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Lisa Paris

 

 

The Spirit Stone

Just a little something I wrote for Hallowe'en. It's a bit of spoof horror where Johnny has to deal with something pretty 'beastly' and Scott and Murdoch are forced to get to grips with their animal side . . . Hope you enjoy it - and a 'Happy Samhain' to one and all!
Lisa - 2003.


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

The shadows were already lengthening when Johnny finally got home. It was long past suppertime, and he was glad that for once, he didn't have to go to the trouble of getting washed up. Teresa was staying away for a week at Miss Ellen's. Her niece, Clara, had recently arrived from Philadelphia, and the ladies had taken a shopping trip to Modesto.

In Teresa's absence, the hacienda had rapidly assumed the mantle of a houseful of bachelors. Standards of hygiene had begun slipping slightly, despite all Maria's efforts to the contrary.

Johnny performed some quick ablutions at the kitchen sink, ignoring the remainder of the dust for now, as he listened to the dictates of his growling stomach instead.

Murdoch and Scott still sat at the dining table, a  decanter of whisky set between them like a talisman. The candles were burning low in their sconces, the twisted sculptures of tortured wax, hanging down in fantastic shapes. Johnny reached for a plate and ladled a couple of spoonfuls of tepid stew onto it. It was hardly up to Teresa's high standards, but he was hungry and it would do. Anything to fill his empty belly.

"Scott, Murdoch . . ."  Johnny looked up curiously as they barely acknowledged his presence, both of them intent instead, on the object which rested in Scott's hand. It was a smooth, round pebble, barely bigger than the size of a man's palm.

"What you got there?" He pointed to it with his fork.

"It's mine," said Scott quickly, the candlelight gleaming in his eyes. "I found it out in the old Modoc cave at Salt Canyon."

Johnny took a mouthful of stew and grinned. "Well, I wasn't plannin' on wrestlin' it from you, brother. Mind if I take a look?"

He may have imagined it, but Scott seemed to hesitate for the barest fraction of a second, before catching himself with a small, feral smile and passing over the pebble.

"Interesting, isn't it? Murdoch and I were trying to determine the animal in the painting."

Johnny took the stone and held it carefully up to the light. It was weathered and smooth, oddly satisfying to hold. He hefted it curiously. It fitted into the hollow of his hand as though made especially for it.

A sudden draft dipped the candle flames, causing the light to flicker. Johnny's fingers tightened of their own volition and he was suddenly filled with a strange, overwhelming desire to take the stone and run out into the night . . .

"Johnny?"

There was an edge of urgency to Murdoch's tone and it brought him down to earth with a bump. He dropped the stone as though he'd been stung, the shape of the animal explicitly clear.

"It - it's a wolf. A wolf's head."

Scott reached for it quickly, grasping it tightly a second before Murdoch managed to scoop it up himself, their eyes meeting momentarily across the tabletop like two predators issuing a challenge. Johnny watched them both uneasily, own fingers still burning from his contact with the stone. If he didn't know Scott any better, he would have sworn there was a hint of cruel triumph in his brother's expression.

"Scott?" He was hardly aware that he'd spoken, his appetite dry as ashes on his tongue. He searched his brother's face. "Where did you say you found it?"

Murdoch turned moodily away, pushing his chair back from the table and reaching across for the whisky decanter. He poured himself a generous measure, not offering the spirit around as usual as he sat there, brooding and silent.

Scott laughed out loud, his teeth flashing white in the half-light, as seemingly unbothered by Murdoch's bad mood or sudden lack of  largesse, he held up the stone to the candles and examined the shadowy wolf's head.

"It was right at the back of the cave. I rode up there after a stray and remembered Cipriano saying there were wall paintings inside. Well, I'd lost the stray by then, so I decided to take a look. It was worth it, the paintings were magnificent. The stone was on a ledge right beside them. Beautiful, isn't it?"

Johnny acknowledged the truth of it, his eyes drawn lingeringly to the pebble once more. "Si, es bello, but maybe you should have left it alone, Scott. It looks like a Spirit Stone. Those caves are strong medicine to the Modoc, holy places, like sacred ground."

