The soldiers were stranded in a remote area west of Mount Ater for some days now. They were flying on a four-engine aircraft to their military base, when two of the engines failed and the plane began its rapid descent into a mountainous area. They would have all perished, had it not been for the skill and the experience of their captain, Valfer Rastin, who managed to manoeuvre the plane away from the mountains and land it on flat ground.
Not too far from where they crash-landed, there was a village whose people were friendly enough to offer the soldiers some food until they were able to leave, but the chances of Rastin and his men leaving anytime soon didn’t seem terribly promising. Their communication devices were inoperable and none of the locals were in possession of anything electronic that Rastin could use to communicate with their base. Rastin saw no other option than to take his men in search of some means of communication, or, failing that, a way of leaving the place on foot. An old man from the village volunteered to go with them as their guide, at least, part of the way and show them what he knew of the area. They had been walking for about three hours when they came across a cave from which emanated an eerie yellow light.
‘What’s in that cave?’ Rastin asked the guide.
‘Don’t know, sir,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘No one knows what’s in there, but the cave is called Demon’s Lair. Sometimes strange and terrible sounds have been heard coming from that cave.’
Rastin snorted. Demon’s Lair! So typical of rustic people to be superstitious! ‘Let’s check this out,’ Rastin told his men.
‘I hope you don’t mind me, sir, if I remain here outside,’ the guide requested timidly.
‘Not at all, old man. You stay here,’ Rastin said with amusement, clapping the old man on the back.
On entering the cave, the soldiers saw that the cave walls near the entrance were covered by a peculiar type of yellow crystalline rocks.
‘This is then the source of the light,’ Rastin observed, rubbing his hand against the rocks. ‘But how does it work, I wonder? What generates this light? I am no geologist, but I have never seen anything like this before.’
And while near the mouth of the cave was bright enough with yellow light, further deep within it was immersed in total darkness. It was then that Luvis, senior first officer, turned on his flashlight and moved forward. ‘Captain, permission to go and check the depth of this cave.’
‘Permission granted. Take five men with you … and be careful.’
Quickly five men peeled themselves off from the group and followed Luvis into the darkness.
After they were gone, Rastin and the remaining eight soldiers began examining the cave walls, hoping that there might be a way of dislodging some of the rocks and perhaps using them to power one of their communication devices.
For forty minutes Rastin and his men tried using their knives to loosen some of the rock crystals, but none would budge.
‘Captain, this is useless,’ said one of the soldiers, wiping sweat off his brow.
‘He is right, Captain,’ agreed another.
Rastin grunted. ‘Let’s get Luvis and the men back, then we can go and get better tools for dislodging some of these damn crystals.’
After several times of calling the men and receiving no response, Rastin began to feel uneasy.
‘Permission to go after them, Captain?’ asked Fris, junior first officer and Luvis’s younger brother.
‘Permission denied,’ Rastin answered. ‘I’ll go.’
‘Captain, permission to go in your stead,’ Rolan, senior second officer, volunteered.
‘But what if—’
‘Rolan, just because this cave is called Demon’s Lair doesn’t mean that it is literally the lair of demons. There could be a number of reasons why our men haven’t returned or haven’t answered. Perhaps this cave is quite deep. Besides, if there are hidden dangers within, I would much rather face them myself than to send more of my men in there. So just wait for me here. I’ll be back,’ Rastin said, nodding confidently as he headed towards the darkness.
After ten minutes went by, Rolan called out to Captain Rastin. ‘Anything, Captain?’
‘Nothing. I see nothing,’ Rastin answered. ‘My flashlight doesn’t seem to be working here. I am heading back.’
On emerging from the darkness, Rastin ordered the soldiers out of the cave and then went to talk to the guide. But the guide didn’t know anything beyond what he had already told him.
‘So no one in your village has ever entered this cave?’ Rastin said in a tone of disbelief.
‘No sir, no one dares, but...’
‘But what? Spit it out, man,’ Rastin pressed testily.
