The air became thinner, and colder, the farther north he flew. A few times Marcus had stopped to rest his wings but then she called again, Come to me! Every time she called, the calls got more urgent. There were a few times that she called on him so loud that he could actually feel his heart being pulled from his ribcage which, in turn, would cause his nose to bleed. Not just a little nosebleed either, but a gusher. He found it a little odd that he liked the taste of his own blood. The closer he got to her voice, the louder she became, and the colder it would get. He was flying blindly in snow a few times that he was silently hoping he was heading in the right direction.
Far below his advantage point in the sky, he heard popping and banging noises. Once in a while he would witness a flare of sorts reaching for the stars. He thought, at first, that someone was shooting at him. Then he realized there was an event going on. He thought about the holidays that had passed – American holidays – and soon established that it was the beginning of a New Year, and the people below were in the midst of their celebrations. Bringing in the New Year didn’t belong solely to the United States, and neither did Christmas. It never occurred to him, until now, that he had completely missed the holiday season. It was his favorite time of the year. He started tasting the phantom eggnog on the back of his tongue as his taste buds were reminiscing the holiday treat. He didn’t receive a present this year. That thought made him a little sad, although, he didn’t fork out any cash to buy anyone anything either. Glass half full, he thought as he flew farther to the north.
Was it his imagination, or was it getting darker? Was it possible that the further you get away from civilized places and busy towns, it just got really dark? But I’ve always been able to see in the dark, he thought. And then the whispering started. It was low and slow at first, but then his flight path got darker and blacker and noisier. The words that compounded the whisper was sort of familiar to him, yet he didn’t understand the words completely. Just a repeated syllable here, and a recognizable word there. To put it all in a complete and useful sentence was out of the question. If he didn’t know any better, he would have guessed his black mist was cloaking him from danger. However, he was pretty intimate with his mist. He knew this was not his black mist. And if it wasn’t his black mist, then whose was it?
Relax. My Shroud will bring you to me.
The lady’s voice was saturating his entire head. He could feel her words melt into his eardrums, and leak out of his eye sockets. He did as he was told; he relaxed. He had heard her call the mist “her Shroud”. That is a great name for it. I think I’ll call my black mist “The Shroud”. It sounds so ominous, he thought as he was gently lowered into the town square below. Sokara’s Shroud carried Marcus to the open space directly in front of a three-story building. Snow had piled up on top of the sign jutting quaintly out over the street to announce this was “Rață Mort”…or…”The Dead Duck”. Marcus assumed he translated the sign easily because of the picture of the duck on the sign with X’s for eyes, but the fact was – he translated the sign easily. He knew right away that the words were in Romanian and that beyond the cold, dark brown doors lay a pub. He could smell the faint scent of whisky, malt, and barley. He inhaled the mixture of fresh snow from the outside and unwashed floors from the inside. There had once been a fight, or so he thought, because he tuned into the odor of blood – perhaps a week old – that had absorbed into the street just to the right of the doorway, and now buried beneath the flakes of nature’s white powder.
Marcus stood up, and attempted to brush the snow off of his legs. It was a constant struggle since the snow was continuously falling from the sky. Again – Marcus noticed that he was not wearing any clothing, yet he was not cold. At home in Nebraska, when the weather dipped into the forties, he had to wear three layers of clothing to ward off the chills. As he scanned his surroundings, he had noticed he was the only one out in public. There wasn’t a soul walking the streets, there wasn’t a light burning in any window that he could see. No one was looking from behind the curtains to inquire who the new guy with the black wings was out in the snow. He figured if anyone asked, he would just tell them, “I’m the goddamn Batman.” He giggled at that thought. He found it ironic that he and Dice would always argue over who was stronger – Batman or Superman. Dice always stood up for Batman while Marcus chose Superman. And now, literally, here he stood; a man that happened to look like a bat. Life comes at you from different angles, he thought as he heard the squeak of the Dead Duck’s pub door opening.
