After a quick breakfast Marxus had magically conjured, we packed our bags, then recovered the furniture with the sheets, leaving the house as we found it. Marxus replaced the key then strolled toward us as we stood in the open field.
“We’re not going to be taking the crafts the rest of the way.” Marxus said as he turned to everyone, “Grab what you can but leave the rest here. And make sure all of you carry a weapon...just in case.” then he turned, looking down at his watch noticing it was just a little after 8:00a.m.
We each carried a camping gear backpack along with our duffle bags of clothing and other personal items. Before starting the hike up the mountain, Marxus gave us all the new coats and boots he had bought; warmer and nicely styled in light colors of tan and light blue for the men and for Sarah and I...well, pink and purple. Before she had a chance, I grabbed dibs on the purple coat because there was no way in hell I was going to wear a hot Pink coat!
Sarah groaned but didn’t mind.
“Where’s the rest of the rainbow?” I teased.
“I bought what they had.” Marxus answered.
“Where are we going?”Sarah asked as she zipped up the coat, making her look like a pink marshmallow-peep.
“We’re going to be hiking up those mountains straight ahead.” he replied as he pointed toward a set of mountains straight ahead of us appearing closer than they really were, “They’re the Ben Nevis mountains and we should be there in four and a half hours. We’ll be following the hiker’s trail for a while, then side-step off, leading up and around the mountain.”
Everyone nodded in agreement for that was easy enough.
We began our trek toward the mountain.The weather at least, gave us a break.
Along the way Erik joked around, teasing me about my choice of color.
“Better to look like a grape, than a marshmallow-peep, huh Keeps?”
“Yeah? Well, I was hoping to be compared to a…never mind. And never mind me. Look at you. You look like a puffy cloud in that light blue coat.” I teased.
“Yeah? Well, I may look like a cloud…but I’m no angel sitting on it.”
“Oh…never said you were an angel.”
“Neither are you…demon girl.”
“Oh, you got that right. My mom says I have the face of an angel but the soul of a devil. So, next time there’s a fifty percent chance of rain…I’ll be looking for you.” then I walked ahead of him, shaking my head with a smile before pulling Zanz in, as his leash led him out too far.
“Oh…” he whispered, “you’ve got that right, love. But you also have the body of a…curvy Latina…woman…my type. Oh, f*** me sideways!” then he called out, “Hey, Jonathan…switch coats yeah?”
“Hell no, mate!” he joked with a smile, “Besides, Erik…” he paused, “it won’t fit you. You’re short for a vampire.” then he laughed.
Erik just walked on, as he pulled up his hood; hands in his pockets, hissing.
“Ha-ha!” Erik hissed.
Marxus2 walked along toward the back of the group, smiling as he enjoyed seeing everyone enjoy themselves.
Watching as Zanz enjoyed the hike, he breathed in all the fresh new scents. Focusing my gaze ahead, I watched as Marxus, dressed in his renewed white parka, walked alongside Thomas, Nathan and Anthony, leading our little party. Slowing down, Erik passed with a flirtatious smile as I turned making sure Sarah didn’t stray as she did nothing but complain as she walked alongside Jonathan behind me. It was then, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Strolling a few feet away, was Marxus, but yet it wasn’t. I squinted my eyes several times then turned focusing at the group ahead, seeing Marxus still walked with Thomas.
“What the…” I muttered, looking back once more.
Marxus2 smiled as he paused, then giving a two-fingered salute, he disappeared.
“Yza…” Jonathan inquired as he approached, “are you alright?”
“Yeah, but I could’ve sworn I saw Marxus…back there.” I replied as I pointed in the direction behind us, “But then…he’s up there with Thomas. I…” I rubbed my neck.
“Get enough sleep last night?” Sarah mumbled.
“Probably not.” I answered, then heard Marxus’ voice call out to hurry our pace.
Shaking my head, we walked on but I kept glancing back.
After an hour’s walk, we finally reached the base of the mountain where we could see the beginning of the zigzagged hiking trail.
We walked on for another two hours following the trail, when we rested, sitting on small boulders along the track. While resting, groups of hikers slowly and carefully descended down the path, commenting about how beautiful the view was from the summit point. They smiled as they passed, giving friendly morning wishes to fellow hikers. They cautiously swerved around Zanzs’ large bulk, never seeing such a magnificent creature.
Resting for thirty minutes, we grabbed water and beef jerky Marxus had purchased. Jonathan and Erik sipped their liquid diet from their thermoses.
“Everyone, let’s get going.” Marxus urged as he stood ready to go.