‘There’s a woman who might know something a bit more about this cave. She moved down here a few months back and took residence in Meyan’s old hut. Folks in the village claim that they’ve seen her entering the cave on several occasions.’
‘Take me to her.’
‘I must warn you, sir, she ain’t all that friendly. She’s never spoken a word to any of the folks around here.’
‘She’ll speak to me. Now take me to her!’
‘Yes, sir,’ the guide agreed meekly.
Leaving four of his men behind to guard the cave, Rastin took the rest with him. It was at some distance from the village, where the road forked, that the guide stopped and pointed towards the direction of the woman’s place. Shy of the woman, he would not go with them any further.
The woman’s place of dwelling was the most dilapidated little hut Rastin had ever seen – its roof was on the verge of total collapse.
‘Why would anyone move into this place?’ Fris wondered aloud.
Rastin grunted and rapped his knuckles on the hut’s thin wooden door.
‘Not much of a door, is it, sir?’ Rolan observed.
‘Not much of a hut either,’ Rastin muttered.
Within a few short minutes the door came open and a slender young woman stood before him. Under any other circumstances, Rastin would have lost his breath to the beauty of the face he was beholding, but the circumstances, in which he and his men were, did not permit such indulgences. He was there to get information from her, nothing more, nothing less.
‘Yes?’ she said, widening her eyes in surprise.
‘I am Captain Valfer Rastin and these are my men’ —he gestured at his men— ‘we have been told that you could help us with this … this cave that people around here call Demon’s Lair.’
She frowned, looking troubled. ‘In what way may I ask?’
‘What do you know about this cave? I have six of my men missing in that damn cave.’
The young woman lowered her eyes and took a step back, as she held the door open for Rastin to enter. Rastin put a hand up for his men to wait outside.
‘Can you help me to get my men back?’ Rastin asked, as soon as the woman closed the door.
‘You should leave this place immediately,’ the woman urged.
Rastin’s expression darkened. ‘I like nothing better than to leave this place, believe me, but first I have to find my men.’
The woman shook her head but remained silent.
‘What is your name?’ Rastin asked, trying his best to sound genial.
‘Odell, please … if you know something … anything that could help me to get my men back…’
‘The only help I can give you is my advice and that would be for you and your men to leave this place immediately,’ Odell stressed.
Rastin twisted his lips in irritation and glanced around. There was nothing in the place to suggest that anyone actually lived there. There was no bed, not even a cup on any of the broken shelves. Rastin frowned. The incongruity of the place with its resident was astonishing. Odell, despite her simple and worn out clothes, looked too regal to be a simple village girl, let alone living in a dump like this. ‘Our guide said that this hut used to belong to some woman by the name of Meyan. Did you know her?’ Rastin inquired, curious.
‘No. When I first came across this hut, I thought it to be an abandoned place and its original owner or owners long gone or even deceased.’
‘So what made you move in here?’
‘To get my daughter back,’ Odell said, with a slight tremor in her voice.
‘And did you?’
Odell shook her head.
‘Where is she?’ Rastin asked, looking perplexed.
Odell ran a hand across her forehead. ‘A man … an evil man … a beast has her, and I have no power over him.’
‘Well of course not,’ Rastin said in a sympathetic tone. ‘What power do you expect to have over someone whom you say is evil? Who is he? What is his name?’
‘There is no point in telling you anything about him or the cave, for you won’t believe me. And even if you did, there is nothing you can do about it. So please, Captain, take my advice and leave this place quickly.’
‘I can’t,’ Rastin snapped. ‘My aircraft crashed around here and none of the communication devices are working. And even if my men and I could get out of here, I am not going to leave without the rest who have gone missing in that cave.’
‘I don’t know how to help you,’ Odell despaired.
‘I am not asking you to bring my men back. All I am asking you is to tell me what you know about that cave.’
‘Something terrible ... something terrible resides in that cave…’
‘Well, what is it?’