He watched as the wind had caught a puff of the snowflakes that found their way on the sidewalk enter the now-open pub door as if they were invited in, but were being kept out in the cold on purpose. They swirled in a counter-clockwise motion around a pair of bare, dirty feet. There was so much dirt packed in between each toe that he was sure potatoes could be grown in between each digit. Snow was softly pelting his face as he scanned further up the body, noticing the simple white dress adorned with a dirt stain here and a sweat mark there. He noticed breasts, although small, were forcing the front of the dress to jut out from the rest of the body. There were no other accessories to this thin material. It was a plain, white dress. It would have looked like a sheet had been sown to create this frock, but it was too thin to be a sheet. He could almost see right through the dress to the dark patch of hair bedecking her womanhood. His eyes made it to her face. The shadow from the door jamb was covering the top half, but her lips were the most perfect set of lips he’d ever laid eyes on. He immediately wanted his lips to be in contact with those lips. There was no makeup or lipstick on her face. Her mouth was the ideal shade of red for her complexion. Her nose wasn’t big, nor was it small. It was perfectly set to the north of those perfect lips. Her eyes were lavender. Not like his eyes; his eyes were light lavender. Her eyes were more piercing. Stronger somehow, and there was something hidden beneath them. Something like an innocence that had been stripped by the greatest evil imaginable.
She broke the silence by saying, “Urmați-mă, Marcus,” through those perfect lips of hers.
Marcus knew that she said, “Follow me,” in her native tongue. How he understood the language still baffled him. She turned, left the door ajar for him to follow her. He watched as her thin white covering shifted to and fro to dance in joy to her cadence. Her black hair was laced with curls set perfectly apart on each dark strand. Her hair was bobbing up and down in rhythm with her gait. Her bare feet were leaving their imprint on the dusty floor as she headed through a long hallway located behind, and to the right, of the bar. He looked down the long hallway to see nothing, and no one. He smelled blood, though – a lot of it, especially coming from behind the bar. There had been some sort of altercation in the not-too-distant past. The sign over the long hallway indicated the “Rise and Shine” was located through the passage. He was in Romania, his immediate speculation was that the “Rise and Shine” was a sort of hostel; a bed and breakfast, and at one point he was right. This was a hostel. But not like any hostel he had ever seen before in his entire existence.
When he took the right turn to follow the young lady down the long corridor, the scent of freshly dug earth filled his nostrils. The building he was now traversing was not new, so he surmised there was not a new excavation here. His past in archaeology had given his sense of smell a purpose. He immediately knew the smell was uncovered dirt, not dirt that had been built upon. There was a lower level to this building. He caught up to the girl in the white dress where she stood in a doorway. The door had been unlocked and opened. Yet when he looked at the old wooden door, there were no locks to speak of, unless you count the deadbolt above the doorknob. He stepped onto the first stair beyond the door. His vision didn’t take too long to focus on the lack of light on the old staircase. There were no railings to assist anyone either going down, or coming up, the stairs. The entire staircase consisted of fourteen stairs and a brick wall on either side. He touched the wall to get his balance on the slabs of old wood that seemed like they would not hold one person, much less two. She in the white dress squeezed past him to go back up the stairs forcing him to the fourth and then fifth stair respectively. She closed the door and locked the deadbolt, and then proceeded to lock the numerous locks on the inside of this mysterious basement. Marcus was wondering why the locks would be on the inside of the door and not the other side. The locks were meant to keep something from coming in. When the door was properly locked, it boasted five separate locking mechanisms, not including the lock within the doorknob itself. The girl had a key to all of the locks in her hand since she had no pockets to speak of in that dress of hers. Now Marcus understood what she had briefly reached for behind the bar proper – the keys to all of the locks. The smell of dirt and fresh soil was coming from whatever lay below this stairwell, and it was getting stronger with every step.
When the girl finished with the locks, she flipped a switch beside the door that illuminated the stairwell and flicked on lights on the floor below. The smell of earth was still potent, but was now mixed with other earthy smells such as dust and mold. There was also the pertinent smell of wine. When Marcus took the last step to touch the cold flooring, he understood why he smelled wine. This was the pub’s wine cellar. There were cobwebs in every corner. The small window space had been covered to perhaps keep out the cold and the light. She led him down a corridor of wine casks and shelves with empty bottles. He followed her, even though she hadn’t said a word during the entire tour. She stepped aside, turned around to face Marcus and then pointed to an alcove with a crude door that was no taller than his knee caps. Was he expected to crawl inside that little niche’?
