(INTERLUDE) Curse of the White Woman
Three weeks ago…
Kane McMasters stood brooding in blood. It was congealed and thick and his feet sank into it. He shone his flashlight down as he lifted his favorite boots. The red-black mucus stretched from his sole and dribbled to the floor like clot-filled taffy. “Shit.”
Maryn pointed her flashlight at Kane’s feet. “What is that?”
Kane scowled. “I don’t know. Blood. And mucus maybe.” It was everywhere, and it gave the floor of the stone chamber a soft, vinyl-like sheen. Insects pranced across it. “Something probably died down here.”
“It looks like bloody snot. Disgusting.” Maryn wrinkled her nose. The whole chamber smelled of iron and fear.
Kane nodded. He was a tall man, athletic but not overly muscular, with a shaved head and a nose that had healed wrong. His eyes were different colors. “You know . . . just once I’d like to go somewhere without bugs or snakes or any kind of vermin.”
“You’re in the wrong business, buddy.”
“You might want to wait here.” Kane wagged his light across the floor. “There could be venom wasps.” He shook the insects off his slime-covered boot and started forward through the grime.
“Nice try, cowboy.” Maryn followed.
“Did you hear that?” Bil Grindstead stepped down the stairs and into the muck. His feet squished. “Oh, fuck . . .”
Kane cocked his head. “Hear what?”
“It sounded like something moving in the next room,” Grindstead whispered. He was a full head shorter than Kane but stout and well-tanned. He wore a bowler and thick work clothes.
“I didn’t hear anything.” Maryn wiped her brow with a bandanna and put her auburn hair behind her ears.
“There it is again.”
“I heard it.” Kane nodded. “But I’m not sure it came from the next room.” He shone his flashlight around the subterranean ruins, but there was nothing but insects and filth.
“Think someone beat us to the treasure?” Grindstead asked.
Maryn shook her head. “How? No one knows this place even exists.”
“Not treasure, Bil. Artifacts.”
Grindstead scowled. “Whatever.”
Maryn looked at Kane. “Do we risk it? Bil has the only revolver.”
Bil tapped the holster at his side.
Kane thought for a moment. They had been searching for six months. His teammates were veteran hunters and knew the value of secrecy, and none of them had anything to gain by leaking the location of the ruins. But then, if his team had found them, someone else might have as well. It was a three-hour hike from Midwitch to Freecity and a two-week journey back home. “We came all the way out here. Let’s just make sure we found the right place and then we’ll come back with the rest of the team.”
Grindstead nodded. “I’ll stay here and cover the exit.”
“That’s what you always say.” Maryn smiled.
Grindstead tipped his bowler. “And I always mean it.”
Kane led Maryn through the slime. His feet made sucking sounds each time he lifted them. “See this?” He shone his light on the stone archway opposite the stairs. It was the only other exit from the round room.
Maryn stepped closer and examined the markings that stretched across the arch. “Looks like early Heyan script.”
Kane nodded. He knew his way around ruins, but Dr. Maryn Dale was the real expert. “What do you think? Thousand years old?”
Maryn shone her light around the base of the floor, which was ringed in spiral etchings. She produced a small notebook from her vest. “Twelve to thirteen hundred, probably. Some of these look pre-Heyan.”
“I told you it was here,” Grindstead called in a loud whisper.
“Yeah, yeah.” Kane shook his head and walked through the arch. The path ahead was pitch black, but at least there was no more slime.
“This is the lost temple!”
Maryn stepped closer to her companion. “I really don’t want to listen to that little prick gloat all the way home.”
“Me neither.” Kane shrugged. “But he wasn’t wrong. This may very well be the lost temple to Kraxus. And if it is . . . think about it, Maryn. No one’s set foot in here in centuries.”
“By the gods!”
The pair emerged into a cavern so large that their light disappeared into the air. Everything was still and damp. There was a sound of distant dripping.
“Look.” Maryn pointed her flashlight ahead. The floor stopped two inches from Kane’s toes and plunged straight down.
Kane raised his eyebrows. “Close one.”
Fragments of rune-carved pillars and crumbling stairs suggested a platform or altar had once risen over the expanse. Little of it remained.
Kane squinted. “Wait. What is that?” He shone his light out across the crevasse.
Maryn drew breath. “By Kraxus, look at the size of it.”
