Something powerful and deadly lurks the tops of city buildings but four old friend of mysterious backgrounds are gathering to take matters into their own hands.
It was another late night and Thomas Locke ran his hands through his greasy black hair as he leaned back into his desk chair. Thomas is an investigative reporter and ‘this’ was his deadline. But, the Fact-Checkers down stair were still giving him hell and on top of that, he knew his editor was looking for any reason not to publish. Not that he didn’t understand, in fact Thomas was keenly aware that any mistakes in a story this big could mean being crushed under its weight. It was times like these when he miss alcohol the most, when the temptation was at its worst.
Thomas was not prone to romantic or dramatic notions, but for some reason he found himself thinking of striking into the heart of some great beast and if he did not strike deep enough, it would lash out and kill him.
Opening his eyes, he blinked hard trying to clear his vision. The words on the screen started to look like a tidal wave collapsing forward to swallow him, quickly he snatched a small piece of elk antler off the corner of his desk and started rubbing it in his fingers. It had been worn smooth in the center where his thumb naturally landed, slided over the familiar grooves to deep to be worn away, he felt calmer. Then, pulling his dark hair back into a loose ponytail, he leaned forward and went back to work. This story would go out over the weekend and by Monday the arrests would have take place.
The air was thick and greasy while the smell of stale beer, and cigarettes clung to the walls. Tinny voices, narrating sporting events, rang out from each corner of the trashy pizza parlor where old bulky televisions hung. For a weeknight in small town West Virginia, it was not surprising the place was empty except for a loud group that had come in earlier. They had tucked themselves into a booth near the back where they persisted in sloshing beer and dropping bits of pizza under the table, much to the sulking melancholy of the acne ridden teen behind the register.
They had trickled in, first a man and a woman, both with olive tan skin and angular features. They walked side by side and never seemed to be far apart though their manner was not one of romantic intimacy. While placing an order for several large pizzas and a pitcher of beer the man had leaned against the counter in a casual way, smiling and making jokes while his female counterpart stood up straight and tall smirking at some of the jokes but mostly maintaining a no-nonsense air.
After these two, came a pale younger looking man, with unkempt hair and thin features. He had the general look of someone who gave little thought to his appearance more due to distraction than to confidence.
Last came a very large, Scandinavian looking man with dirty blond hair that he kept pulled back out of the way. He toted an old bag the screamed military-surplus, and to the pizza making teen it seemed big enough to contain a body maybe even two, but the large man walk casually with it slung over his shoulder as if it was stuffed with pillows.
Even sitting in the back, their voices carried over the noise of the television sports announcers and the young man behind the counter would catch snippets of the conversation. The large one who arrived last was talking about hitching his way across the country after having some problems with some sort of wild animal, the name of which sound sort of Middle Eastern but the large man, whose friends were calling him John, had used the world, “Beast”.
Whether it was boredom or curiosity, the teen soon found himself cleaning tables that didn’t really need cleaning but close enough to listen and he as he listened their conversation only became stranger. The darkly tanned pair, who had arrived first, were apparently twins who had just returned from Canada. The male twin leaned forward talking excitedly with his hands about how they had followed a “Wendigo” up across the northern border. Periodically his olive skinned sister would correct him on some detail. Together they told of how the chase had ended in a small town on the very edge of the northern wilderness. The Pizza Parlor’s phone had started to ring before the end came and by the time the youth had returned with a broom to ‘sweep’ the floor, the blond man, John, was saying that, “The wild wraiths were tricky,” and that they had done well, all things considering.
The last of the four to tell his story was the youngest in appearance, possibly in his early twenties. He leaned back, pausing for dramatic effect before launching into his tale. He told of how he had gone up against a sphinx in a battle of wits. At a point in his story when his over dramatization had gone too far, eyes start to roll, someone tossed wadded up napkins, and he was forced to move on with the story. In finishing, he pulled up his satchel with a sheepish grin and drew out an old leather bound copy of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales with a number of thick leather belts strapped around it; as if to hold it shut. Silence claimed the table as he placed the book on the in front of him, and told them that this was where he had trapped the creature. John quickly took the book away while the twins derided him for bringing such a damned thing along.
They order pitcher after pitcher, reminiscing and talking until the TVs were turned off and the manager had to come out of his office and ask them to leave.
Later that night, while riding the bus home, the teenaged pizza parlor attendant would wonder about the wild tales the strange group of drunks had been telling as if they had actually happened. However, by the following morning when he woke, the memory had slipped away, replaced by the serious business of life. Like so many childhood dreams washed into the background.
That night, the glass of Its tall tower shimmered with the reflected lights of the dingy city below. At the tower’s top it slept with its massive breaths causing the polished metal ducting of the roof to steam over.
Its serpent head, with the liquid smooth scales, flicks its tongue in the air and suddenly the yellow eyes with their long black slits spring open. “Something changes…” it hisses.