‘I can’t tell you what it is, because you won’t believe me. So, you have to see it for yourself to believe it, but if you do see it, then it is the last thing you will ever see.’
‘What do you mean?’ Rastin asked, frowning, not sure of what to make of Odell.
Odell shook her head, looking conflicted and not answering.
‘Odell, listen to me,’ Rastin pleaded. ‘Maybe we can both help each other...’
‘You can’t help me, Captain, anymore than I can help you.’
‘How can you be so certain of that? You have been here for some months now and you haven’t been able to get your daughter back. So why don’t you tell me who has your daughter and then maybe I can do something about it?’
‘Daemon Custos has her.’
‘Daemon Custos?’ Rastin grimaced. ‘Who or what is Daemon Custos?’
‘Daemon Custos … the demon keeper and he is the keeper of the cave.’
‘The keeper of the cave?!’
‘He is also … their keeper…’
Odell fell quiet and looked away.
Rastin hissed a breath in frustration. Getting information out of Odell was almost as impossible as dislodging one of those damn rock crystals. ‘Odell, do not feed me information in drips and drabs. Tell me what you know.’
‘The keeper … Daemon Custos is also their keeper.’
‘Whose keeper? Tell me?’
‘The keeper of the seven blind sisters who are in control of the world.’
‘Seven blind sisters in control of the world?! Are you mad?’
‘You wanted my help, so I am giving it to you.’
‘Well, talk sense, woman,’ Rastin snapped, looking hard at her. ‘How could seven blind women be in control of the world?’
‘They are not women as you think a woman is. They are female, but they are demons.’
‘Demons! I don’t believe in demons.’
‘Then how do you explain the disappearance of your men?’
Rastin shook his head. He was a military man, a logical man, and a man that dealt with facts, not fiction or myth. There were no demons as there were no witches. Whatever caused the disappearance of his men was not in the realm of supernatural. Most likely the enemy had been hiding some secret weapons in that cave which entrapped his men. And those yellow crystals could very well be their power source. He turned on his heel to leave, when Odell stopped him at the door.
‘Captain, do not enter the cave, I beg of you. You won’t be able to save your men that way. Those seven demons—’
‘No more talk of demons,’ Rastin warned, cutting her off.
‘I told you that you won’t believe me.’
‘I have no patience for nonsense. Now goodbye, Madam.’
‘What did she say, Captain?’ Rolan asked, once Rastin was out of the woman’s hut.
‘Waste of time,’ Rastin said angrily, looking up at the darkening sky. ‘We’ll go back to the cave at first light. But this time we’ll take with ourselves explosive charges to blow up that damn cave right after we get our comrades back. This way we will ensure that no one in the future would ever get trapped in there again.’
‘But don’t we need those crystals to power our communication devices?’ Rolan said.
‘Crystal fragments will suffice and there will be plenty of them. That cave should be renamed Enemy’s Lair, not Demon’s Lair.’
‘Are you suggesting—’
‘Yes, Rolan, I am suggesting that the enemy has set up some kind of a weapon in that cave to trap people. There is no other explanation for it. People do not go missing in caves. And these villagers, not knowing any better, have come to associate it with demons. Understandable, given that they are but simple people.’
It was in the middle of the night when Rastin, unable to sleep, suddenly decided to wake his men up and make tracks for the cave. He had six men missing in a cave that was shrouded in mystery and four men guarding that very same cave. This was no time to sleep. Every minute that passed in inactivity was a minute that he could spend on rescuing his men.
The distance between the crash-site and the cave would have normally taken five hours to traverse, but Rastin and his men did it in less than half that time by forced march. On entering the cave, Rastin and his men quickly began to place the charges all around the cave extending to the edge of the darkness.
‘That ought to do it,’ Rastin said, satisfied with the quantity of explosives that covered the cave walls. ‘Enough of those suckers to blow this cave to smithereens. No more Demon’s Lair. Now the next step.’
‘Captain, be careful in there,’ Rolan advised as he handed Rastin a firebrand, for battery torches didn’t seem to work in the darkness of the cave.