We nodded, continuing our climb for another two hours. Thomas asked as he walked alongside Marxus, watching as we walked ahead of them,
“Exactly where are we going, Marxus? Not another cannibalistic town, I hope.”
“No, Thomas. The place we’re going to is just at the midsection of this mountain.” Marxus replied as he too watched us walk ahead, “We should be there soon. Don’t worry, Thomas.”
“It’s not me, I’m worried about. It’s the young ladies. You’re not going to put them in danger again, are you?”
“They’ll be fine. Now stop being such a doubting Thomas.” Marxus joked as he sped up his pace ahead.
Thomas tilted his head, watching as Marxus placed his hands in his pockets.
Even though the granite rock trail and mountain was slip proof, there were occasions where Sarah stumbled on rocks almost causing her to lose her balance, falling on the jagged trail. I too, lost my footing occasionally but had more support as Zanz slowly pulled me up the path, watching where he placed his feet as well. Fortunately even though he hated them, leather booties protected his pads from the rough terrain.
Finally, we hit a point along the trail where Marxus instructed us to veer off the path, leading around the other side of the mountain where our destination was located. Again, the mountain’s terrain provided several difficulties for Sarah and I, but we managed, as we carefully watched our footing. Sloping in various places made it challenging on our legs but then led up a steep ridge.
“Ugh…won’t this end?” Sarah complained.
“Nope.” I answered, breathing heavily, “Builds muscle though.”
“F*** that!” she argued, “Besides, aren’t you muscular enough?”
“Naturally, but thanks.” I snapped.
“Mm, I like natural muscularity. Especially when it’s feminine.” Erik teased as he passed, winking.
“Not too bad yourself. Especially when it’s masculine.” I too teased, watching the perfect view from behind.
Sarah rolled her eyes as she glanced away.
Suddenly at the very top hidden at an angle almost invisible, Marxus revealed we arrived. A large cave opening appeared before us in and around the side of the mountain, behind huge chunks of rock.
When we reached the cave’s entrance, it was massive and naturally carved out. As we stepped inside, it was wide enough to fit several single tents. The walls were roughly cut of the same granite rock, but as the cave veered further back, I could see the color become lighter, almost brown; tinged with yellow. The ground too, was uneven and our feet echoed as we stepped. Along either side close to the walls, were natural stone platform protrusions; slightly raised. It felt cold and damp as we glanced around. The cave led far back and where that led, I didn’t want to find out. Everyone laid their bags down resting for an hour.Glancing down at my I-pod’s screen, the time was now a little after 12:30p.m. I asked Marxus if we were going to investigate the cave today or tomorrow but he told me there was still enough time in the day but there was only one catch; I’d have to go it alone for it was my quest.
“I’m sorry…what!? You’ve got to be kidding me!?” I objected, “Why do you keep putting me through these dangerous situations? They never end up well if you haven’t noticed. And it’s dark in there. How do I know what’s even in there!? Something else that wants to eat me!?”
“And there she goes...again.” Erik added, “Besides…you’ll be a tasty little…grape.”
Everyone laughed, including myself; except Nathan who let out a low tsk.
“Hush now, everyone.” Marxus affirmed, “Now, now Little One…”
Gazing at Marxus I asked,
“What’s it going to be, this time!? A giant spider or...or…a cave troll!?”
“No. It’ll be neither of those things.” Marxus said, “Nothing alive.”
“Nothing alive!? Oh, now that makes me feel better!” I snapped sarcastically.
Everyone shook their heads growing smiles on their faces.
“Yzavela…” Marxus replied, “there are traps inside, that might be dangerous and…
“Might be dangerous!?” I questioned, “So, you’re not sure!?”
“They’ll be difficult to get by, but you’ll figure them out, I’m sure.” Marxus continued calmly,“You’re very resourceful and attentive, which is a big plus. But, take the map with you, as well as the compass. They’ll guide you through.”
“A map and a compass will guide me through…right. Why not a sword!? No...of course not.Any volunteers?” I looked around at everyone, “No? Anyone? And why the urgency, Marxus to get this done…TODAY!?”
“I’m sorry, Little One but you must go it alone.” Marxus revealed, “And yes…today.”
“Yeah, there’s no way I’m going in there alone. I refuse!” I answered, “After the town with no name? No freaking way!”
Marxus sighed; disappointed yet understanding then asked who would volunteer, just to appease the tension.
“Just one.” he muttered.
Nathan stepped forward, raising his hand volunteering to come and what for, I haven’t the slightest idea, but all I could think of is that his agenda wasn’t a good one. Anthony too, offered his service but not knowing the full extent of his head injury, Thomas stepped in and interfered. Erik and Jonathan then spoke up, both volunteering, but Jonathan thought Erik would be the better candidate knowing there was something going on between Erik and I, so Erik it was.