“I am to crawl in there?” he asked the girl in the white dress.
“Da,” she said as she waved her hand at the doorway like she was a model displaying a prize on one of those game shows they play on daytime television.
He squatted down and looked into the dark recess. There was absolutely no light in there. He figured the alcove to be about ten feet wide by ten feet in length. There was room to stand up, but barely. He tucked his black wings tightly behind him and did a duck walk into the alcove. She entered behind him and then pointed to the hole that had been burrowed in the middle of the recessed room. A ladder had been sticking up just a few inches from the hole. He figured this was what he was to use to climb down even farther into the hole. Marcus never feared climbing into a hole. Ever since he could remember – he wanted to be an Archaeologist. He’s been on a few excavations before and he’s usually followed the relief map. This time, he was going on instinct. His thoughts were random. He thought about the pyramids in Egypt. He thought about his brother, Dice, and he building storm cellars in the backyard. He thought about how there was no going up since the door was secured with locks, so the only sensible solution would be to go down.
And down he went.
The temperature spiked a good forty degrees the farther he went down the ladder. It wasn’t until he hit the eighth step that he was met with a very wide open space.
“Someone has been very busy down here!” he whispered as he took a pause to soak in the spectacle that was below him.
The ladder was on the south wall of a very, very large mausoleum. No…It was beyond a mausoleum. What he was looking at was a church.
“Holy cow,” escaped his lips as he climbed further down. When he touched the ground level, he held the ladder for the girl in the white dress as she made her descent; all the while he desperately tried not to look up her dress. He did notice, however, that underwear was not a part of her uniform on this day.
His eyes adjusted to the complete lack of light in the mausoleum. Movement up above his head, all along the ceiling of the dug-out structure, was actual people hanging upside down from their toes. Their clothing was torn to shreds and dirty as if they’ve been working in the fields all day. Hell…all year. As he took a better look around his surroundings, he realized this wasn’t a simple catacomb; he was standing in a very impressive grotto. This was on a grander scale than any grotto he’d ever visited. He’s been in a few caverns in his time due to archeological trips, but there was nothing as large as this place. Even the vault that held Sokara imprisoned in the Red Crypt was a one-bedroom apartment compared to this place.
The grotto had been dug out in a circular design. There were no corners to be found here. Within the walls were pockets spaced evenly. They were spaced out about five feet apart. The pockets then went from the bottom of the grotto to the top nine layers high. Each layer boasted eleven pockets making the total number of pockets ninety nine. Marcus walked up to one of the pockets to investigate the contents. Upon closer inspection, he noticed there was a simple wooden structure about the size of a coffin. He stretched his neck to look up to the next layer and – yes – there was a box in there as well. He swung his head around and arched back to view the upper levels. It had been confirmed…each pocket had a box placed neatly inside. He placed his hand on the box he was in front of, removed the top of the box, and it had been just as he thought. This was a coffin, and inside the box was a person. Or…at least…it used to be a person at one point. This was no grotto. He was standing inside a genuine catacomb.
He turned to the girl in the white dress who had been standing behind him all along. “This is a catacomb!” he announced just in case she wasn’t aware of it.
She simply nodded her head once, and then continued to stare at him.
“The person in this box doesn’t look like he’s been dead too long. He hasn’t decayed. He still has skin on his face,” again – he wasn’t looking for a discussion. He was now throwing facts out into the still air.
He poked the guy lying in the coffin on the top of the head. Nothing. The guy didn’t move. Then he touched the skin on his face. Nothing. Again, the guy didn’t move.
Then he heard the whispers. They were the same whispers of a familiar, but unknown, male figure. They were filling the void in the catacomb. Shwahassa mahh shwenethasa. Deep, rich, and authoritative. The sound of silk sheets being rubbed against river stone replaced the whispers. Marcus turned around, took five steps toward the sound, and then stopped.
His vision was accelerating in the darkness. He realized if he took two more steps, he would’ve fallen into a very deep abyss. Looking across the chasm in front of him, he noticed a sort of landing sticking straight up from the ground. It was the same height as the ground floor of the catacomb. It was like he was standing in front of the largest letter O. He could see the back of a large chair directly in the middle of the landing. He walked around the catacomb on the outside of the large O to see the front of the chair on the opposite side of where he was standing.