Rastin grunted and headed towards the darkness.
He had just entered the darkness when the flame went out. Now, having no visibility, Rastin kept close to the wall and concentrated on maintaining his sense of direction.
‘Is anyone here?’ Rastin called, after walking blindly in the darkness for what he thought was a good twenty minutes. ‘Luvis! Timis! Andren!’
‘I am here, Captain,’ came a faint whisper.
‘Luvis! Is that you?’
‘Yes, Captain, it’s me.’
‘Where are Timis and—’
‘We are all here, Captain,’ answered the other five men.
‘Where is this place?’ Rastin asked, peering into the darkness, trying to see something and seeing nothing.
‘I have no idea, but it’s blacker than black, ‘Luvis said. ‘And there is something else—something that I don’t quite know how to describe…’
‘A feeling of heaviness, you mean?’
‘Yes, Captain, that’s it.’
‘Hmm! It is as if this darkness has a weight to it,’ Rastin observed.
‘There is also this foul strange smell…’
‘Yes, I know,’ Rastin acknowledged. ‘It is a … it is a … decaying smell of some sort mixed in with something acrid. Tell me, why did you move this far into the cave when it was so dark?’
‘Frankly, Captain, I have no idea what is going on. Shortly after we entered the darkness, the light from our torches went out and we couldn’t turn them back on again. We thought we were heading back, but for reasons I can’t explain or even comprehend, we got stuck in here and we sort of couldn’t move. We don’t even know how deep we are in the cave.’
‘All right. We’ll figure all of this later. Now, let’s get out of here. You all follow me closely.’
‘You can’t go,’ a terrible menacing voice came from somewhere within the darkness. ‘You and your men belong to us now. You are our slaves.’
‘No, we are not, and rest assured that my government will be informed of this,’ Rastin bellowed.
A claw-like hand, rough, icy and scaly brushed Rastin on the face. It immediately made his hair stand on end. He wondered if Odell was right in telling him that the cave was inhabited by a bunch of demons. But how could that be? Demons didn’t exist.
‘These men are free to go,’ a woman’s voice came from somewhere. It was Odell’s voice.
‘How dare you challenge us?’ thundered a furious voice.
‘They are free to go,’ Odell said. ‘Daemon Custos has let them go.’
‘That is not possible,’ shrilled an old voice. ‘He wouldn’t do that.’
‘He did. So let them go,’ Odell persisted.
‘He wouldn’t have let them go anymore than he would have let your daughter go,’ shrieked an old terrible voice.
‘He set my daughter free too.’
‘Impossible,’ screeched a dreadful voice. ‘Daemon Custos would never let your daughter go.’
‘How else then can you explain my coming here so freely, demanding to let these men go.’
‘You are trying to trick us,’ hissed the seven blind demons. ‘Where is your daughter if you have her?’
‘That is none of your concern,’ Odell returned. ‘You are safe, Captain. Go! Take your men and go, but don’t look back as you do so, lest your eyes alight on them and they freeze you where you stand,’ Odell advised.
‘But how can I see anything in this darkness?’
‘They can make themselves visible to you if you glance in their direction as you leave.’
Odell heard Rastin sigh. She knew he had difficulty believing that demons were real.
‘You’re coming with us, aren’t you?’
‘Of course. I’ll be right behind you.’
‘Where is your daughter?’
‘She is safe outside, Captain. One of your men has her,’ she whispered. ‘Now go.’
A cheer rose from the men when they saw their captain along with their comrades appearing from the darkness.
‘Let’s get out of here,’ Rastin shouted to his men.
As soon as everyone exited the cave, Rastin ordered the detonation of the explosives. Within minutes the cave blew up in a huge fiery explosion.
‘What happened in there, Luvis?’ Fris asked.
‘Yes, what happened in there, Luvis?’ Rastin asked.
‘I don’t know. I told you everything that happened in there, Captain,’ Luvis said.