Marxus himself even agreed.
Nathan scoffed and still unable to speak, walked away kicking small rocks around his feet, then sat on a boulder. He puffed away on his cigarette thinking to himself, “OH...IF I COULD ONLY SPEAK RIGHT NOW. AND…WHY THE F*** AM I HERE, IF I DON’T WANT TO BE HERE…AND NO ONE ELSE WANTS ME HERE!?”
Before Erik and I entered the cave, Marxus handed me the pendant from around his neck and a solid gold coin with a Raven engraved on one side, informing me it would be useful somewhere along the way. Noticing my concern for Zanz’s safety, Thomas removed a sturdy steel stake from his bag, explaining it could be used to keep Zanz secured, preventing him from being put in harms way.As I spoke with Zanz, Thomas anchored his chain leash to the stake and although he didn’t like it, he obeyed; whining as I strolled toward Erik.
Removing our heavier coats revealing our lighter under jackets, we laid them nearby. We grabbed high beamed flashlights shining them into the cave’s abyss as we entered. The width of the passage, was large enough for a double-decker English tour bus.
As we ventured in deeper, the entrance behind us seemed to disappear.
Walking ahead of Erik looking at the map and around at the cave’s walls, Erik listened as my heart beat raced indicating fear. Trying to lighten the moment and feeling a bit uneasy himself, he commented jokingly,
“Keeps…your heart’s racing. Afraid of the dark and being alone with a vampire?”
“No, I’m…not afraid of the dark, and you volunteered.Remember? And besides, I’d rather be in a cave alone with a cave bat, than be here with a wolf.” I replied, keeping my eyes on the map and the path ahead.
“Uh-huh. Besides, I trust you.”
Erik nodded as he slowed his pace, while I walked on then caught up.
“Which way?” he wondered.
“Straight ahead, according to the map.” I revealed.
Nothing but dead silence except for our breathing, footsteps and the faint buzzing emanating from the flashlights.
On the map a black X suddenly appeared, followed by some kind of crossed arrow symbol, with a riddle that etched itself beneath it which read:
WHAT IS METAL...ISN’T A STONE...YOU’LL HAVE THE TIME...GO THROUGH IT ALONE.
Since Erik couldn’t read the map, I relayed the riddle. We remembered what Marxus had said about traps being set. Shining the flashlights ahead, we approached the first one just as the map said it would; revealing an iron gate stretched across the path from wall-to-wall. Stepping on a loose stone, I moved my foot; triggering the gate to swiftly open outward, slamming against the stone walls, embedding themselves with massive spikes on their surface.
Erik and I jumped back, avoiding shards of slate as they ejected from their place. Cautiously, we waited making sure the gates had finished their purpose before moving on. However, the gate was only part of the first trap. Unforeseen iron crossbow-bolts with what looked to be blades on the tips, projected across our path from one wall to the other.
Falling to the ground as they hit the other side continuing to chip away at the slate, they rotated and reloaded within the walls. Now this is the hardest part to explain. There were six rows following the depth of the passageway; at least sixteen feet ahead, shooting out bolts horizontally, with a two and a half foot space in between each row. They crossed in an interlocking pattern; three second pause in between each row.
I stood there trying to figure out the sequence, watching the bolts eject from well hidden holes on both sides. Erik asked as he stood behind me leaning in to whisper in my ear,
“What are you doing?”
Forgetting he was there momentarily, I jumped when I heard his voice. I turned, giving him a slight push backwards and replied,
“Are you trying to give me a heart attack!? You’re lucky I didn’t flip you in there or bye-bye Erik!”
“Sorry.” he held his hands up, “I was just asking because staring at them won′t make them stop you know, Keeps.”
“I know that, Vamps.” then I turned my attention back onto the obstacle before us, studying the sequence again, revealing the pattern to Erik who took notice for himself.
Unfortunately, I thought about crawling underneath, but there was a foot and a half space only a child or animal could squeeze through without getting cut by the blades. After explaining to him, I asked if Erik could somehow transport us to the other side but he said that he was already feeling the effects from the heavy iron content inside, limiting his abilities; leaving us no choice but to go through. And come to think of it…so was I.
“Stay close to me and try not to get yourself killed.” I said, “We’re not slate walls that just chip away.”
“No kidding, so is this close enough?” Erik replied as he stood directly behind me leaning in slightly.
I could feel his breath on my ear and neck knowing he wanted to take a bite.