Scott laughed again and placed the stone possessively into his breast pocket. "Those caves have been abandoned for years, you should have seen the cobwebs. No one's going to miss one little stone."

"I hope not."  Johnny said softly. He pushed his  barely touched plate to one side, all appetite suddenly flown.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Johnny woke around two am, the blood pulsing in his temples. He sat bolt upright in bed, unsure what had disturbed him, peering into the corners of his bedroom where patches of dark shadow and moonlight made odd, irregular patterns in the air.

The top-sheet and blankets were swirled in a tangle round his waist, his mattress was comfortable as hot sand. Johnny swung his legs to the floor and sat in the gloom for a moment, straining his ears hard, and wondering what had woken him. The night was thick like soup, alive and sentient with waiting. He stood up uneasily and made his way over to the door. Perhaps it was Murdoch on one of his nocturnal ramblings; back aching, as troubled by Pardee's bullet, he was unable to get back to sleep. Or Scott maybe, still caught in the throes of one of his rare but bitter nightmares about the war.

The landing was silent. The staircase bathed in a single, silver strand of moonlight from the arch-shaped window at the end of the long corridor. The heavy, Spanish furniture unnerved him, the linen chest crouched like a beast in the shadows. Johnny cursed his lurid imagination; he wouldn't have been surprised to hear it growl at him.

Fighting an absurd desire to creep along the wall, Johnny stepped across to Scott's room and listened at the door. Everything was peaceful from within and not even the familiar sound of his brother's gentle snore disturbed the suffocating quiet.

Johnny frowned and shook his head, making his way down the staircase, his bare feet cool on the stones. The hacienda was cloaked in darkness. Even the fire had died. In the Great Room, swathes of moonlight pooled upon the floor like watered silk, shifting round the dull shapes of the chairs.

The night prickled and Johnny stiffened. The blood turned to ice in his veins. An enveloping sensation of horror began to expand and bloom  within him. There was nothing tangible to explain it, no noise or movement in the darkness. His throat started to close over, choking off his ability to call out. He had a feeling that his consciousness was sharpening, in collusion with, and at one with the night.

He forced himself to breathe deeply. There was nothing to be scared of, he told himself. Just the simple, unreasoning terror, of a child alone in the darkness. But for a moment, he was afraid to take a step, chiding himself for his foolishness and literally forcing himself to move on further into the room.

The French windows seemed to entice him, and reaching for the door handle, he stared out into the garden. Logic dictated he should stay in the safety of the house, but he was lured and seduced by the beckoning night, his outline stark and black against the glass.

Johnny remembered an old superstition, something his mother had once said; 'never look at the moon through glass . . .'

The courtyard was warm and bathed in pearl. Fragrant with the dense perfume of oleander and jasmine, the sharp, spicy tang of crushed herbs. He inhaled it gratefully, letting the familiar aromas settle gently on his fraught nerves, but knowing that a part of him was still wary.

It came without warning. A low, rumbling growl from the shadows on the porch. Vicious and menacing with savagery, unlike any other sound  he'd ever heard. Johnny took a stumbling step backwards, hand clapping futilely to his thigh before remembering he was dressed for bed, half-naked and wearing no gun.

The air was impenetrable with malevolence, an evil so tangible he was paralysed with fear. His eyes strained into the darkness and he sensed he was being watched. The shadows were baleful and oddly malignant, animate and shivering with life. For a second, he thought he glimpsed some movement, the briefest shift in the gloom. The illusory shape of a creature, the ivory sharpness of teeth.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Johnny stared into the mirror and grimaced, his face was haggard and pale. Upon returning to his room last night, his sleep had been fitful and poor. Filled with strange dreams and anxiety, the scratching of claws at his door.

He was at a loss to explain what had happened to him out there in the darkness. After managing to pull himself together, he'd scouted all around the hacienda and come up with absolutely nothing. No trace of any intruder, whether man or beast.

He tilted his head to one side and ran a hand over his raspy face, the dark beard a marked contrast to  the sleep-starved pallor of his skin. The razor's kiss was sharp against his chin, the lemony tang of his favourite soap, a welcome stimulant, as he began to scrape the stubble from the angles of his jaw.

