.
“Shit,” Yvonne swore. She reached for the phone to dial the police, but before she could dial the number there was a knock at the door. She looked at Steven, who shrugged, and motioned for him to answer.
If it was him, Steven thought, then why the hell would he knock? He opened the door anyway. To his surprise, he found Roderigo standing there with a confused look on his face. His clothes were soaked in foul liquid that had already begun to dry, forming a strange crust. "Jesus Rod!” Steven exclaimed, hurriedly pulling him inside. “What the hell happened to you?"
Roderigo placed his finger on his lips and stared down in thought. “Not sure,” he said, in a strangely enthusiastic tone. “Don't have a clue.”
“Steven,” Yvonne said, pointing toward his side. Strapped to his belt was what appeared to be a long saber housed in a plane wooden sheath, only the tip of the handle sticking out. The grip seemed to be made of ivory, but was clearly very old; when Roderigo removed it, Steven could see that the sword had no guard.
“Where the hell did you get that?” Steven asked.
Roderigo stared at the weapon with confusion. The blade seemed to be a brilliant white, and as they watched it almost seemed to glow.
Steven's curiosity quickly gave way to awe. “Holy hell,” he said, reaching for the blade, “that's a shashka!”
“It's a little long for a shashka, isn't it?" Roderigo said, pulling the weapon back. He held the sword up to examine it. "Well, the design is certainly similar." With flick of his wrist, he spun the weapon with his fingers. “It's well balanced,” he said. “It's well balanced. I think I'll call it the White Flame.” He quickly sheathed it and set it down on the bed.
Curious, Steven reached out to grab it, but the second it touched his hand, he pulled back, yelping in pain. He stared at the weapon for a moment, watching it rest harmlessly on the sheets. Had it burned him? It definitely felt like he'd stuck his hand in a fire, but the weapon didn't even singe the bed.
“Something wrong?” Roderigo asked. It appeared his mind had returned to normal, but he seemed unaware that he'd been behaving strangely before.
“It's hot,” Steven said quietly, his gazed fixed on the weapon.
“It wasn't when I touched it,” Roderigo said. He reached out for Steven's hand. “Let me see.”
To his surprise, the hand was red. It felt warm and dry to the touch. “Looks like a mild burn,” he said. “Go rinse it with cold water, and I'll bandage it for you.”
“Yeah, I'll do that,” Steven said. He entered the bathroom and turned on the faucet.
“Look, this is interesting and all,” Yvonne said, “but I'd really like to know where you've been. You don't make a habit of wandering off like that."
Roderigo frowned, but when he saw that it made Yvonne nervous, he forced himself to hide his emotion. “Well, there's a cave near here,” he said, breaking eye contact. “I went down, and....”
“Well, that's the thing, the next thing I remember I was at the door. I don't know what happened after I went in, and I don't remember getting this sword."
Steven quickly came out of the restroom. "There's probably more stuff like that down there," he said. He began wrapping his hand in gauze, placing a piece of tape on the end to hold it together. “But given your behavior and that... er, crust, I'm not entirely positive I want to go down there.”
Roderigo noted the substance on his shirt. “Probably not a good idea,” Roderigo said, “but I'm pretty sure I was in there for a while. It's more likely I had a brief relapse.”
Yvonne shook her head. “Sorry Rod, but you know psychosis doesn't work that way.” After a brief moment of silence, she smiled mischievously. “You know what?” she asked, grabbing her purse and slinging it over her shoulder. “I'm bored. We really have nothing better to do right now, so I think a little spelunking would be a nice way to save this train wreck of a vacation.”
Steven shook his head. “Hell no. Weird crust. Psychotic episode. Not worth it.”
* * *
“God damn,” Yvonne said. She fumbled with her watch in the darkness until a faint blue light lit up its face. “It's been forty minutes. How far down does this staircase go?”
“Not much further,” Roderigo said. He was leading the group with his sword drawn, the faint glow of the blade lighting up the dark. Yvonne thought it fit the weapon's name, burning light a white fire as they moved steadily down the natural staircase.
A glowing sword that burns everything but its owner, and shines through the night, she thought. It was absurd, and frankly a bit disturbing as well.