“Yeah...that’s too close.” I turned, gently pushing him back, staring into his beautiful gray eyes. God...this guy is gorgeous!
He stood with a smile knowing that bit-by-bit, his vampire allure WAS beginning to affect me.
I turned back around, exhaling, for he momentarily caught my breath. Waiting for the first set to pass, I ran through then stood and waited, went through the second set, paused again, then for the third set and so forth; until making it through to the end. Bolts managed to scratch my arm and cheek, leaving only a slight cut, but nothing major. Erik followed after, making it through with minor cuts as well on his arms and legs.
“It’s nice to know you care about me, Keeps.” he said, “And damn it…these were my favorite jeans.”
“Well, of course I care. You’re my friend.” I replied, “Now are you okay?”
“No, I’m fine. I’ll heal. How about you?”
“Just my face and arm, but I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure? Let me see.” he gently checked my face; paper cut-like scratch on my cheek and when examining my arm, things became intensely awkward.
As he stood there staring at the cut on my arm, I looked up at his face noticing his True Self replaced his normal features as he smelled the scent of fresh blood. I’m in a cave with a vampire. Things couldn’t possibly get any more complicated. Even though I trust him so far, it was still hard for me to grasp that I’m friends with vampires. They are what they are, no matter what they drink.Even though Erik might not mean to, he could still lose himself right here. Frightening thought.
“Erik?” I said as I gently pulled my arm away, “Erik!”
“Hmm?” he replied as he looked at me shaking his head, retracting his fangs and changing his eyes back to their normal gray color, “I’m sorry. What happened?”
“Nothing really. But were you just thinking about...you know...blood or whatever?”
“Yes, I had a moment. Sorry. It’s a vampire thing. But if I didn’t care about you so much I would’ve been tempted to have a taste.” then he closed his eyes, taking in a deep breath regaining his composure, “Here. Let me wrap your arm, love.” he gently reached for my arm.
Examining the wound and noticing it wasn’t too deep, he tore the bottom of his shirt, wrapping it around the sleeve of my light jacket. I know. Very typical but in most cases, it’s the only situation on hand. There isn’t a first aid kit available.
“Thank you. I hope you didn’t ruin another expensive shirt.” I teased, lowering my arm.
“Technically, you ruined the first one.” he joked, “Flailing your arms and all.”
“I…was dancing. Not flailing. And you weren’t watching where you were going. Carrying a cup with no lid and all.” I turned walking away, “Are you coming?” I glanced over my shoulder.
“Oh yeah, I’m coming.” he replied as he followed, apologizing again then changed the subject,“So...Vamps, huh?”
“Well…you call me Keeps.”
“I like it. Better than jackass.”
“Well if the fang fits.”
We laughed as we continued walking forward when the map etched another black X with a flame symbol; riddle beneath it reading:
ON THE SIXTEENTH STEP...YOU’LL FIND A WALL...BE WISE AND STEP QUICK...FOR A PLACE TO CRAWL.
Proceeding further, I commented we should watch our footing and count our steps, knowing another trap could spring out at any moment and sure enough, after fifteen steps, Erik took one extra step on a loose stone activating trap number two. We heard a loud series of noises; cogwheels and mechanical springs coming to life. And sure enough, it did just that.
“Erik...what did you step on?” I asked nervously.
“I don’t know, but it didn’t sound good did it?” he removed his foot. “Bloody hell!”
“You think?” I looked at him.
Along the ground there was a one foot trench dug into the stone floor, where sparks of flame began their journey into becoming a full fledged flame. However, they didn’t quite ignite fully at first, as we stared into the trench, gazing upon a pilot light-like row of flame.
“Is that it?” I stared, “I mean…wow. It’s so…big and menacing.”
Abruptly without warning, straight across our path both ahead and behind us, from wall-to-wall, flames burst into full ignition creating walls of fire; deeper shade of orange almost red. They grew until reaching full potential of six feet high. Erik and I stepped back falling to the ground backwards avoiding the fire behind us, watching as the flames roared, spitting their embers. We could feel the intense heat on our faces as the flames danced across our path. Erik sped to his feet from the ground holding his hands out.
“Thank you.” I accepted his help then reached down retrieving the map and flashlight, placing the map in my pocket so it didn’t catch fire.
“Delayed reaction, but there they are.” Erik studied then glanced down at the ground where small sparks behind us, ignited another trench that burst into another wall, “Uh, Keeps…we have a problem.” he warned.
“You think.” I feared, watching as another trench ignited ahead of us.
It took time before the next rows ignited, giving us plenty of time of how we would get out of this. We examined the slate walls noticing they were too smooth and slick to climb up and over; no cracks, ridges, cutouts, nothing. Damn slate!