"Damn!"

The blade slipped and sliced into his cheek. Blood ran down his face, spotting off his chest into the blue and white china bowl. He dabbed at it with a towel, frowning at his clumsiness as he tried to staunch the flow, but the cut remained stubborn, refusing to clot.

"Where is it!"

The roar of anger made his already jangled nerves leap a mile higher. He threw the razor into the bowl and ran out onto the landing, instinctively grabbing at his gun on the way. Scott was standing outside Murdoch's bedroom, his face red and suffused with rage as he reached for the handle and kicked the door wide open.

"Scott," Johnny followed after him in alarm. "What in hell's name are you doing?"

Scott turned and snarled at him, shouldering him roughly aside as he thrust his way into the room. "He took it, where is it?"

"Where's what?"  Righting himself quickly, Johnny palmed the Colt and watched in rising bewilderment as his brother tore the covers off Murdoch's bed.

"The stone, he took the stone . . ." Scott ignored him totally, yanking the drawers from the nightstand and flinging the contents to the floor.

"Scott, are you crazy? Parar se - stop it!"

Scott turned at a crouch and glared at him, nostrils flaring and wide. "Out of my way, Johnny . . ." He paused, his jaw working furiously; "or was it you? Perhaps 'you' stole it from me instead?"

Johnny stared uncertainly at him, taking an involuntary step back towards the door. "What's wrong, Scott?" He tried to keep his voice calm. "The stone - are you talkin' about the Spirit Stone?"

"Do you know where it is?" Scott advanced on him stealthily, his lips drawn back in a growl. "Because if you do, you'd better give it back to me now!"

Johnny's grip tightened on the smooth wooden handle of the gun. He was all at once appalled and horrified by his reaction, instinctive though it had been. This was Scott standing here before him, his brother and his best friend.

"Take it easy, big brother. I didn't take your damn stone . . ."

"What's going on in here?" Murdoch stood on the threshold, his huge frame implacably menacing, as it completely blocked the doorway. "I demand an explanation."

Johnny remained quite still and looked from his father to his brother. Every fibre in his body was screaming alert now, the air of physical danger as strong and personal as though he were staring down the barrel of a gun.

He swallowed hard and strove to break the deadlock. "Scott mislaid somethin' . . ."

Johnny was taken completely by surprise. His father pushed him bruisingly aside, and lunged across the room towards the bed. Murdoch reached for the pillows - it was a remarkably agile movement for a man with a chronic bad back, but Scott still beat him to it. He tore at the pillowslip with a cry of triumph, shaking out some of the goose down, as he snatched up the missing stone.

From where he lay sprawled across the floor, Johnny watched incredulously. Murdoch gave a howl of thwarted fury and stumbled around the bed.

"Give it back to me!"

It was no contest. Scott evaded him easily, leaping over the mattress as he laughed derisively, and slipped out of the door onto the landing.

"Murdoch . . ." Johnny got to his feet and turned to his father. He held onto the Colt like a talisman, its shape reassuring and real. "What just happened here?"

Murdoch looked up at him dully, eyes dazed and curiously heavy. "Get out."

"But Murdoch . . ."

"I said, get out. Leave me alone." Murdoch made no move towards him, but there was a lowering echo in his tone that made Johnny remember the strength and agility with which his father had just tossed him to one side.

He left without a word, heart pounding painfully in his chest as he sought the sanctuary of his own bedroom. There was something most terribly wrong here, and he needed time to think things through.

"Dios!"

Scott was standing in the corner of his room, the blood-stained towel in his hands. The morning sun caught his brother's eyes and turned the irises silver. Or perhaps it was only a trick of the light?

"Scott?" Johnny's voice shook and he knew it. "Want to let me in on the joke now? Because I tell you, brother, it just ain't funny no more."

Scott smiled at him intensely. "Did you hurt yourself, Johnny?"

Johnny's brow creased. "Hurt myself? No." His hand moved up to his cheek. "Only a shavin' nick."

Scott stepped closer to him, and stared with fascination at the cut. He reached out quickly and grasped hold of Johnny's chin. "It's still bleeding."

