Ch 4 – Hole in the Ground
The blonde furrowed her brows as the calling of her name continued and two small hands began to shake her shoulders.
Sleep gave way to reality as Clove opened her eyes. Amara clutched at her shirt with tears streaming down her face.
"They're gone!" she cried. "Papa and everyone else!"
"Everyone?" Clove asked as she turned to stand up. Amara's grip changed to hugging the Blonde's hip, unwilling to let go, and she shook her head.
"All the boys!" she clarified.
Alarmed, Clove quickly threw on her veil and exited the small wagon. Large drifts of sand piled up against the walls of the circled caravan. The other women were crowded around Nuri who was attempting to bring calm. She motioned for the blonde to join them.
"Clove!" she exclaimed. "They are all gone! They left when the women fell asleep. They took some of our water satchels with them."
"Some of us woke when they opened up the doors and tried to stop them but others slept right through it," one of the women added.
"I guess that explains all the gluttony last night. They were trying to prepare themselves to take a journey," Clove said. "Be comforted that with all the food they ate last night and the th water they took this morning they were more than likely able to survive their trip."
"I suggested we send out someone to look for them," Nuri said. "The rest of the caravan needs to dig out the wagons and assess for any damages."
Clove smiled at the teen. "That sounds like an excellent plan. How long should we give to find them?"
"I-I'm not sure," Nuri confessed. "We can't wait that long. Sitting here in one spot it risky and leaves us open to attack…" She turned and addressed the other women. "What say you? How long can we hold out before we need to continue?"
A middle-aged women with a toddler on one hip and another child clutching at her dress addressed the group, "We've already been here one night. The most I think we could risk is one more. Then…we have to move on when dawn comes." She patted her clinging child on the head and added, "I don't like thinking about going on without our men but we have the children to think about too."
Some of the other women began to weep at the thought of leaving without their men but all agreed one more night was all they could spare.
"Okay, just one day and one night to find them right Nuri?" Clove clarified.
The girl nodded. "Yes, if they could be found by dawn and a signal sent out to alert us we could pick them up and continue on."
"Alright, I'll go," Clove offered. "Even being ill I'm the best canidate. There's no time to waste. I'm going to get Ives and gear up."
Clove threw open the double doors of the large metal caravan. Inside was most of the caravans daily supplies along with extra cyber horses; Ives included. Like the other horses Ives hung suspended in a storage harness with legs retracted. At the sight of his mistress the animal snorted and tossed his head.
Clove worked the adjuster knob on Ive's hips and shoulders to release his legs. Slowly, she released the suspension harness from his horse and let the animal adjust to the feeling of standing again. As the midnight steed practiced lifting on hoof then the other Clove went to grab her saddle and gear. The blonde reached up to release the travel worn leather saddle but paused as movement caught her eye. There was moving mass inside her saddle bag. Feeling frustrated that some desert creature had taken the time to crawl up into her gear she flung off the buckles and allowed the gear to smash to the floor.
"What the hell…" Clove mumbled as she cautiously slipped the bag strap from its buckle. There, wedged between a rolled-up bandolier of thermal shells and a canister of gun oil was a severed hand; D's left hand to be exact.
"Do you always treat your gear so shitty?!" the parasite angrily spat out.
Clove crouched down and extracted the severed appendage. "What the fuck is going on? Where did D go? I thought you said you had lost the trail, or were you lying?"
"Firstly, my dear, I would never lie to the likes of you-"
"Flattery will most definitely get you nowhere right now Lefty. Where is D?"
The parasite cleared his throat then continued, "I don't know where he is. I'm sure somewhere in the desert, dying, like a fool."
"This is serious. All the rest of the men of the caravan went missing during a nighttime sandstorm. Did D say anything? Did you sense anything?"
Left Hand was silent a moment, his wrinkly features drawn together in thought. "It's like I said. We lost the man's scent. I haven't smelt it since the Sand Pooler incident. Nor have I sensed anything possibly related since. D told me nothing but he must have obviously sense something." As he continued on Clove went on with her preparations and began securing the saddle to Ives's back.