“What are we going to do!?” Erik asked; hands on his hips in a masculine gesture, feeling the heat of the flames. He didn’t sweat but wiped his head nonetheless.
“I don’t know.” I replied as I examined the flames, “But don’t stand too close. I don’t want to leave your ashes here.”
“Never thought about my death before but that’ll be a crappy way to go.” he sighed, “But we need to hurry. I’m beginning to feel the effects of all the iron ore.”
“Same here. Maybe not as extreme, but the demon part of me is feeling it too. Ugh.” I answered, wiping sweat from my forehead. “Damn you Marxus!” I yelled.
“If only we had a water source of some sort.” Erik observed.
“That’ll be nice and way too easy, but I don’t think these traps are meant to be. So, I think we need to start looking around for a lever or switch that’ll turn off the flames.” and after that remark, another trench ignited, “And we need to find it fast!”
“You don’t think this could be Greek fire, do you? Because throwing water on it, would be the end of us. Boom.” Erik revealed as he gestured his hands in an explosive gesture.
I chuckled because he was so damn cute and his personality was just so awesome.
“You’re right. And please stop being so damn cute.”
“Well, maybe…you can just walk through it.”
I stared at him, confused.
“Really?” I asked, “I may be a fire demon, but to what extent…I don’t know. And let’s just say I can walk though this fire, hmm? What are you going to do? You’d still be on the other side. And besides, if my clothes burn…I’d be naked.”
Erik thought for a moment.
“Ooo…mental image very good, Keeps.” he teased, studying me up and down.
“Focus…on that!” I snapped, pointing at the fire obstacles.
Nothing to say, he shrugged as we parted to opposite walls, giving them a quick once over searching for crevices or clues but we found nothing.
“Nothing over here!” I hollered out as I wiped my forehead with my hand due to the heat coming from the flames.
“Over here!” Erik called out over his shoulder, “I found something!”
I ran over as he pointed toward a small tunnel opening that was very difficult to see at first; well hidden and tucked away at an angle.Just large enough for us to crawl through. I asked as I flashed my light inside,
“Where do you think it leads?” I turned, looking up at Erik, “Do you think it’s another trap?”
“At this point, I don’t think we have a choice. It’s better than sitting around.” he replied as he too flashed his light inside.
I suggested to go first but he volunteered to go in my place, that way if there was anything on the other side, he’d be the first one to encounter it. I knew he could handle himself perfectly but I didn’t want him getting hurt.
“Be careful, Erik.” I pleaded, “Please…you’re weak.”
“You can’t get rid of me that easy. I’ll be fine.” he encouraged with a wink.
“Be careful of rats.” I joked.
His expression changed; disgruntled.
“Rats? That’s not funny.”
“It’s true. There’s one right…right there.” I jokingly pointed.
“Bloody hell…where!?” he cursed, as he searched and seeing nothing, he knew I was messing with him, “Not funny, love.” he continued as he crawled inside, inching his way on his elbows, disappearing from sight.
Pacing, I glanced down at my watch taking notice he’s been in there for a little over five minutes. He needed to hurry for two more rows had ignited, leaving the center left to spark. I sweated profusely as I pulled on the neckline of my jacket and undershirts. I panted from the heat, trying to catch my breath when after another two minutes, I finally heard his voice call out,
“Keeps...over here!” and following his voice, I peeked through the flames, barely seeing him standing on the other side waving, “Go ahead and squeeze through. It’s a bit tight, but you’ll make it. I’ll be here on the other side to greet you.”
Relieved, I crawled inside avoiding the jagged rock along the opening. Squeezing through,the last row had ignited, creating a brief burst of flame that almost caught my boots aflame. I bent my knees, pulling my feet away from the opening then focused ahead. Erik was right about the tight fit. But, he also forgot to mention the tunnel wound around in a slight S shape.
Erik paced; eyes and flashlight focused on the opening, until catching the beam of my flashlight, followed by my hands. Tucking his flashlight under his arm, he held his hands out, again gently pulling me out and up on my feet close to him.
“Glad to see you made it.” he joked, “Any rats?”
“Ha ha, very funny.” I replied as I gently pushed him away, “And no. But a very flirty bat. Now, why didn’t you tell me it wound around?”
“Must have slipped my mind. Besides, you didn’t ask.”
“Uh-huh.” I squinted.
We examined the area, when Erik mentioned there was another tunnel leading away from the flames; pretty narrow, causing us to walk single file.
“Oh, great. More tunnels.” I mumbled.
“What’s in this one, I wonder?” Erik added.