Skin tingling uncomfortably, Johnny fought the urge to pull away. "De nada - it's nothin'. Leave it be."

Scott's grip tightened, the pressure of his fingers almost painful on Johnny's jaw. Johnny froze, watching uncomfortably as Scott licked his lips, running the tip of his tongue languorously over his teeth and taking a step closer so they were almost standing chest to chest. With a sudden surge of panic and revulsion, Johnny lifted the Colt instinctively so it formed a barrier of iron and wood between them.

They were both still. So silent, Johnny swore he could hear his own heart beating, the intensive, primal swell of blood within his veins. And then Scott laughed out loud, releasing his grip with a mocking flourish as he stepped backwards towards the door, the odd light dying in his eyes.

"Later, brother Johnny . . ."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Johnny stayed out on the range until noon, but his mind simply wasn't on the job. All he could think about was this morning, the behaviour of Murdoch and Scott. After lunch, he gave up any pretence of work and headed up towards Salt Canyon. The Modoc caves were badly overgrown. Almost hidden by a thick swathe of trees and foliage, swallowed back into the hillside like an old, forbidden secret.

He tethered Barranca to one of the trees, pausing for a moment as he noted the scuffed traces of Scott's boot marks imprinted in the dirt at his feet. So his brother had definitely been here . . .

The thought caught him unawares. Did he even doubt Scott's word now? If you'd asked him this time yesterday if his brother was capable of lying, he would have laughed outright in your face. His fingers moved compulsively to the shaving cut on his cheek and he remembered the look of unearthly hunger he'd seen in Scott's silvered eyes. He shivered in spite of himself, so intent on his thoughts, he almost missed the snap of a branch nearby.

There was someone watching him from the bushes. He drew his gun and dropped to a crouch, nerves tingling, on red alert, as he remained motionless and listened hard. He'd always prided himself on his senses. Years of living on the edge had heightened and honed them to a state of wary acuity, but he was damned if he could hear anything now.

The touch on his shoulder spun him round, finger tightening on the trigger as he stared up into the impassive face of a tall native. Johnny straightened slowly, his grip relaxing slightly even though he remained on his guard. Intuition told him why the Modoc was here and he knew he had a potential ally. He made a quick decision and put the gun away.

The Modoc held out his hand. "The stone must be returned."

Johnny swallowed and nodded his head. "And my brother?"

"It is not yet too late."

The remainder of the sentence hung between them in the air and Johnny hated its implication. "But it will be soon, right?"

The Modoc inclined his head. "It is the full moon tonight. Once the moon has reached its zenith, it will begin the fall down to earth again ~ then it will be too late. The beast will be unleashed for good."

Johnny looked up with determination. "That gives me enough time. I'll bring it back straight away."

The Indian stared at him intensely. "The stone is powerful, it will curse you too. Already you have felt its strength and lure."

There was a hollow silence for a moment, as Johnny remembered the surge of inexplicable emotion he'd felt last night at the supper table. His uncanny desire to take the stone and escape out into the night.

"How do I stop it?"

The Modoc held out a small object and Johnny saw it was a fetish. A collection of small charms bound together on a narrow strip of hide. He took it and looked at it carefully. A fang, a bone, and a shiny black stone.

"It is a wolf-stone," the Modoc watched as he placed the talisman round his neck and let it fall against his bare skin. "Wear it at all times and it will protect you from the curse. Take it off, and your soul will be lost."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It was dusk when Johnny got home. He led Barranca into the barn but the palomino was skittish and restless. He left the pony saddled, tipping an extra measure of feed into the trough by means of poor compensation. He left the stall and headed towards the hacienda.

The dim light played tricks with his eyes. Every shadow was an ominous terror. He was conscious of the Wolf-Stone at his breast, its presence providing a meagre form of comfort. The thought of facing either Scott or Murdoch made his heart sink, but he knew he had to find out where the spirit stone was, so he entered the hacienda through the kitchen.

"Senor Juanito . . ." Maria looked up at him, her face stained with tears." Los pollos..."

Johnny placed a comforting arm across her ample shoulders, drawing her down beside him on the bench. "Cual es el problema, Maria?"

