One after another, they came. Humanoid prints that punctured holes into the shin-deep snow. The Constable blew warm breaths into the material of his overcoat. Sudden pulses of wind cut through every layer he wore. The frozen blanket of white laid smooth along the river’s bank, arching upward among a cluster of pines. The creature’s trail led him near the trees and then twisted off up a steeper incline, disappearing in wind-swept drifts.
He stopped on the mountaintop. The prints faded toward the mouth of the mines in the shallow snow. The Constable turned back toward the faint twinkle far below. He squinted as he trained his focus on an undulating mass of silhouettes near the village gates.
“All for one gem.”
He rubbed the brittle skin on his hands together. Little sensation returned. He blew a warm cloud of steam between them and strode into the throat of the mountain. The Constable halted at the border between shadow and dusk.
Lust for sparkle and gem nearly killed me the last time I was in here.
He surveyed the jagged walls and veins of the cavern. Here and there, a faint twinkle caught his eye.
“No.” He pivoted on his left foot. “There’s got to be another way.”
Somewhere in the depths, the monstrosity howled.
“Take your gem and your creatures and go straight to Hell.”
He pulled a weathered lantern from its hook in a post and fished around a coat pocket for his flint strike. He huddled it against the gusts from outside, opened its door, and lit the blackened wick protruding from the stained waxy tooth at its base. As he strode past, the Constable held his dancing flame at arm’s length near a wall of stone. Strips of ore sparkled. He moved closer, licking his cracked lips.
“Just a little while. We could hammer out a few stone’s worth and no one would know.”
The lawman studied the marbling in the raw stone.
We gave this up for good reasons.
He spat into a shallow puddle. “Bah! You’re weak.” He ran a few fingers over the precious ore. “Could take this into the city and get a pretty purse of coin.”
Once you start you can’t get enough.
As he turned, his eyes caught another twinkle farther down. He covered the space in a flash, inspecting the new vein of green ore. “Emerald. Opal.” He ran a hand over his face. “Damn. There’s a fortune in here.”
Remember what we did the last time. The secret.
“A secret that will remain buried under this mountain!”
Dead and gone.
The Constable took fast strides down a shallow slope, stopping at a pale wooden handle protruding from a hummock of sod and rock. He fished the instrument from the hummock and held the rusty pickaxe at eye level in his light.
“There ya are, old girl.” He moved the lantern next to its tip. “Been too long.”
He lowered the tool to his side and walked up to a huddled set of bones against the wall. He set the iron point of his pickaxe into an angular crater in the breastbone of the leather tunic. A perfect fit. He moved it to a similar one in the side of the stained skull.
“Dead and gone.”
A faint howl jarred him from his nostalgic visit. “Good to see you again, Tervus.” He slung the pickaxe over a shoulder and moseyed in the direction of the creature. “I’d stay and chat a while, but duty calls.”
A lengthy walk around a few turns and deeper down led him into a miniature village. Tiny one-room huts hewn from the stone. Narrow paths served as streets. A stack of wooden barrels of jerky with a lantern on top served as the town square.
He turned his lantern, spinning its larger cone of light onto the brand on the barrel: Tervus Beal & Company.
“You wanted too much too fast, old friend.”
Old etchings on the side of his lantern caught his eye. He pulled the light source nearer. “Sixteen, forty-seven, twelve.” Etched into the metal with a knife.
His mind raced through an ancient catalog of information. A grin consumed his face. “That’s right.” He sneered back up the path. “You sly bastard.”
The monster roared once again.
He hurried along the path until it came to a three-way intersection. As he turned to the right, he barreled into the petite feminine form of the Cleric. “You.”
She stepped back, her lips parted. “What are you doing here?”
The Constable sized up the man at her side.
“It’s all right.” She glanced over the lawman’s shoulder for any other intruders. “I revived him. He’s with us.”
The Stranger’s gaze lit up at another scream from the monster. “No time for pleasantries. We need to find that one before it alerts the others.”
The Constable nodded. “Spotted the horde moving through the village gates on the way in.”
The Stranger backed away from his lantern on the way around the lawman. “Sounds like they’re coming from back up your direction.”
The Constable glanced behind them and nodded.
The Cleric started off up the path from whence her neighbor came. “Then, that’s where we’re going.”
He trailed behind them taking special care not to shine his light on the sins of his past. The Cleric and her newfound interest stayed close with weapons drawn. Back through his village, up around the bends and turns, and back up the flights of steps.
“This place is incredible.” She stopped at a vein of opal, tracing it with a finger.
A low growl from the pinpoint of light in the distance.
The Stranger darted off after it. “No time to waste.”
The trio caught up with the creature near the mouth of the mines. Two more of its ghoulish companions had joined it. The Constable took quiet steps to the Stranger’s side. The unusual man sniffed the crisp air.
The lawman glanced at the Cleric. “What is it?”
The Stranger’s brown nostrils pulsed. “These are pure.” He turned to face the Constable. “They were not once humans.”
The Constable unsheathed his sword.
“Go for their heads,” the Stranger said, inching into the snow. “Decapitation is the one guaranteed way to kill them.”