"I assume he left me for you to find so that I could help track him down if it came to that. Even without a storm to shift the sands you wouldn't be able to track him through this wasteland."
Clove let out a huff as she tightened the saddle strap. "I'm assuming I was the backup plan in case he didn't return. Although it's hard to imagine D needing rescue."
"Hm, maybe he foresaw the possibility of the other males being involved?" Left Hand mused.
Clove set the hand on the newly secured saddle. Angry though she was Clove knew that D wouldn't have acted as he did without reason. "Whatever his reasoning is he has a lot of explaining to do once we track him down. I'm going to put you back in my bag. Stay still and silent until we get out far enough away."
Clove exited the caravan and walked Ives back to the group of women. Nuri fitted two large water sachets on either side of Ives. Clove tightened the belt on the horse one more for good measure and swung a top it. Quickly, she guided her fingers over her gear as a double check. Dagger, buck knife, small high powered thermal pistol, short sword, and lastly, four red signal flares.
"Okay... " Clove breathed out. She looked down at an apprehensive Nuri and then back at the frightened women. Looking back to the teenager she said, "I will signal when I find them. My signal will mean that we're ready for pick-up. If I don't signal by dawn you must carry on. Consolidate everything and move on toward the valley."
The teen shook her head, her eyes dewy with tears.
Clove reached down and laid a hand on her caramel cheek. "Nuri, you know what to do. These are your people. Keep them safe and keep their hopes up. If you don't get a signal by dawn you will move on. You will do what's best for your people. You can do this."
Nuri felt a calm wash over her. If this huntress could believe in her so fiercely maybe she could do this. She took a deep breath and nodded. "If we don't get a signal by dawn we'll move on."
The blonde smiled at her. She raised her hand in farewell to the others before affixing her veil and riding off. A full day and a full night to find D and the others and kill whatever had lured them away. Clove headed out in whatever direction would take her behind a dune first and out of sight of Nuri and the others. After making sure the caravan had lost sight of her, she extracted Left hand from her saddle bag.
"Which direction?" She asked as she held the severed appendage aloft. After several deep inhales the parasite indicated northeast.
"You know, instead of having to waste one hand holding me in place you could always tuck me securely in the front of your shirt. You'd have your hands free and I'd have a good vantage point."
Clove laughed. "Yes, I'm sure being nestled between my breasts is purely suggested for my benefit huh?"
"Heh, well I had to to try!"
Although she didn't agree on his suggested place she did like his suggestion of being hand free and ended up tucking the hand into the shoulder straps of her holster. The day wore on with Left Hand giving small directional changes. The sun was merciless on the dhampire and even with her coverings she felt herself fading. Sweat rolled down her body and it began to feel harder to breath. It was as if there was a tightening vice slowly squeezing harder on her rib cage as the day wore on.
All day the pair navigated the dunes of the wastelands The large metal debris just visible on the horizon at the caravan camp site were growing closer. When the sun hung low in the sky preparing to set the pair found themselves walking among the mechanical graveyard.
"Remnants of the war with the OSB," Left Hand remarked. "Some are theirs some are the Nobles. This is the shit that turned this placed into a monster filled sandbox."
Clove didn't respond. Instead she guided Ives into the cool shadows created by the twisted metal and reached for her canteen. The blonde wiped the sweat from her brow before taking a long draft.
"How are you doing kid?"
Clove wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "I'm upright. This little side trip is definitely not welcomed. Hopefully, I can find and deal with this thing before falling into a fever coma. How are you doing without D?" She smirked. "Not turning into jerky from all this sun are you?"
"Bah! Don't avoid my question. Wait- we're close now!" the parasite exclaimed before taking another deep inhalation. "They're inside one of this machines... Just walk around a bit and I'll be able to pinpoint it."
Clove pulled at her veil and tried to steady her breathing. The cloth could hindered her vision and she needed to maximize whatever physical superiority she had. As Ives meandered through the downed machines Clove re-checked her thermal pistol. The setting sun painted the metallic graveyard in yellows and oranges and cast strange angular shadows on the sand.