The housekeeper took a shuddering breath. "All of my chickens, they are dead. A wolf maybe, it has ripped them to pieces. There was blood, mucho sangre, not a single one left alive!"

Johnny hugged her in silence, his own thoughts too horrific to contemplate as he muttered words of comfort in spite of the chill in his heart. When he eventually went through to the Great Room, Murdoch was sprawled sullenly in his armchair by the fire, a half empty tumbler of whisky in his hand. The table was laid for supper, but the dishes were virtually untouched. There was no sign whatsoever, of Scott.

Johnny tossed his hat onto the sideboard, helping himself to a small portion of meatloaf and mashed potatoes. He forced himself to eat it, knowing he would need his wits and strength about him over the coming hours. He watched Murdoch carefully out of the corner of his eye.

His father barely stirred, staring moodily into the heart of the flames as he took the odd mouthful of malt and didn't utter a word. Johnny was glad of it. The incident in the bedrooms this morning had put rather a damper on any form of casual conversation between them, but thankfully, Murdoch seemed as disinclined to talk as he was.

He finished his meal and got to his feet, collecting his hat on his way up the stairs. Once outside Scott's bedroom, he paused and took a deep breath before rapping loudly on the door. Just as he'd expected, there was no answer. He looked quickly over his shoulder, turned the handle quietly and slipped into the room.

A creaking floorboard under his foot gave him a nasty jolt. Johnny stopped dead in his tracks, motionless and more than a little afraid whilst his eyes raked the shadows. He half expected to see Scott waiting for him, lips drawn back with that leer on his face, but the room was mercifully empty.

It didn't take him long to search the place, hating the thought of violating his brother's privacy in this way, but realising he had no choice. The stone wasn't there, just he'd known down inside that it wouldn't be. Not after Murdoch had stolen it last night.

Deep in thought, Johnny walked across to the open window and stared down at the moonlit garden. There was a movement in the shadows, secretive and furtive. The hair began to prickle on his neck and he sensed he was being watched, stepping away from the aperture but knowing he was too late. His heart sank in dismay. It wasn't part of the game to become the hunted, he had planned to take his brother by surprise.

He didn't use the main stairs, slipping along to the west wing through the little used, guest rooms, and stepping out onto the wide terrace that surrounded it. It was a route he'd utilised many times when he'd wanted to get in and out of the hacienda unseen. A route which had served him pretty well in the past. He used the bougainvillea as a ladder, dropping to a crouch in a pool of indigo beneath the cypress trees.

He waited a second or two, straining his ears in the darkness as he listened for the tell-tale rustling of foliage around him. He heard nothing, straightening carefully and working his way along the tall, yew hedge which lined the edges of Teresa's herb garden.

If Scott really was stalking him, it stood to reason his brother would be waiting near the courtyard in case he exited the hacienda from the ground floor. Johnny thought of Maria. His heart lurched at the memory of what had happened to her chickens, but it only served to strengthen his determination. That, and the persistent image of Murdoch. His father was alone and vulnerable. Uncharacteristically defenceless, as he drank himself into a stupor by the fire.

Johnny was so deep in thought, he nearly missed it. Something was moving in the shadows, its outline barely visible in the dim glow from the windows. His hand reached down and he drew the Colt, turning it, to use as a club. He crept closer, his throat almost closing over in fear, as a bird came crashing out of the bushes in a flurry of ruffled feathers.

He swallowed raggedly and wiped the sweat from his brow. Much more of this and he wasn't going to be capable of anything.

It was as though the whole night held its breath. Tendrils of evil swirled all around him, weaving their way up his legs to his heart. He sensed that time was precious - that it was running out for both himself and Scott. Johnny knew with dismay, he had to act now. It was no longer Scott he stalked out here in the darkness, but some kind of wild beast. And the beast was stalking him too, closing in relentlessly for the kill.

There was a sensation of movement behind him. Johnny whirled instinctively, just in time to throw himself to one side, as a figure detached itself from the bushes and leapt straight at him. Johnny saw it through the darkened veil which hung before his eyes. A hazy perception of neither man nor beast. It rushed towards him through the leaves and landed with a thud on his chest.