“Things always change,” its Lion head growls lazily without opening its eyes, “we are above such thing now. We have grown too big, too powerful to be brought down. ”
Hearing the other two, its Goat head opens its eyes, cold, emotionless, and unblinking as looks down upon the city says nothing.
As the creeping sun neared its peak, the rusted and dirty 1984 Toyota Corona flew down the highway in the high nineties. The indicator of sedan’s speedometer bobbed in and out the red as it screamed passed a highway patrol car who, somehow didn’t seem to care.
Driving with one hand, Ishtar pushed her oversized gas-station-sunglasses up along her elegant Sumerian nose as she glanced into the rear view mirror to see the tan patrol car shrinking into a small dark spot. Sitting in the passenger seat, John cringed as he passed Ishtar back her styrofoam cup from which she sipped the burnt motel coffee and enjoyed the rare silence granted by her twin brother, Syed’s, hangover. He sat in the back seat hiding his eyes from the sun and trying very hard not to exist as Tobias sat next to him enwrapped with a book of local history. John pulled out a road map he had brought, insisting a GPS was just a waste as he knew the way to the cavern but when asked, he refused to drive glancing suspiciously at the steering wheel.
It was not often they had reason to meet, Ishtar reflected. As much as they might get along, something pushed them apart. Maybe it was something in their nature. Maybe they reminded each other of what they had each lost. When they did come together, it did not last long, only until the job was done and even then, it took something terrible. In this case, maybe even something too much for all of them, and so they seek out aid.
They drove for almost four hours until they reached a moderate collection of buildings declaring itself the town of Luray and then it was a only short time before they parked the old rusty Corona in the Luray Cavern’s large empty parking lot that was only made to feel larger by its emptiness. There were two buildings and a hedge maze. The large main building housed a gift shop and the cavern’s entrance, while the second smaller building was a museum.
Slow and sluggish they climbed from the sedan, pulling themselves blinking into the mid-day sun. John lifted his wrist to the level of his eye, examining the watch he wore as if decrypting some code. After a moment, he announced they still had time and start to move toward the entrance to the hedge maze.
They walked right passed the woman waiting to take admission fees in her little booth but she said not a word. Inside the four wandered the emerald walled pathways for a short time before they came to the center where a large fountain stood silent. Syed found two sticks on the ground and held them to his temples like bullhorns. “Hey, John!” he said scraping his foot over the ground imitating the action of a Bull before he charged at John who lightly tossed him into a hedge. Tobias nearly fell over laughing and as John then helped pull Syed back out of the bract. To all this Ishtar only shook her head and sat down beside the fountain with her coffee.
After the maze they made a round in the museum only stopping to pull Tobias away from a collection’s center piece that he swore was his. “Look,” he said pointing at the old book, “You can see the edges of where I wrote my notes just under those pages.”
After getting Tobias away from the small museum, they made their way to the main building and fell in at the back of a tour group heading down into the Caverns itself. If anyone noticed the new arrivals, no one said a word.
As the tour moved down into the cave the Guide would toss out small tidbits of information for the tourists to devour like light informational snacks that only seemed to feed the appetite. Potato chips of history and surgery snack cakes of natural sciences tossed hither and thither.
More than once Tobias would whispers small corrections to the other three until John had to tell him to be quite.
After a time of journeying within the earth, the tour group reached the Stalactite Organ. At first glance the instrument seemed to be a rather common organ like one might see in a small church. It was only as Guide explained that each note was created by a small device each attached to different stalactite, that it became apparent they were surrounded by a vast network of cords, half hidden by gloomy shadows. The cord ran out in all directions, deep into the many different channels of the Cavern. Then after the organ had been explained the guide set it to play a song that he said was a great favorite of the instruments creator. As the organ was engaged, soft and haunting notes of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” called out from all throughout cave. Each note came from a somewhere different, they were behind, then in front, and then in the next chamber. It was like some otherworldly chorus of shadows had slid up from the cracks and the deep corners to surround them, and made music like none of them have ever heard before. After the last note slowly died away the group was left in the most awe filled silence. A moment later the Guide said it was the world’s largest instrument, covering some three point five acres, and all were impressed.
When the Guide then announcing the next formation as the Double Column, the tour began to move on but the four late-comers fell behind and then turned off down a small dark and forgotten passage leading into the depths. As they clambered down the increasingly steep passage, the electric lights faded away behind them and a clink, clinking sound could be heard coming up from the depths. The fading light of the main tunnel was soon replaced by the flickering light of torches. The steep passage then opened into a series of low chambers through which John led the other three.
As they moved deeper and deeper under the skin of the earth the space around then constricted tighter and tighter, forcing them to stoop and scrunch.