"There!" Left Hand exclaimed. "Right there, that tall hunk of metal."
Clove dismounted; the large steel pile stretching out above her. It was the remains of a torso from some metal man used in the wars. His head was gone as were his arms having looked to have been torn off in combat, and it leaned just slightly to the left. It stretched up above five stories from the sand. The desert had swallowed the torso half way up and Clove assumed at least another 3 stories descended into the sands.
As she approached the torso Clove looked for insight from Left Hand. "Anything you can tell me at this point?" She knelt down in front of a small square entrance that looked to be a utility access. At one time a hatch would have covered it but it was nowhere to be seen. It looked to be the only access point to the inside.
"They were here and they went inside," Left hand replied.
The blonde allowed her eyes to adjust to the drastic change in lighting before crawling through the hole. "Hm," Clove murmured as she advanced, ducking under fallen piping. "I don't know how they would have managed to navigate this wreck. Even with lights some of these passages are surely to narrow for the likes of Baqi."
Clove slowly advanced down into the machine. Left hand offered his directional insight at cross roads, doors, and ladders. As they descended one, two, three stories down Clove's breathing evened out and her sweating stopped. The darkness, coolness, and pseudo-tomb like atmosphere gave Clove temporarily relief from the effects of the sun-based illness.
One the fourth story down from the entrance Left Hand directed Clove to a hand dug tunnel resembling something a burrowing insect would make.
"The torso may have been the entrance but it looks like her lair is located in a different machinery. Something deeper. Clever Beast!" the parasite exclaimed.
The tunnel ended and Clove found herself stepping into a large metal paneled room. The scent of the men was stronger here. The parasite added, "The smells of the caravan man are in two sectors. One concentrated area and one longer spread out area that leads to this den."
"Using some for defense and hoarding the others," Clove mused as she looked around the rusted room. "Any sign of D?"
"Beyond even the hoarded men I think. Probably with the creature. He's probably that bitch's trophy prize, ha!"
At Left hands direction Clove walked down a long hallway that ended in an imposing looking double door.
"The defense men are right on the other side. The others must be after the end of the corridor," Left hand commented. "Stealth would be advisable given the situation."
Clove didn't know if the parasite meant her illness or the possible aggression of the men and she didn't ask. "Do you see any ventilation or utility access?" she inquired instead and ran the hand against the metal paneling. The blonde may not be able to manipulate machinations like her counterpart but she could force open a faulty seam.
"Here, there's a draft! Up just a little bit. There, looks like an access for cable maintenance."
Clove placed the severed appendage back in her holster straps and ran her fingers over the area. Her fingertips caught on a small seam. She pulled a dagger from its holder and with the heel of her hand forced it into the seam. With a groan and some jimmying the panel swung open.
"Can you tell how long the corridor is or how many men there are?" Clove asked as she pulled herself up and into the small space.
"Uh, 100 yards?"
"That sounds confident…"
"I'm not omnipotent!" the parasite shot back.
"So cranky. I thought you liked me?" Clove joked as she slowly advanced forward.
"I do like you! In fact, in case D ends up dead at the end of this I'm planning for you to be my next host. Which breast do you think I'd prefer, right or left?"
Clove stifled a laugh. "Can you smell any of the men out?"
"There are 8 or 9 of them in the length of the corridor. I dunno if they're linked to the monster. Could have heightened sense so be careful."
"Yes," Clove replied in a hushed voice as she belly crawled over a tall pile of wire bundles. "I am aware. Let me know if you sense anything new."
Slowly and silently Clove crept along the narrow passage until it ended in another small hinged panel. Carefully, Clove slipped her dagger into different points along the seam and gave it a smack with her heel. When she had loosened it enough she gave it one swift smash with her foot and the panel swung open.
She cringed as the hinges squealed in protest and then gave way sending the panel clattering to the floor below. She hopped to her feet in as ready a stance as she could muster in the confined space. Nothing happened. Cautiously, she peered into the room beyond. Her night sensitive eyes could see the rest of the men. They showed no notice of the noisy entrance but were most definitely alive.
