Authors: William Massa
Artan watched her for a long moment. Her face darkened, filling with mounting dread.
She killed her cell. Her voice quivered as she explained, “That was the hospital. My dad has disappeared...”
Artan considered this for a second. “Cael. If he has your father...”
Rhianna completed his sentence. “...He knows how to find the blade.”
Lord Irish’s confused gaze kept ticking back and forth between them, trying to make heads or tails of what they were talking about.
“Will someone tell me what the hell is going on here before I call the cops...”
Artan's withering glare seared into the game designer. Lord Irish paled.
“... or maybe we could just talk this over.”
Artan shifted his attention back to the
. He lowered his sword. “Fifteen centuries ago, I made a mistake. It will not err again.”
“What do you mean?”
“If I destroy the
now, it will not end. Two thousand years from now, someone may reunite the pieces and it will begin again.”
Understanding filled Rhianna's face. “You're going to kill him this time.”
Artan nodded with unrelenting determination. His mind was made up on the matter. As far as he could see, there was no other way. “It is what I should have done all those years ago. Once Cael is gone, I will point this blade at myself.”
The sobering words rocked Rhianna to the core. Artan continued. “It will be up to you, Rhianna, to shatter the
Artan placed the
Eye of Balor
in Rhianna's hand. “The cycle must end now and for all time.”
Lord Irish's terrier trotted down to the loft's front lobby, where his food and water bowls sat. The area resembled a small greenhouse. The walls were lined with pots containing an assortment of exotic plants. It felt sleek and modern, yet warm and earthy. Some of the flowerpots hung upside down from the ceiling. Herbs such as parsley, mint and fennel dangled like miniature vines. Their pleasant aroma filled the air.
The dog leaned over his water bowl and lapped up a drink, little pink tongue flickering in and out between his teeth. Suddenly the canine froze, haunches alert, senses on fire, just as she had when he first picked up Artan’s scent. A low growl rose in its throat...
A powerful gust of air caused the plants to shiver and ripple in midair before bursting from the planters like tentacles willed into unnatural life. The dog spun and tore down the hallway, but the plants shot after the terrified animal. Two vines wrapped around it and swooped it into the air. Cass let out a pitiful whimper that was strangled when the plant’s tendrils tightened around the hapless terrier, sprouting razor-sharp thorns.
The sound of crushing bones and a choked yelp was followed by silence. The animated plant tentacles loosened and released the dead animal. What was left of Cass thumped to the hardwood floor in a tangled mass of bloody fur.
The plants rippled down the hallway, navigating the corridor as if they were strings wielded by some invisible puppeteer, surging toward their next victim.
When the dog's yelps echoed through the loft, Lord Irish's face filled with concern. “Cass?”
Artan and Rhianna traded worried looks. Artan peered into the darkness beyond the doorway, then nodded at Rhianna and Lord Irish. “Stay back.”
“Will someone talk to me? What the hell's going on?”
Rhianna took a step back when she heard Cael's voice in her head.
Rhianna whirled. Shock rippled across her face, her skin turning the color of chalk. Cael lurked in the middle of the room with her father slumped by his feet. A blade hovered near Dr. Sharpe’s throat. To her horror, Rhianna saw that her father’s ashen features were caked with blood. In all her life, she had never seen her father look so utterly defeated.
You have something that I want. How about a trade? Your father's life in exchange for the Eye.”
Rhianna pivoted toward Artan and Lord Irish. They were both unaware of Cael's astral presence in the loft… another example of druid magic. Rhianna realized that this mental projection was meant only for her.
I am waiting outside for you...”
For a second Rhianna glanced at Artan and when her attention returned to her father, both he and the warrior-druid were gone as though they had never been there in the first place. Artan noticed her perturbed expression. “What is it?”
The former king of Kirkfall never got an answer as thorn-covered vines unfurled from the hallway. One viciously wrapped itself around Artan's legs, drawing blood, but he severed it with a flick of his sword. The animated plants ignored Rhianna, allowing her to pass by. They were solely interested in Artan.
