FREE Fiction Friday by David A Hill (Pt 3)
Have you readers been checking out Captives of the Spiral Trail by David A Hill? Yes? That’s awesome. Wait? I think I heard a “no” from somebody way in the back. Tsk Tsk. But you’re in luck! You can catch Part One here, and Part Two here.
Captives of the Spiral Trail
By: David A Hill
In stark contrast to the other mound, the inside of this place felt dry and dead. The lack of growth or moisture came as something of a relief to Will. It wasn’t death or the dead he feared, the brittle bones that snapped underfoot bothered him not at all – they’d been done for long ago.
Jack noted how Will held out his queer blue knife like a torch, or a talisman. It went as far ahead of its wielder as humanly possible and Jack almost swore the thing glowed with a radiance that somehow made the darkness easier to see through without actually lightening the gloom. Otherwise, wavering shafts of moonlight sneaking in through stone vents in the ceiling provided the only poor illumination in the tomb. At least, he assumed that’s what this was. It certainly had the feeling of one.
Carter, creeping along behind Jack, kicked a small urn that had a definite funerary look to it. The artifact fell over but did not break. Somehow, that was a relief. Of all the outlaws in the Turquoise Gang, only Carter had never committed any kind of heinous crime. He’d killed in self-defense and stolen from those who had taken what didn’t belong to them in the first place. What little honor he’d retained upon leaving the Army seemed reluctant to give up on him entirely. Muttering a vague apology under his breath to any remains resting within the urn, Carter bent down and righted the thing before continuing on.
Twitch passed Carter as the other man paused for something. Maybe he was scared – more scared than Twitch, at least. Hell, he’d bet only Jack weren’t scared. Maybe Will, but he doubted it. Jack was a stone-hard devil. They all knew it. Only thing they didn’t know was why this wasn’t Jack’s gang by now. Not that there was much of a gang left. Death was coming behind and waiting up ahead, most like. Still, had to go on. Had to go on for his little – his younger, brother. Weren’t much sense going back to momma empty-handed. Maybe not at all.
Twitch stopped in a feeble beam of moonlight and turned. Carter edged past him and disappeared into the dark. It hadn’t been him that said his name. Even Turq hadn’t known his real name.
Standing in even this weak light, Little Twitch could see very little outside the extent of the radiance. Something pale that bobbed toward him. A face. His brother’s face. Joy and relief flooded through the little man’s body. Everything was alright. Big Twitch was here and everything…was…
Big Twitch’s mouth opened and closed, like a puppet’s. The voice wasn’t his. It wasn’t hers either, but it sounded like a woman’s.
“Oh God,” the words tore forth from Little Twitch as a sob. As a plea.
His brother’s head slid from the slender woman’s hand and fell to the ground with a pulpy thud. She raised the hand to her face and sucked the fingers clean. She was made of moonlight, white and weightless, gliding just over the staring gelid eyes of Big Twitch. A woman, not a girl. Nude. Beautiful and horrifying.
Little Twitch cocked his revolver with one thumb that spasmed and missed more than once.
“Are you looking to kill yourself,” the woman’s voice fell suddenly low and rough, “or are you trying to find someone to do it for you?” She walked on her feet now, seemed more solid.
In a chamber some thirty feet behind Little Twitch, Will turned and asked, “Who the hell is Twitch talking to?”
Carter shrugged and turned to peer down the passage. He’d thought Twitch was right behind him. He was dazzled by the first gunshot. The second one did his vision no good either.
“You Devil-ridden whore!” Twitch’s voice shuddered through terror and full into rage.
Carter could hear footsteps pelting down the hall away from where he stood and strained to see anything at all. The musical grate of steel against steel told him Twitch had drawn his Bowie knife.
“Move yer prat, Cart’!”
Carter wanted to obey Will’s shouted command, but he couldn’t see where to go.
Ahead, Twitch’s steel clashed against another hard surface. Carter thought he saw sparks jump and fall in the murk ahead.
“Down!” yelled Will from just behind.
Carter threw himself onto his face and covered his head with one arm.
Lightning struck within the passage. Thunder rolled. Vision clearing, Carter rolled and stared up into the underside of Will’s turquoise-handled revolver. Snapping his arms back toward the tunnel, Carter sighted upside-down and squeezed the trigger of his own gun. He knew it was too late.