After a few moments, Roderigo stopped and said, “Here we are.” He motioned toward the center of the room. “I think I was over there at one point.”
It didn't surprise Yvonne that the floor was made of rock, or that such a damp cave would lack a layer of dirt. What surprised her was the old wagon perched by what appeared to be the ancient remains of a campfire--a scene that to her that seemed downright illogical. “This certainly is interesting,” she said, “but for the record, it creeps me out just a tad.”
“You and mee both,” Steven said, “and that's saying some--” He stopped mid-sentence, his eyes focusing on a shadow nestled in the back of the wagon. For him, the atmosphere seemed to vanish, and he ran to grab the item. Roderigo tried to stop him, but Steven brushed his hand aside--he could hear whatever it was calling to him, a primal voice that seemed to scream his name.
With the help of one hand, he jumped into the wagon and gripped the item tightly. Motioning toward Roderigo, he stared at the shadow as it fell into the White Flame's light. It had two forward-curved blades parallel to each other, fashioned from what appeared to be red steel. As he pulled back on the grip, they slid down along the twin bars, and he realized with amazement that it was some form of retractable claw. When they were locked in place, he squeezed the two rods that comprised the handle together, and the blades shot forward with amazing speed and locked into place. “Holy shit,” he said. “This is awesome. I've never seen anything like it.”
Something else in the wagon grabbed Yvonne's attention, and reaching out she felt her fingers touch old parchment. Pulling the yellowed slip into the light, she spied a note written in Gothic calligraphy. It struck her as very old, but it was amazingly preserved, and while the style seemed medieval in design, she was shocked to realize it was written in modern English.
“What's it say?” Steven asked. He jumped down off the wagon and leaned in for a look.
“It says, 'To the witness who finds this gift: you have suffered a loss in both your name and that of the Gluttons, but you should take your seat beside the Soldier. Use this Nightwalker to fight her blessed Bladed Man, and wage your ward for the Goddess of Ahl so that you may strive to live a second time."
Something about the words made Steven flinch. Almost as if he were shamed, he gazed down at the faint scars on his wrist. Though Roderigo noted it, he said nothing. Instead he turned to begin the ascent out of the cave.
“We should leave,” Roderigo said. “I don't like it here. It feels... strange.”
Without warning, Roderigo's eyes widened. He lurched forward in agony, reaching down to grab his gut. A small glimmer of metal pushed forward out of his back and then ripped sideways, tearing through his gut. As he fell to his knees, Steven and Yvonne saw a figure with a blade protruding from his palm; Yvonne quickly reached into her purse and removed her Glock, taking quick aim at the figure before them.
She froze. Roderigo should have passed out from the blood loss, but instead he was still kneeling, holding his side. She could hear him grinding his teeth in pain. However, the blood had slowed to a trickle, and as she watched tiny strings of flesh began to form over the wound, pulling it together and finally mending it, not even leaving a scar.
At last they could see his assailant's face. It lacked any sort of hair, with milky white eyes and a mouth full of needle-like teeth. His skin had an orange hue, which contrasted sharply with the black suit and tie. As he loosened the muscles in his wrist, the blade pulled back into his palm, and he reached out in a mocking fashion, as if to give Roderigo a hand. “It's a pleasure to meet you, Soldier,” he said. He gave a sarcastic two-finger salute and turned back toward the stairs, ascending into the darkness. As he fell out of sight, they heard him say, “And it's a pleasure to meet the Witness as well.”
Yvonne lowered her gun and rushed toward Roderigo. He seemed fine now, although the aftermath of the wound still had him on his knees. “Are you all right?” she asked. The question seemed silly, but she could think of nothing better to say.
“Hey, can you put that thing away?” Roderigo asked. She sheepishly flipped the safety on and placed the gun back in her purse. “Ten years, and you still have the reflexes of a fed,” he said. He tried to smile, but couldn't, and it bothered him more than it should have. As he rose to his feet he said, “I think we should get out of here. I want t get home as quickly as possible.”
“For the funeral, right?” Steven asked.
“No, I just don't like it here.”