Rhianna stared at the
in her outstretched hand. It had become a heavy burden. There was no choice. Her dad’s life was on the line.
There was one last moment of hesitation before she darted out of the bedroom. Artan remained oblivious to her departure, too busy hacking away at the attacking plants. Moving with lean, rippled power, he slashed away at the tentacle-vines. One ensnared Lord Irish's wrist. Artan came to his rescue, freeing the game designer with a rapid-fire diagonal cut.
The man stared up at Artan, awestruck. It was as if a hero from one of his fantasy games had taken leave of the digital battlefield and decided to visit the real world.
Artan whirled toward the hallway... but the attacks were dying down. Artan studied the severed vines.
“Why announce your presence unless...” The grim truth struck him like a thunderbolt. “… you needed to create a diversion.”
Artan searched the loft for Rhianna and found his worst fear confirmed.
She was gone, and with her, the
Eye of Balor
THE CLOUDS HAD darkened and now scuttled over the midday sun. Even though it was only two o’clock, the light was imbued with an almost nocturnal quality. Rhianna emerged from the loft and stepped into a narrow alley that ran along the back of Lord Irish’s property. A fierce, unnatural wind had kicked up, its mournful moan promising darker things to come. Fear reached deep inside her and would not let go.
What was she doing?
With her emotions firmly in the driver’s seat, Rhianna wasn’t thinking clearly. On one level, she knew it was a trap. If she gave Cael what he wanted, all would be lost, but rational thought was overpowered by emotion as the pitiful image of her father flashed in her mind’s eye. Cael had threatened to kill her dad if she didn’t bring him what he wanted. She had a feeling the ancient warrior-druid didn’t make idle threats.
She clutched the
Eye of Balor
and cursed the day she first laid hands on the jewel. There was no other choice. Either she let her father die at the hands of a savage monster or she tried to strike a bargain with the resurrected druid.
Rhianna reached the end of the alley and turned the corner, entering a large, abandoned parking lot. Rows upon rows of cars sat inside the industrial space. Commuters on their way to Manhattan dropped off their vehicles in the lot for the day while they took the ferry into the city.
A spooky mist was forming in the lot, fine tendrils of fog snaking around the maze of automobiles. Rhianna had a strong feeling that the mist was the work of the fiend who had kidnapped her father.
Terrified but driven, she pressed on, moving deeper into the lot. Her shoes crunched over the gravel and echoed eerily. Goosebumps bloomed across her arms. The temperature must have dropped twenty degrees since she stepped out of Lord Irish’s loft. It felt like icy fingers were raking her skin.
The mist rippled then parted suddenly, revealing two figures silhouetted at the center of the parking lot. The moment she spotted her father, her heart sank. He looked even worse in person than he had in Cael’s astral projection. His shirt was filthy and torn, his face a bloody, distorted mask.
Rhianna could feel tears welling up and another emotion, too… Anger. For a moment, she forgot how terrified she was. She wanted to hurt the druid… badly.
Cael yanked Sharpe’s head back and pressed his dagger against the man’s throat.
Rhianna’s voice shook but her anger was stronger than her fear. “Let go of him.”
“When you give me what's mine,” Cael said.
Dr. Sharpe tapped into a last reserve of strength and shouted, “Don’t do it!”
His words died on his lips as Cael’s blade dug a little deeper into the vulnerable flesh of his exposed throat. A fine line of blood ran down Dr. Sharpe's neck now, a second scarlet mouth forming below the first.
Rhianna gave herself an internal push and stepped up to Cael. She held the
Eye of Balor
aloft in a trembling hand
Cael appraised both the gem and Rhianna. “I am beginning to see why my brother is fond of you.”
Cael held up his palm, revealing a Celtic rune symbol identical to the one on Rhianna's hand.