In the flash from Will’s shot and his own, Carter could see the corpse-pale woman tearing into Twitch with oversized claws trailing gore and viscera. Then all went dark and he spied nothing. Gurgling, feminine squeals of delight mingled in obscene cacophony with torturous shrieks of agony. Carter felt hot tears streaming down his face, then he felt someone ghost past him and out into the passage.
“Dammit Jack, get out of the way.”
Carter heard the words muttered soft and urgent behind him. He’d never heard such pleading in Will’s voice before and it nearly unmanned him. Vision returning, Carter forced himself to stand, back against the wall. He cocked his revolver.
Suicide Jack stood in the passage, straddling what remained of Little Twitch. He faced the monster that looked so much like a woman and drew a long shining blade from somewhere Carter couldn’t see.
“Lilith,” he said.
“Whitechapel Pup,” replied the monster. Her claws looked like they belonged on a bear and were far too large for her delicate hands. They still dripped and Carter could somehow hear each little splash with perfect clarity.
“Wolf enough to savage your pack.”
Carter sidestepped slow and soft along the wall of the passage, left arm held straight out at his side, pistol aimed at the monster Jack called Lilith.
“Where are you?”
Carter thought he’d heard Jack’s question wrong. Wasn’t she standing not fifteen feet in front of him? Had he gone blind?
Lilith pursed her lips. Her blatant disappointment was almost comical.
“You are a poor puppeteer,” added Jack. Moonlight flashed from the blade of the long knife as he turned his wrist. The reflection illuminated Lilith’s hellishly beautiful face for the briefest moment. She did not react.
“No pupil dilation,” observed Jack.
Lilith smiled. It was a tigerish grin.
“Carter,” hissed Will from within the chamber. “Get in here.”
Relieved to have reason to move away from the creature in the hall, Carter eased toward the vault.
That he was in a real vault was obvious right off. Carter stepped into the chamber and felt the strength of the place. The walls were bricked with visibly modern materials and skill. The floor was smooth and hard, like cement. A huge steel rectangle dominated the far wall, about twenty feet away. What he could see of the ceiling curved up and away in groined arches, also lined with sturdy brick.
Will knelt in front of a tall vase or urn of some kind, standing as high as a man upon a low pedestal of black marble. Patterns of dark red, black, and white were visible in horizontal bands across the surface. They were unclear to Carter’s eyes from across the dimly-lit chamber, but he was reminded of human figures. Will had sheathed his knife and touched the vase with his fingertips.
“Pandora’s Box,” he said in a trembling voice. He could feel movement within.
“You say so?” The thing sure didn’t look like a box to Carter.
“Translations aren’t always right. Professor said so in his journal.”
“Pandora’s Jar?” offered Carter.
“Pithos, or something like that.” Will stood up.
The great jar was topped by a simple lid and Will’s hand rose to rest upon the edge of it.
“Don’t,” Carter was surprised by the plea in his own voice.
Will said nothing. He stood utterly still. Carter could hear Suicide Jack speaking from the passage behind him, but made out no specific words.
“Open me,” said a little girl’s muffled voice from the jar.
Carter nearly swooned. Turquoise Will took a step back and lifted his pistol.
“Let me out,” said the little voice that somehow managed to ring both sweet and sinister at once.
“Say please,” replied Will as he trained his revolver more directly upon the center of the jar.
The girlish giggle that came next sent spider legs of ice skittering across Carter’s brain. The familiar sound that had heralded the terrible deaths of men he knew came most clearly from outside the jar.
A little smiling head framed by dark wavy hair, hands cupped around the mouth, peeked around from behind the tall urn with such suddenness that Carter fired a startled shot before he knew what was happening. The bullet glanced off the earthenware surface without leaving behind so much as a nick.
“Now mister, that’s not nice.” The child’s face ducked back behind the great jar.
Suicide Jack appeared in the doorway, revolver and long knife at the ready.
“What about Lilith?” demanded Will.
A heavy metallic CLACK cut off the reply Jack was preparing. Everyone looked toward the enormous door across the vault. A protrusion near the center of the portal spun halfway around in a clockwise circle. There came a CLANK. The door swung outward and flickering orange light poured in. A pair of figures stood silhouetted in the opening and two shotguns barked in unison.
A little girl shriek echoed through the vault. The jar rocked once and settled back into place. Both Will and Jack recognized the symbol that gleamed upon the breast of the right-hand figure.
The newcomers stepped into the vault and split to the left and the right. They fired again. Another high-pitched scream.