‘Well, not everything. You were in there for more than fifteen hours,’ Rastin said.
‘Fifteen hours?!’ Luvis blinked, looking bewildered. ‘I thought’ —he glanced at the men who were trapped with him in the darkness— ‘we thought we were there for less than … twenty minutes…’
‘Less than twenty minutes? You were there for fifteen hours and forty-seven minutes to be precise,’ Rastin said, consulting his watch.
Luvis whistled in disbelief.
‘Maybe there were aliens in there and they could warp time,’ Fris ventured. He was a sci-fi buff.
‘Don’t start, Fris,’ Rastin censured, ‘first demons and now aliens.’
‘What is your opinion, Captain?’ Luvis asked.
‘I think you all fell unconscious there. After all, we did experience a certain heaviness in that darkness, so it is quite possible that…’ Rastin’s voice drifted away when he saw Odell walking up to him, holding her little girl in her arms.’
‘Do you still doubt the existence of demons, Captain?’
Rastin laughed. ‘Odell, I don’t believe in demons. Whatever was in that cave was not supernatural. Believe me when I tell you that the enemy is very cunning. We have been at war with them for over twenty years now. What was in there’ —Rastin pointed at the smoldering ruin of the cave— ‘was an invention of the enemy to frighten us.’
‘Why would the enemy want to kidnap my daughter, a three-year-old child, and hold her hostage then?’
A glow of affection flared in Rastin’s chest. Poor naïve beautiful woman! He smiled and laid his hands gently on Odell’s slender shoulders. ‘Odell, I know this is what you want to believe … what you were led to believe, but trust me when I tell you that there are no demons, only a very cunning enemy who knows how to frighten innocent women and children. I am very sorry for what they put you through, but I promise you that such a thing will never happen again to anyone else. I will make a full report of this to our government and rest assured that the enemy will pay a heavy price for this.’
Odell sighed inwardly. Poor stubborn fool! If only he knew what the world was up against! But Odell saw no point in pursuing the matter further. If what happened in the cave could not convince Rastin that demons truly existed, then nothing would.
‘So tell me,’ Rastin said, breaking into her thoughts, ‘why wasn’t your husband’ —he glanced at Odell’s daughter— ‘her father, here with you?’
‘Her father … is … taken.’
Rastin frowned, looking concerned. ‘You mean he is captured by the enemy?’
Odell’s eyes grew misty. ‘You could say that.’
Rastin nodded, feeling sorry for Odell. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. If only she was not married. As it was, he believed it an unconscionable act to seduce the wife of a soldier who was taken prisoner by the enemy. ‘So where to now? Surely, you won’t be going back to that crumbling old hut, now that you have your daughter back?’
‘No, Captain, I am not,’ she said, smiling. ‘I am going home … to my parents.’
‘How do you plan on getting there? There are no means of transport out of this village.’
‘Unfortunately, that’s true, but there is a small town about a day’s journey from here. However—’
‘Hang on,’ Rastin interrupted. ‘There is a small town nearby?’
‘Yes. However, there are no means of transport to this town except your own two feet,’ she said, bouncing on the balls of her feet.
‘We have been trying to get out of here for days now, but we have no maps of this area and we have no means of communication with the outside world either.’
‘Well, this town has everything: public transport both by land and air, as well as communication lines.’
‘How come the villagers didn’t know anything about this town?’
‘The villagers have forsaken the outside world and the outside world has forsaken them.’
‘Soldiers,’ Rastin bellowed, ‘forget about those crystals. We have a way of getting home.’ He then turned to Odell and said: ‘A day’s walk is a long walk; let me carry your little girl for you.’
Odell smiled and handed her daughter to Rastin.
‘What is her name?’
‘Harmony. It is a name her father gave her.’
‘What is her father’s name?’
‘You betrayed us, Custos. You betrayed us all,’ croaked Inopia, the first sister.
‘No, I didn’t,’ Custos’s voice boomed in the darkness.
‘Yes, you did. Don’t deny it,’ spat Invidia, the second sister.