And then he froze.
The memories of his find in the Red Pyramid came flooding back to him. She was sitting in her stone throne that life-altering day the very same way she was sitting in her stone throne here thousands of miles away from her former prison. The whispers he was hearing was her Shroud slinking slowly up from the abyss that completely encircled her landing. The place where her throne sat was approximately fifteen feet round. The chasm separating her place and those of the beings in the pockets was a good thirty feet. It took only a few seconds for Sokara’s Shroud to interrupt Marcus’s private investigation. The black mist was now creating a form of black carpeting from the floor where he stood to the landing where she was sitting.
Come to me…
Her command was louder in his head than it had ever been. He assumed it was because he was now so close to her. He placed his left foot on the black mist and was now levitating above the chasm. The Shroud began to assist Marcus in crossing the deep, cavernous gap. He could have simply flown to her, but realized he couldn’t move his wings. The sight of her in her throne as he had seen her months ago had him paralyzed. The Shroud was transporting him softly, and smoothly, across the chasm like he was on some sort of unnatural conveyor belt. His ride ended with a gentle step onto the landing where Sokara sat.
He stared at her. He couldn’t move. His mouth was so dry that he imagined tumble weeds could blow across his tongue. She was complete stone. She sat on her enormous throne made out of bones. A skull acted as a hand rest on the end of each arm. Her left hand was on top of the skull on the left arm of the bone-chair. Her eyes were light lavender, and were the only source of light in this very dark pit below the wine cellar. The glow of her eyes had surrounded her. Her voice in his head was amplified a thousand – fold as she began;
“At last, we meet again, my rescuer,” he heard her say. Yet the entire catacomb was as silent as a morgue.
He couldn’t speak. Marcus just stood there looking at her eyes. Mesmerized by the color he’s never before seen in any object he’s ever encountered. His silent stare was suddenly broken by the soft whisper she was now invoking. She had lowered the volume a little bit by whispering, but it was still on the megaphone side:
“I had once believed that when deceived
I could abandon love as naught.
The lonely cries and gruesome lies
Sparked the battles that were fought.
And then one day I was sent away
To learn the lessons being taught.
The exercise and this idle guise
Are all the schooling that I’d caught.
You’ve set me free, and now you see
This is more colossal than you thought.
For one day soon – by the light of the moon
You will become the Prince of a darker plot. “
The entire time she was relaying her epic sonnet in his head, blood had slowly trickled from his ears. Her voice was at a critically massive scope causing his auditory nerve to rattle and tear. She smelled his blood as she lay in stone form on her throne of bones. He blinked his eyes for one split second, and when he opened them – she was directly in front of him with her fangs protruding from behind her lips of stone. He melted into her arms. The last thing he heard was her moaning against the side of his neck, and smelling ancient dirt. He also heard crackles like the sound a paper bag makes when you wad it slowly. He had just enough energy to open his eyes the tiniest sliver to notice her skin was changing from rock to velvet. His blood – his life force – was helping to, once again, revive her.
That’s all he could remember before he passed out. His back hurt like someone had ripped the skin off of his shoulder blades. He woke up in cramped quarters. It was dark, and cold and very closed in. He could hear heartbeats, although very faint, surrounding him. Marcus put his hand out in front of him in the dark only to realize he couldn’t put his hands out very far. He was in a box! That bitch put me in one of the boxes in the catacomb, he thought. It was confirmed when he felt his box being pushed further into the pocket in the side of the crudely dug wall.
“Our Queen has big plans for you. But now you must rest. The sun is about to reach its peak. I’ll be back to get you at sundown,” he heard the female voice say. He had never heard the girl in the white dress use English, but he could smell her scent. It was her. She had some incredible strength to push his box, with his body occupying it, into the wall. He was actually impressed.
Why did he have to sleep? Why would the sun hurt him when it was at its peak? How could this girl be so strong? And that was all the questions he could get out of his brain before he was placed into sleep. Sokara couldn’t hear any more questions, so she waved her hand to force sleep upon.
“I thought he’d never shut up,” she said as she stretched her freed wings and then placed herself back onto her throne of bones.
Victoria nodded in agreement as she bid Sokara a good night and then climbed the ladder out of the catacombs.