Suicide Jack dashed forward to crouch behind the massive jar next to Will. It was the only cover in the room. Carter dropped his gun and held his hands up. He stood that way for one or two pounding heartbeats before his nerve broke and he ran for the passage. Behind him, Carter could hear two rifles clatter to the floor. That’s when he nearly crashed into Lilith.
She no longer glided, nor did she stride with ethereal grace. The naked figure resembled a corpse in an advanced stage of decay and could only lurch forward in a drunken stagger. Utterly bereft of fortitude and standing empty-handed in the face of eldritch evil, Carter did the only thing he could – he spit in her eye.
A gunshot exploded in the confines of the passage and Carter was spattered with the unspeakable mess of the creature’s head and brains. The corpse toppled forward and Carter beheld the grinning froglike face of Sapito above a smoking revolver barrel.
The thunder of gunshots buffeted Carter’s back, like bursts of warm wind just before a summer downpour. Whatever came next, he doubted he’d find it refreshing.
“William Caulfield!” the voice of Sheriff Horn, resonating with far more authority than any of them remembered, called out across the vault.
There was no answer. Someone panted in the silence.
“Throw down your weapons and surrender yourself into the custody of the United States Government.”
So, thought Will, more than a small town sheriff. And the other looking like a U.S. Marshal. He must’ve been a real bad man, but darned if he could recall being that bad.
“Just what does the United States Government want me for, Sheriff – sorry, Agent Horn?”
“You are under suspicion of multiple murder and of robbery at the site known as the Kincaid Archaeological Dig.”
Will and Jack exchanged looks.
“And the marshal?” asked Will.
There was another prolonged silence.
“Marshal Talbot here has reasons and authority that are privileged information.” Even Horn’s voice contained a tinge of doubt.
For the next few moments Will wondered what had happened to the little girl and discussed the possibilities with Jack.
“Who in blazes is she, Jack?”
“Pandora.” There was no hesitation in the reply.
The Professor had written of Pandora in his journal. The cause of Mankind’s ills. The Biblical Eve of Ancient Greek legend. He had also written of something called the God of the Fecund Earth, a local deity of some sort. Those notes were on the same page as the scribblings about Pandora.
“Where did she go?”
Jack shrugged. “But she has to go into the jar.”
The government agent called out that he intended to deport Sapito and deliver him into the hands of authorities in South America somewhere for crimes he’d committed there. Suicide Jack, also known as Union Jack, was wanted for questioning and would be given to the marshal. Carter, as far as could be determined, was free to go.
Things were getting bad, and fast. Will’s eyes strayed upward as they often did when he was deep in thought. Then he saw her. The little girl-creature Jack called Pandora – clinging to the ceiling like a beetle. They locked eyes and Will’s breath caught in his throat. The sound made Jack glance to him – then to the ceiling. Pandora bared her teeth. Then she let go and plummeted toward to the floor. No – toward the jar.
Quick as a wary mongoose darting beneath the striking cobra, Suicide Jack lunged and snatched the lid off the top of the great urn. Pandora landed with tiny hands and feet gripping the lip of the opening, elbows and knees bent at impossible angles. Savage talons pushed forth from her fingertips and toes, grating against the earthenware surface. There was sudden panic in her eyes.
As he heard the sound of hammer striking against cylinder, Jack ducked down behind the jar. A gunshot sounded and Pandora jerked. Dark fluid spattered the top of the jar.
“Get her inside!” Jack shouted to Will.
Will reached to draw his knife. It wasn’t there. Something blue flashed at the edge of his sight and he turned to see the turquoise blade in Jack’s hand, slashing with uncanny precision across the little girl’s throat. A gout of dark fluid leapt out of the gash like an oil blowout from a well. Will caught the worst of it, reacting too late to keep it from his mouth and eyes.
Pandora tried to scream and succeeded only in a gurgling rattle that forced more syrupy black fluid from her throat and mouth.
Carter was watching Will and gaped in open-mouthed horror to see the black spew trickle toward his exposed skin like worms or tiny snakes and seep into his body. “Jack!” he shouted, pointing to his leader.
Suicide Jack tried to take in three or four situations all at once and left himself open to Pandora’s terrible claws. She raked the side of his head, taking part of the ear in passing. Though Jack managed a glimpse of Will’s predicament just before the strike, he seemed not the least surprised. Jack did seem taken aback when Will doubled over and began to retch with violent convulsions.
Two more shots from near the vault door slammed into Pandora’s small frame – then another from the passage.
“Señor Turq!” cried Sapito in stark anguish.
“Ghk-khirl you,” rasped Pandora as she lunged toward Jack.