Johnny fell backwards onto the path, raising an arm to protect his throat and holding onto the Colt for dear life. Fear gripped him fast as he struggled; Scott seemed to have doubled in weight and strength, his slim arms knotted with sinew. When a hand fastened around his windpipe, squeezing and cutting off his air, Johnny knew he was losing the fight.

"Scott . . ."

The name was choked from him, but incredibly, the beast laughed in his ear. The sound enraged him, and with a final surge of effort, Johnny managed to free his gun-hand. He lifted the weapon and brought it down in a clubbing motion across his attacker's head. The beast grunted, but astoundingly, its grip never loosened. With a final, superhuman burst of adrenalin, Johnny raised the Colt again. Black spots danced before his eyes and he knew this was his last chance. He put all his remaining energy into the blow and the beast sank down on his chest.

The stars swung wildly above him, and for a brief, terrifying moment, Johnny almost lost consciousness himself. He fought it as hard as he could, dragging some air down into his wretched lungs and rolling out from under the heavy body.

He had to act quickly and he realised it. God alone, only knew how long the beast would remain inert. Johnny suspected the respite would be brief. He lurched to his knees, rolling Scott onto his back and sighing in relief as his fingers closed on the Spirit Stone in his brother's breast pocket. He took it out cautiously, fingers trembling, still dreading the stone's siren call. But this time, he felt nothing. The Modoc talisman was protecting him, just as the Indian had promised.

It was only when he was safely on Barranca and headed out at a gallop across the moonlit meadow, that Johnny began to feel a spark of hope in his breast. He might make it in time, after all.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

By the time Johnny reached Salt Canyon, the moon was big and beautiful in the sky. He rode Barranca up as close to the caves as he dared, his flesh quivering with shock and fear as he tried to ignore the horrid conviction he wasn't alone.

The melancholy cry of a night-bird sounded from somewhere among the trees. Barranca threw back his head in fright, rolling his wild eyes. Johnny whispered softly to the horse, and tied him up to a cottonwood branch. He'd come prepared to complete the rest of the journey on foot, bringing an old miner's lamp with him, although the moonlight was almost as bright as day. Unhitching it from the back of his saddle, Johnny tramped off up the path. The trail to the cave was dense and overgrown, unseen branches whipping spitefully at his face, as he neared the yawning entrance to the side of the mountain.

Johnny fumbled for some matches, placing the lamp on a pile of boulders, as his fingers stumbled clumsily to light one. His body ached and his throat was sore, but worse, far worse than the physical misery, was his abiding fear for Scott.

Somewhere back down the trail, he heard Barranca whinny. The sound made him freeze in the act of lighting the match, alert for the slightest hint of danger. A loud, unearthly howl split the silence ~ Johnny knew that sound. It was the cry of a savage wolf, the feral call of a beast.

Johnny's breathing came with difficulty. A sense of vast terror pressed down on his soul. He didn't know how, but Scott had followed him here. He glanced quickly up at the sky. The moon sailed imperviously above them, serene and round as a silver dollar, climbing higher towards the apex of the heavens.

Johnny knew it was nearly midnight - he had only minutes left to do this. There wasn't even enough time to light the lamp. He took the Spirit Stone out of his breast pocket, and folded it into the palm of his hand. Clutching tightly onto the matches, he headed for the entrance to the cave.

The beast howled again, much closer this time. Johnny heard the nearby rustle and scamper of claws as they scraped and clattered across stone. He tried striking a match, cursing out loud as three in a row refused to light, before the beast was upon him once more.

It was a large, fully grown, black wolf. Its eyes glowed, luminously topaz, as it barrelled Johnny  onto his back, the stone skittering out of his hand. In dismay, he tried to grasp for it, the moon a mocking goddess high above him. It was a desperate nightmare of a struggle, but he was no match for the powerful animal.

Johnny floundered in the dust, the snarling jaws just inches from his face. He gasped out loud as the beast's claws raked his chest, tearing open his shirt and rending through his flesh. The talisman gleamed bright against his skin, radiant and silver, as the moonlight seemed to shimmer and dance in the faceted depths of the Wolf-Stone.