THE MARK OF BALOR.
It appears we have both pledged our lives to Balor. Soon your sacrifice will
mark the beginning of my Lord's reign
here on Earth.”
Cael reached out and the
flew right into his waiting palm. His fingers closed around the gem and it ignited with unholy fire. A terrible power had been reunited with its master.
Every fiber of her being urged Rhianna to flee, but the slumped form of her father helped her stay the course. “I gave you what you wanted. Now let go of my father...”
Cael’s answer was to ram the
Eye of Balor
into the parking lot’s pavement. Crimson forks of crackling energy sparked off the gem, blasting into the asphalt. The ground shuddered and shifted under the mystical onslaught, unearthly beams working their dark magic.
One by one, shadowy shapes morphed from the asphalt. Five crude figures peeled themselves from the manmade cement landscape and rapidly gained ferocious detail. The original gargoyles were carved from Irish soil; sand, silt and clay sculpted by dark forces beyond the imagination of man. These new horrors reflected the characteristics of the substance that spawned them. Formed from gray cement, their bodies were streaked with paint from the parking spaces.
21st Century urban gargoyles.
Rhianna gasped in open-mouthed horror as the black dragons circled her, their heavy bodies advancing with lethal intent. Each advancing step was marked by a slight ripple in the ground as their bulk negotiated the maze of vehicles. Massive wings sideswiped cars, shattered glass and warped metal.
Cael regarded his minions with icy satisfaction and slipped the
Eye of Balor
into its rightful place, the empty cavity of flesh that had held the gem centuries ago. The light emanating from the gem intensified, a dark coronation. Cael had reclaimed his rightful place as master of the gargoyles.
Rhianna’s voice quivered as she faced him. The jewel in his skull cast a hypnotic spell, but she pressed on. “Let go of my father!”
“As you wish.”
Cael withdrew his dagger and shoved Dr. Sharpe at one of the advancing gargoyles. Rhianna didn’t know from where she drew the courage, but still she rushed to her father’s prone body. The fast-approaching gargoyles tracked her movement with dark eyes. She threw herself over her dad, shielding him as best as she could while fully knowing she was merely delaying the inevitable. The first gargoyle was almost upon her, razor-sharp teeth closing in when...
A blur of steel rippled between Rhianna and the beast, deflecting its attack. Once again, the former king of Kirkfall had come to her rescue in the nick of time.
Artan exploded out of the loft, sword up, scouring the alley for clues of Rhianna’s whereabouts. There was no sign of the archeologist. He noted the dark sky and felt the wind pound his face and tug at his body. Black magic was in the air.
The warrior followed the alley into the parking lot and arrived just in time to see the newly formed gargoyles homing in on Rhianna. Facing Cael on her own had been foolish, but Artan understood what love could make a person do.
Before the first gargoyle could close its powerful jaws around Rhianna’s head, Artan set upon the beast. His sword-stroke hacked open the creature’s throat and black blood splattered the windshield of a parked car. The other gargoyles instinctively withdrew, sensing the threat posed by this new opponent.
Artan whirled, savage expression locking on Cael, who darted into the maze of parked cars and allowed the thickening mist to swallow him. Artan spun toward Rhianna. Reassured she was alright, he chased after Cael and disappeared into wafting clouds of supernatural fog that were closing in from all sides.
The parking lot had grown unnaturally quiet and was entirely void of sound. Artan made his way past a row of vehicles, senses alert, sword outstretched. He peered into the dense, coalescing fog. It was impossible to see more than a few feet.
No sign of his brother.
“Cael!” Artan’s voice echoed eerily.
Artan advanced deeper into the mist-shrouded parking lot, knowing his brother was near.
Suddenly he froze, his face draining of color at the sight before him. An object hung from a BMW's rearview mirror.
Artan reached into the open window and seized the jewelry, wracked by a mixture of rage and sadness. The memory came hard and fast, a knife ripping through his heart...