The Englishman twisted away from Will to ram the blade of the turquoise dagger up under the girl’s chin and into her head. Leaving Pandora staring up at the ceiling in much the same way he and Will had but moments before, Jack tore the knife back out and backpedaled away from the jar. Spinning the knife in his hand, he held it poised to throw. He aimed his revolver with the other hand.
On hands and knees, Will heaved and retched but nothing would come. Sapito rushed to his friend but Jack called him off. The dark man jerked his head back and forth between his friend and his comrade, not knowing what to do. Then Will began to weep.
Tears of black filled his eyes then streamed down his face. They never fell, but spread out across his pallid skin. In a matter of moments, Turquoise Will was covered in gleaming black slime. He raised his head in a silent scream, mouth gaping wide and tearing with a wet pulpy sound that brought bile to Carter’s throat. The mouth expanded to fill the entire face until nothing else of Will’s features could be seen. He raised his arms, seemingly in supplication, and his hands sprouted identical maws, filled with chisel-like teeth of gleaming white. Sapito watched from behind as the same transformation took Will’s feet.
“Yana allpa,” whispered the dark man.
Carter had no idea what the words meant but the expression of terror and reverence in the tone was unmistakable.
Suicide Jack gripped the knife harder, recognizing the shape of the thing Will had become from the man’s own nightmarish account of his time in the Kincaid mound. The monster hadn’t just let Will go, Jack figured. The thing had possessed the man’s mortal frame, probably in an effort to escape its prison. For that’s what the mound had been. Not a tomb as white men had guessed. And this place was the same, but only through the intervention of the U.S. Government.
Will was growing into something huge and writhing, with hideous gaping mouths. The man was gone, leaving only the God of the Fecund Earth. Dammit, Jack thought, it had to be now.
With a yell born of pure mad despair, Jack burst into motion and threw himself atop the heaving black mass that had been Turquoise Will. A bullet splashed into the monster not a hand’s width from his knee. The thing was cold, but was growing warmer with each passing second. Mouthing a silent prayer that meant nothing to him, Suicide Jack plunged the blue stone dagger into the shape he remembered as Will’s head and left it there as he tumbled to the floor. Almost in his face, a great toothy mouth snapped shut. Jack threw his empty hand up in a reflexive gesture and felt a sharp hot pain lance through his arm.
A strong hand pulled Jack to his feet and dragged him back. He turned to face the man he knew as Sheriff Ben Horn. Behind him, Marshal Talbot emptied his six-shooter into the open maw that lunged his way. Jack could smell the powder from each shot, but the odors of copper and cedar were confusing to him. His arm throbbed with agony and he looked down to watch bright blood spurting from a glistening stump with every labored heartbeat.
“Good thing…” gasped Jack, “I’m ambidextrous.” He tried to laugh but came up only with a sob.
Ben Horn gripped him tighter and pulled him away.
The black horror that was Will had grown to almost the size of a horse, but no more. The knife stuck in the monster’s head seemed to have halted any further growth and, in fact, the thing seemed to be collapsing in upon itself.
“In the jar,” whispered Jack.
Ben nodded and wrapped his coat around Jack’s arm. “Keep pressure on,” he urged. Then he rushed to Marshal Talbot’s side.
Carter and Sapito were stuffing Pandora’s little thrashing body into the top of the urn. One of them had crammed an orange and white stone figurine into the girl’s mouth and Jack could only wonder how they had gotten Twitch’s good luck charm. Then he noticed the lid to the jar lying on the floor, the lid he had apparently dropped. The Seal of Solomon inlaid within the glazed surface in silver came as a pleasant surprise.
The marshal’s strange badge seemed to be keeping the snapping teeth of the black monster from taking his life or his limbs. Jack had recognized the Seal of Solomon at first glance and knew the symbol’s potency against the spawn of Lilith. A sigil of warding and of containment.
Half inside the great jar, Pandora thrashed and spat, but weakly. Seeming to have recovered her voice, she screamed a torrent of furious words in Lilith’s voice.
“What would you be without me? You heroes and you killers?”
Carter seemed stunned by this tirade and slipped for a moment in a puddle of steaming ichor.
“You kill my children for your own glory,” Pandora cried. “My Fenrir! My Grendel!”
With his left hand, Talbot pressed the barrel of his reloaded revolver against Pandora’s forehead.
Staring into the man’s eyes, she spat out, “My body! My blood!”
He pulled the trigger, blowing the back of her head out and silencing her ravings. “There’s your blood,” he said.