‘You ruined all our plans,’ shrieked Avaritia, the third sister.
‘How could you let Harmony go?’ rasped Fami, the fourth sister.
‘Now she will destroy us all,’ hissed Pestilentia, the fifth sister.
‘It is her destiny to destroy us,’ screeched Calamitate, the sixth sister.
‘Maybe we should freeze you and then smash you to pieces for the traitor that you are, Custos,’ snarled Eversio, the seventh sister.
‘Be quiet all of you,’ Daemon Custos growled. ‘I am no traitor. I received new instructions.’
‘What instructions?’ Inopia snapped.
‘We are to open the gate for Lord Chaos.’
‘We can’t,’ Inopia argued. ‘You said it yourself that for the gate to be opened, we need the power of eight, and you just destroyed that chance. By giving Odell her daughter, we have no bargaining power.’
‘We don’t need the power of eight anymore.’
‘What are you saying?’ snarled Inopia, not believing.
‘Harmony will do it for us.’
‘Harmony?’ screeched Inopia. ‘Are you mad? The child is pure. She is Pax’s daughter, the daughter of a god. She can’t be corrupted.’
‘She can be now,’ Custos sneered.
Seven grey blind demons made a dash for the demon keeper like a rushing wind. ‘How?’ they shrilled in unison.
‘I have been informed that when Harmony reaches the age of seven, she has to be taken to Mount Alba by her mother to be baptized in the sacred spring—’
‘Untold woes will befall us for when that happens,’ Inopia interrupted ferociously. ‘She will be able to destroy us all.’
‘Yes, she will,’ spat Invidia. ‘She’ll be all powerful.’
‘Silence. I haven’t finished yet.’
‘Finish it then,’ snarled Inopia.
‘Now listen and listen carefully,’ Custos growled and went on to explain the plan as was instructed.
After he finished, the seven sisters humphed and humphed.
‘What’s the matter? The plan is perfect,’ Daemon Custos bellowed.
‘Yes, perfect,’ Inopia snarled, ‘but what about the cave? It’s destroyed. We need the power of the crystals. Without it, we will die. Only those crystals can slow time in the womb.’
‘Well, that was your own fault. You shouldn’t have brought the soldiers into the womb, let alone hold them captive in there.’
‘We wanted them as our slaves,’ screeched Calamitate. ‘We needed them to go and hunt—’
‘Soldiers don’t make good slaves,’ Custos interrupted. ‘I already told you that. Soldiers carry weapons and they never leave their comrades behind. At any rate, the cave and the crystals will be restored once Lord Chaos takes over the world. In the meantime, there is still enough power remaining in those shattered crystals for you to weather the four years quite well in the womb, provided you sleep. You require less energy that way.’
‘But for four years!’ shrieked Avaritia. ‘Four stinking long years here?!’
‘We’ll go hungry,’ Fami rasped.
‘And what about the world, hmm?’ Eversio screeched. ‘Being stuck in the womb in a state of slumber, we won’t be able to unleash our evil against it. It is an anathema to us to know that the world is not suffering.’
‘And then there is our hunger,’ Fami resumed, rasping. ‘So, tell us how do we deal with our hunger – hunger for blood, and not just any blood, but the blood of innocents? If you had let us keep the soldiers as our slaves, we could have twisted their minds and send them to hunt for us some fresh innocent blood.’
‘Oh, stop your whining. Four years of peace and prosperity in the world is nothing, for it passes quicker than you can all say your names. And four years of hunger goes just as quickly for you. Once Lord Chaos is released, the world will be awash with so much blood that your bellies would soon be bloated by it.’
‘But in the meantime, our bellies just hang like empty sacks. Look at them, even now they are empty,’ shrilled Inopia.
Daemon Custos cast his gaze on seven large dangling grey sacks. What he felt was so brief in its duration that it could not leave any solid impression on him, only a mist that stole the breath of a stone, if the stone had any breath.
To be continued…