"Their heart rate is slowed down, almost like they're in a deep sleep," Clove whispered as she carefully lowered herself to the ground. The men stood at irregular intervals around the room. Their eyes were wide open but they gave no notice of the intruders.
"Probably all having fabulous wet dreams, heh," Left hand chuckled out.
Thinking ahead Clove placed three small cartridges in the room. One at the door she just bypassed, one in the center of the room, and one at the only other door located at the far end. Slipping a small device from a pouch on her belt she synced all three cartridges with a detonator.
"Pepper packets," she explained to the parasite. "Just in case things go sideways and it calls for backup. I'd rather not have to harm these horny idiots."
Silently, she made her way to the other side of the room where the second door was. Again she ran the hand along the paneling.
"D's on the other side of the door by the way," The creature added after indicating a panel seam.
"Just D?" Clove inquired as she began her dagger jimmying again.
"Yep. Everyone else is in here or in the other hallway. Well, everyone who made the trip. Desert took a few I think."
Clove popped the panel and climbed inside again. This passage was shallow, only about two feet deep. She glanced above herself and noticed a vertical shaft.
"Hm, you think that'll take me over top of the room they're in?" She asked the parasite.
"Most likely," it replied, "or at least it'll give you a better leg up on this thing instead of, you know, trying to burst through a tiny hole..."
Clove ascended up into the shaft. The passage took a turn to the right to allow access to the space above the room. Finding a thin, ill attached plating, Clove checked her gear then positioned herself to jump.
With one swift motion clove streaked down from the ceiling. She landed lightly on her feet and her head snapped up to see a pair in front of her. There stood D, his back to her and at his side whispering into his ear was a woman; an old woman.
She was a short bow-legged thing that stood on the tips of its toes to reach D's shoulder. One hand with thick yellowed nails rested on D's forearm for balance. Its skin was molted in places, dimpled like an orange peel all over, and gray in color. From its head cascaded down stringy black hair that collected around its waist. It had turned at the sound of Clove's entrance and stared in shock with its milky dead eyes at the blonde.
"Ugh," Left Hand commented. "Not much of a looker! I thought she'd be a little shapelier. What a shame!"
At the parasite's insult the hag drew back its lips, revealing crocked sharp teeth and hissed. "My corporeal form matters not vermin. For my ethereal form is eternally beautiful in all men's third eye."
"She means she's only hot in dreams, ha!" Left Hand mocked.
Again the hag hissed and began to advance in a slow bow-legged steps. D began to turn as well and she could see that unlike the others the dhampire's eye were closed. His action revealed the link between the hag and the men and Clove quickly reached for her device and pressed the button.
"Ah," the Hag remarked. "I see you set a little trap for my little prizes. Clever girl! So pretty too. No wonder so many of my ethereal forms resemble you to them." As the hag continued to shamble forward D strode before her and slide his sword loose.
Where a vain woman would have rejoiced at such news Clove said nothing. She was well aware of her physical effect on men as a female dhampire. She was viewed to be beautiful and many a man she had met had lusted after her. Still to hear it confirmed by a creature that used sex and fantasy as a weapon made her feel ill.
Still with his eye closed, D brought his arm across his body and shot forward toward Clove.
"D!" Clove cried out as he began to slash his blade horizontally through the air. Clove turned her head and allowed herself to fall to her knees and backbend away from the advancing blade. The air from the blade kissed her skin as it passed. Quickly she pushed herself back to her feet and spun to face D pulling her blade free as she did. She noticed his eyes were now open. Though the hag could not see the difference judging by the shriek she let out she must have felt it.
"What? Roused so easily? How!" it shrieked.
Clove stepped out of the way as D quickly strode towards it with his blade raised high. Launching forward he brought the long blade straight down and through the Hag's body. Crimson fluid exploded from the transversed body. Organs slid down into a heap on the ground as the two half of the hag gave way and fell to the ground.
"D?" Clove questioned as she slid her blade back.
Without turning to face her D asked, "How long have I been gone?"
"It's been two full days. The others left last night during a sandstorm."
D turned to look at her in profile. "Others? She called the other caravan men?"