Carter and Sapito shoved her down into the jar.
The writhing black monster had diminished to about human size. Ben Horn was dodging snapping jaws and putting bullets where he could.
“Ben,” called Jack, lofting his own green and indigo figurine in a high arc as the agent turned. The carved piece of stone smacked into the man’s palm and his fingers closed around it.
Almost at the same moment, he tossed the figurine into one open maw with a flick of his wrist and Talbot spun his Seal of Solomon badge into another gaping mouth with a sidearm throw. The effect upon the monster was immediate and terrible. It thrashed worse than Pandora and convulsed harder than Will had near the end. Carter and Sapito tilted the great urn over on its side, the dark man had found the lid and held it ready.
The agent and the marshal herded the God of the Fecund Earth toward the opening with alternating shots from their pistols. Even Suicide Jack managed a few of his own, stepping in close with his features twisted in a rictus grin. And when the snapping, drooling horror had seeped fully into the jar, Carter and Sapito hefted the thing upright, then the dark man slapped the lid into place. The two of them backed away, watching the jar shudder a few times before settling into quiescence.
No one spoke. They all struggled to catch their breaths. Every man held at least one loaded firearm or rested a tense hand upon the grip of one. Agent Horn holstered his Colt, motioning Talbot to do the same. Sapito tended to Jack, who knelt on the floor with his face ashen and drawn. Later, an Army surgeon would bring Jack out of danger entirely.
In the end, atop the mound beneath the nooning sun, the three survivors of the Turquoise Gang parted ways with the representatives of the law.
“You’ve committed no crime that I know of in this country,” said Horn to Suicide Jack and Sapito.
“Will did not kill those people at the dig,” said Jack.
“Not as such, no,” agreed Talbot. “If he ends up a scapegoat when this is all over, it won’t be any of my doing.”
“Fair enough,” replied Jack. He could hear birds singing in the trees and the music was sweet as innocence to his ears.
“We go now?” Sapito asked.
“You’re free to go,” said Agent Horn.
“But I think we’ll meet again before long,” insisted the Marshal.
“That might not be a bad thing,” offered Jack.
“Not for the Lodge.” Talbot nodded once, then turned to head back to the fort. Horn followed.
When the two lawmen had disappeared down the other side of the mound, Carter turned to the others. “They’re really letting us go?”
Jack chuckled. “What would they take you in for? You mean are they letting me and Sapito go.”
“Okay,” agreed Carter, “what you said.”
“Yes,” said Jack, “looks that way.”
“I do have a question, if you’re willing.”
Jack raised one eyebrow.
Carter’s face became downcast. “What happened to Will down there?”
Versions of an explanation flickered behind Jack’s eyes. He finally settled on, “Will carried a monster with him for a long time and that monster was seeking others of its kind. Pandora’s Box contained some of those.”
I didn’t see anything in that jar when we had it open,” interrupted Carter.
“They were in there, believe me. They have to be called forth.”
“Must be a lot of room inside.”
Jack chuckled, “There is.”
Carter hesitated over his next question, “Did Will know what he was doing?”
The Englishman shook his head. Carter let out a sigh, but he still seemed pensive.
“Something else?” asked Jack.
“How did we get here, really?”
“Turns out we were all riding the Spiral Trail.”
“Never heard tell of that one.”
“A circular path that takes you inexorably to a fixed point of destiny. Fate. It’s a metaphor.”
“I think I get it. You saying you believe that guff?”
“Naw. Just thought it sounded like a good title for a story.”
Carter opened his mouth again. Jack raised an eyebrow.
“Was that fella really a marshal?”
“Why do you ask?”
Pointing to his own lapel, Carter replied, “The badge…just didn’t seem right.”
“Not for a U.S. Marshal perhaps, but perfectly suited to a Freemason.”
Both of the other men looked confused.
“Simply put,” continued Jack, “an organization of men set upon universal order and the application of secret symbolism to further their goals.”
“You one?” asked Sapito.
“Me?” the Englishman seemed taken aback. “No, I’m not. Though we seem to have one or two goals in common.”
Carter nodded, seemingly satisfied.
“What now?” Sapito asked.
“Now,” mused Suicide Jack, pulling a gleaming blue knife from inside his jacket and turning it so the blade threw off sunlight in sparkling glints, “we find us some dirty bad desperadoes and the Suicide Gang rides into Hell and back. Who’s with me?”
Big thanks to David A Hill for sharing this creepy tale with us. And thanks for reading!