A massive boulder, like a small mountain, curved up and away from them and disappeared into the bedrock in all directions. It was crested in irregular spikes, like the shattered edge of a steak knife. It was massive.
“Wow . . .” Even Kane got goose bumps.
“What do you think it is?”
Kane shook his head. “I have no idea.”
Their flashlights darted back and forth across its surface. The mountain within the mountain was made of something other than stone. It was cracked in semi-regular grooves, jagged, but in a pattern too structured for igneous rock.
“Look at that.” Maryn turned her light to the left. A set of metal stairs was bolted to the side of the cliff face and disappeared into the dark.
Kane grit his teeth. “That’s not twelve hundred years old.”
“It’s not new, either. Look how it’s rusted at the edges.”
Kane opened his mouth to speak when Grindstead yelled. Kane stopped. “Bil?”
Grindstead yelled again. His profanity echoed through the hall and out into the expanse. Then silence.
“Bil!” Maryn turned and ran into the antechamber. She stopped and gasped.
Kane rushed right behind her and knocked her forward into the muck. She cursed from the floor.
Grindstead was lying on the stairs with his flashlight pointed at the ceiling. His face was contorted and frozen in a wide-mouthed mask. Kane looked up.
A menagerie of man-sized sacs clung to the dark stone dome. There were dozens, stretched across the breadth of the curved ceiling. They were large and gray and folded like loose, leftover skin. Some looked fresh. Others oozed red from creases and sores. It dripped to the floor in long strands of silk.
“Oh gods . . .” Maryn was on her knees. Her face and hands and the entire front of her body were thick with bloody, clot-specked mucus. She held out her hands and looked as if she was going to cry. Scurrying insects held mass on her chest. She squealed.
Grindstead was transfixed on a single shape revealed through a wrinkled, translucent sac by the beam from his flashlight. It was dark, merely a shadow, but it was humanoid.
Kane raised his light to the same sac.
The shadow twitched. Then it started moving.
“Let’s get out of here,” Kane growled and grabbed Maryn’s arm.
Grindstead stood and bounded up the stairs. Kane and Maryn shuffled as fast as they could through the grime and climbed the worn stone steps two at a time. They struggled with the rope ladder, but soon emerged from the well into the old stone watchtower that guarded the base of the Serrated Hills. They stopped. Maryn hunched and vomited. Kane let her fall.
An array of figures stood motionless and silent in the courtyard, blocking their exit. They were tall, female, and clad in black leather uniforms that reached to the ground. Their faces were obscured by bulbous protective masks, and several carried automatic rifles. The gaunt symbol strapped to their arms was unmistakable.
One of them held Grindstead’s severed head. Sinew and bits of vertebrae dripped his blood. His body lay broken and twisted on the ground like fresh road kill.
The holder spoke from under her helmet. “I see you found the back door.” Her voice was metal and silk.
The bodies of Serenity and Marcus Kildevil lay wide-eyed at the base of the tower. They had stayed behind to keep watch. They were Kane’s oldest friends. He had been the best man at their wedding.
“Run!” Kane grabbed Maryn’s arm again, but it was slippery from the muck and he was already half-turned toward the well. His friend and lover slipped free after two steps.
Kane heard automatic gunfire and the thud of bullets entering flesh. Maryn fell forward and knocked Kane down the well-hole in the floor. He hit his head on the jagged rock wall and landed with a clatter of loose equipment. He lost his breath and his head was spinning, but his blood burned with adrenaline. Kane stood and staggered to the worn and uneven steps. There his injuries got the better of him, and he tripped and tumbled down the stairs. His flashlight bounced free and landed sideways in the blood. Light reflected off the mucus and covered the room in a soft, red glow.
The flabby skin of a ruptured sac dangled from the ceiling. Fresh, pustulent slime was settling across the bloody floor underneath. A woman—tall, voluptuous, naked, with pure white hair and skin like ivory—stood in the filth, head cocked, staring at Kane with black eyes. Her sharpened nails were black. Her lips dribbled black saliva. Her eyes ran black tears. She was beautiful.
Kane didn’t speak. He knew exactly what she was, but he couldn’t believe it. He stood, mouth agape, gripping the wall for support, and stared at a creature of legend.
The white woman scowled and felt her bare stomach. It rumbled. “I’m very hungry.” Her voice was thick and syrup-sweet, almost like a child’s. She studied Kane’s face. “I must eat.”