"Yes," Clove replied as she neared him. She crossed her arms and continued, "It want an explanation but it'll have to wait. We have to get back to the surface and signal Nuri."
D turned away again. "Can I have my hand back, please?"
"I didn't miss you," Left hand commented before reconnecting with the stump of D's left arm. The slight shriveled appearance of the appendage disappeared as the tissues reconnected.
The door to the room slid open with a groan and in tumbled Baqi along with a cloud of pepper spray. His eyes were clenched shut and puffy and his nostril dripped snot from the effects of the spray. The burly man bent over and heaved onto the floor. D took advantage of Bagi's and the others temporary blindness to extend Left Hand. The parasite opened its maw and the clouds of powder quickly swirled into its mouth. In short order the rooms and corridor were clear.
"What the fuck!" the large man exclaimed as he pawed at his puffy eyes. "What the fuck just happened? Where are we?!"
Clove went to the man's side and helped him in washing his eyes out with the small canteen from her hip. "That's all I can use on you. You'll have to wait 'til we are up top again. I have some water bags on Ives. Long story short you and the other men got lured out into the desert by a sexual dream hag. You all went missing last night during a sand storm."
"Everyone?" the man bellowed while testing out his cleaned out eyes. Blinking rapidly he looked toward Clove. "Everyone went missing in the middle of a storm?"
"All the men yes. The women are under Nuri's guidance right now. I advised them to move on toward the valley if not signaled by dawn today," Clove replied.
D walked passed the pair. "Gather your men Baqi, we must leave this place."
Clove and Baqi did their best to clear the men's vision with what little water was available. Between Clove's canteen and the water the charmed men had pilfered before starting their journey they were able to restore partial vision to everyone. Slowly, the mind fog began to lift as the group made their way toward the surface. They had no memory of traversing the labyrinthine of metal down into the creature's lair and it was left to Clove to lead them upward.
As she neared closer and closer to the surface Clove felt the benefits of the depth slipping away. The dhampire was acutely aware that when they reached the top not only would dawn be imminent but she would be worthlessly weak. As they neared the entrance Clove passed Baqi the signal flares and allowed the rest to pass her and exit the ruins.
Clove sat down just inside the entrance, savoring the coolness of its darkness. Her clammy sweat was already returning, her limbs felt weak, and an occasional chill ran through her. She pulled at her hair binder and allow it to fan out messily around her. As she ran her fingers through the damp mess she looked up to D who had been the last of the group.
"I don't know what you were thinking- if you thought you could spare me some exertion by being silent about all this- but I want to make it very obvious that you failed miserably."
D knelt down before her, reaching into one of his pockets but said nothing. Silently he handed her another blood capsule. Clove took the pill, placed in into whatever was left inside her canteen, swirled it around then drank it quickly. She let her head fall back against the metal wall and pulled to loosen her collar. Her skin was pale and clammy and her cheeks were flushed. There was no denying that the dhampire did not look well at all.
"I'm sorry," D said after a brief period of silence. He came to sit next to Clove and added, "It was my intention to handle this on my own and allow you to rest. I placed Left Hand in your things just in case there was a problem." He looked away from the blonde. "I hadn't anticipated what happened."
Clove held up her hand. "Please, I'm too tired to open up this discussion right now. Just know I think you're a fool and if I had the strength I would slap you."
D gave a slight smile. Although physically weak Clove did not lack any or her strong personality. "Noted…"
Clove closed her eyes and allowed a brief silence to engulf them again. "So D," called the recently reunited parasite, "If I had to pick one which one of Clove's breasts do you think I should live in?"
Clove's laughter billowed out into the desert startling the confused men who milled about in the shadows of the metal ruins. Raising his arm high Baqi let loose the signal flare. Within five minutes the caravan signaled back. They were on their way.
A/N – Love so much left hand action. It's fun to have him interact solely with another person instead of with D and someone else. This was long but I felt it better to cut it off here then earlier. The next chapter might take me a longer as my chapter outlines have been altered by the length of this and the previous chapter. Thanks for reading and reviewing.