Johnny looked despairingly into the beast's eyes, searching for any last, vestige of humanity. Cold to his soul, when all he saw reflected back at him, were the ravenous eyes of a wolf.

The talisman glowed even brighter ~ was it his imagination, or had the beast pulled back from him slightly? Johnny took advantage of the momentary respite, his fingers scrabbling frantically for the Spirit Stone.

The wolf resumed its attack, claws scraping viciously across the softness of Johnny's belly. It lunged once again for his throat.

"Oh Dios, Scott, no . . ."

Johnny found the stone at last, gripping it tightly with blood-slicked fingers, and smashing it into the animal's skull. There were fragments and portions of prayers on his lips, as he hoped for his brother's life.

The animal sagged against him, its muscles and sinews gone slack. Johnny grit his teeth and ignored his wounds, using the smart and sting of them for much needed impetus, as he struggled to keep his head clear. He lit a match with shaking hands and staggered into the cave.

Johnny groped along the rocky tunnel, heart filled with the dread that he might be too late. He used the dwindling supply of matches to search the walls for ancient paintings, as he descended further underground. He knew he should have brought the lamp. The light from the matches was far too feeble, but all the while his time was running out, and he was forced to back this last, most desperate gamble.

The cave came to a sudden, dead end. There was a large expanse of smooth rock in front of him, and he knew he'd found them at last. The paintings were mysterious, realistic and vivid. At any other time, Johnny would have been captivated by their beauty, but time was his deadly foe now.

There was a small ledge at the base of the wall, surrounded by pebbles and shells. An empty hollow had been carved in its centre, approximately the size of a man's palm. With trembling fingers, Johnny placed the stone into the hole, inordinately relieved when it fitted exactly. The world swung, and he took a step backwards, straightening up with sudden fatigue.

The ground  began to shake beneath him and the matches fell from his hand. Dust cascaded around his shoulders as the cavern started to rumble somewhere, deep in the bowels of the earth. Johnny placed a hand on the wall, staggering back through the inky darkness, as the cave began to crumble all around him. He ran for his very life, dodging the chunks of rock which crashed down and missed him by the narrowest of margins.

Johnny made it as far as the entrance, before a large boulder side-swiped him over the head. He fell awkwardly onto his knees, fighting the threatening dizziness, but knowing deep-down,  all was lost. A pair of hands grasped him tightly under the arms and dragged him the last, few feet away from danger, out into the night air.

Johnny lay face down on the ground, gasping and choking for breath. The shuddering earth told its own story and he heard the loud tumble of rock from the cave behind him. Nightmare and reality blurred around the edges and he drifted in pain for a while, knowing he should be doing something, but worried he might be too late.

"Johnny?"

The voice was gentle and deeply bewildered, calling him back from the brink of unconsciousness as he struggled not to succumb.

"What are we doing here, what happened?"

Johnny forced his tired eyes open, scarcely daring to believe his ears, as he looked up into the dusty, bloodstained face of his brother. "Scott? That you?"

In spite of his bemusement, Scott raised a sardonic eyebrow. His mouth edged into  a grin. "Who else could it possibly be, little brother? I think that blow scrambled your brain." He winced, touching tender fingers to his own skull. "And talking of blows, would you mind telling me just exactly what we are doing up here in the middle of the night?"

Johnny swallowed hard and looked up at the sky. The moon sailed serenely above them, directly and plumb overhead. He shivered in the cold night air, he must have made it with seconds to spare. The fight drained down out of his body and he leant gratefully against Scott for a moment, aches and pains hurting all over, as the adrenalin surge died away. He didn't have a clue how he was going to explain this one, or if he should even bother trying. All he knew, was that Scott had been returned to him. In the scheme of things, it was all that really mattered.

He smiled wearily and shook his head. "Later brother, my head's hurtin' too much to explain right now. It's kind of a 'beastly' story . . ."

The moon began to climb down from the heavens. As they stumbled off down the trail, two figures stepped out of the darkness. The man placed his hand on the animal's soft fur ~ on the head of a large, black wolf. The shaman and his  companion watched the Lancers until they were gone, melting noiselessly back into the shadows as though they'd never been.

 

~end~
Lisa Paris - 2003

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