As they made their way, the passage had grown so warm as to be hot and the rhythmic sound of metal on metal had become so loud Ishtar could feel it in her chest. Then coming around the corner, they came to very low chamber where a very short but unmistakably strong man stood working at an anvil next to a hearth that burn so fiercely that they had felt the heat outside the chamber.
“Hail, Dvergr,” John said as he approached with his back bent low, and the smith turned rubbing soreness from his hammering arm as the company filing into the chamber. Seeing such a large man crammed into such a small space made the Smith let out a deep laugh, “Hail, Midgardr,” he returned happily. The stunted but powerful man’s face was dark red and dripping with sweat as he began to speak with John in a language Ishtar only knew wasn’t English.
Ishtar had only dealt with the Dvergr once before and it had not been a pleasant experience, so she was glad to let John handle this and she stood back listening to them speak in what sounded to her ear as harsh guttural tones.
Something the struck Ishtar as she stood in the chamber was the extraordinary quality of the tools with which Dvergr worked. Their finery gleamed in the half-light providing for a striking contrast to the rest of rooms dull and rustic furnishings.
Another man of similar stature to the other but wearing a leather cap and jacket, with a pickaxe hanging from his belt, appeared in one of the chamber’s other entrances. “RUDE!” he called in loud voice that made them all stop as it reverberated in the walls of stone. “Why am I burdened with such a rude brother? Here are our guests, hunched in our forger, sweating and listening to you two yammer. Speak so everyone can understand you Bur, no wait, better idea, shut up and get back to work. I will handle this.” The Smith waved his hammer in a gruff dismissive gesture as he turned back to his work. He took a pair of tongs and moved something from the anvil to the fire. The thing seemed to have no specific shape or color but seemed to be many things at once. Ishtar knew it did not do to think too much on art of the Dvergr and others like them. They forged extremely dangerous implements in the living flame, using materials hewn from the minds of men and women.
“I am Bor and the prickly one with no manners is my brother Bur. John bring your company this way; we have a taller place to talk.”, said the second man and as his brother, Bur, shaped some strange and shapeless thing in the fire, and he led them away from the forge.
A short distance passed storerooms, bedrooms, and a cookery, they came into a larger chamber with benches. Bor, hung is dusty jacket and pickaxe on a peg as they sat down, the dust covering the small man’s jacket had a strange gleam.
It was a relief to sit in the cool space and straighten their backs as John introduced them by name. Bor, nodded politely with each introduction and greeted them gladly, “We have your piece. Very nice. Very good work. You will like it. Bur, will be bringing it shortly,” and then looking thoughtful for a moment Bor yelled something in their strange language into the passageway from which they had come and then with a smile he nodded, “He will bring it.”
True enough it was only a short time until Bur appeared and carrying with some difficulty a long rectangular leather case that by Bur’s small size was made to seem even longer. It had bright copper buckles and dark leather straps that were so tightly shut it caused the leather of the case to bud up around the clasps. Gingerly setting the case against the wall, Bur turned to his visitors and smiled, “This is what you have paid for and it is very fine but Bor has found something useful, something extra that you may want.”
Bor, grimaced a little and nodded slowly, “Yes,” he began looking at no one specifically as he pulled out a grubby sheet of folded paper, “I came across the location of a key. If you want get into the beast’s lair and surprise it, this is something you will be wanting.”
John started to say that he had not thought to bring anything but Tobias interrupted clearing his throat loudly and with slightly smug look and then took his satchel off, before pulled out an old catcher’s mitt too small for an adult. The mitt was clearly very old but seemed very clean and unworn. “Given on the twelfth birthday, but never used.” Tobias announced as if declaring the vintage of very rare wine. The two Dvergr seemed in awe of the object, and Bor held out his hands as if to receive a holy relic but Tobias held back the Mitt, “Oh no, this is worth well over what you have. You’ll have to owe me!” Bur, began to huff about this but Bor waved him off and nodded, “Deal! And, all my hope goes with you for even the Dvergr will be glad to know the beast is dead.”
The four made their way back up from the dark tunnels and into the main building. Before leaving John went through the gift shop and bought a black Luray Caverns commemorative mug that looked like it could hold more coffee than any one person should be drinking.
Coming out into the sunlight, Syed walked up along side Tobias, “So what was the deal with the catcher's mitt?”
“What, didn’t you know that dwarves love to play catch?” Tobias responded with mocking grin. Almost immediately Ishtar was there, smacking Tobias in the back of the head.
“Don’t be an ass,” she said as she brought her hand back down.
“Syed, that mitt had been given to someone early in their life but it was never used,” John started saying in his deep voice, “Think of all the games of catch that were never played, think of years of little league games, think about all the friends that could have been made, and think how that could have changed a life. Now think of all this potential built up over years but never used. That is something the Dvergr know how to tap into and it is a thing can be hard to find. So much of life is full of meaningless events and mere distractions. Things of true importance are what is required to make implements of real change.”