It was a humid afternoon, clinging to the end of summer. Ashley ducked under the roar of the helicopter as it flung a fresh sheet of water over her face. The blades beat the surface of the nearby river, sending shallow waves onto the bank which was thick with weeds and unpleasant refuse from the last town before the rainforest.
Finally, the noisy machine lifted off the ground and headed toward the low lying mountains behind her. Dripping, she rang her pony tail onto the ground, flicking it over her shoulder before doing the same to her coat.
She waved at the pair of small children who had moved in for a closer look, half hiding behind a stand of shrubs. They had strayed from the village, following the black chopper as it sailed in close. The pair ventured out and waved back at the blonde woman, grinning with bright eyes against dark skin.
Ashley knelt onto the damp grass, slipping her backpack off. She dug through it, quickly finding her father's journal. Flipping through the delicate pages, Ashley scanned each one until she caught sight of it – a map, roughly drawn by her grandmother and beside it a line of instructions. It didn't look particularly forthright but if her grandfather could find the Sanctuary of the Moon using this, then so could she.
Turning it around so that the North symbol lined up with her compass, Ashley started searching for matching landmarks and soon found the Smouldering Match – a dark line of smoke leisurely trailing into the sky from a volcanic outcrop. An eagle soared over head, catching her eye as it enjoyed a warm air current. She wished that she could join it, play on the air for a while away from the world and all its trouble.
Instead, she gazed at the jungle in front. The knee length grass field that she was standing in ended fifty or so metres ahead. The dark green jungle loomed beyond, like a wave rearing up on the shore.
They relocated detective Joe Kavanaugh to one of the guest bedrooms where he happily fell into a deep sleep. His injuries were minor and not in any immediate need of attention. Helen closed his door and turned to John, Henry and Nikola who had been shadowing her through the corridor.
"Follow me," she said sternly, though they didn't need to be told. All of them could feel the air tensing around the brunette as she strode ahead, clearly upset by the turn of events.
She led them to the medical lab, ushering them into a line along the glass enclosure where Will sat on the edge of the hospital bed. When Helen had seen John and Tesla appear in her foyer, she had been inches from Will's skin with the tip of the needle. Its contents would have killed him quickly and painlessly but her instinct told her to stop, that this couldn't possibly be the end for him, and she had been right.
"I want you to tell me again," she said to Nikola, who had broken the line and instead reclined against the desk containing print outs of all his files. He eyed one of the piles, folding his arms across his chest with disapproval.
"This one," he nodded at Henry, "has parroted my research correctly. I have strong reason to believe that there is a small community of vampires living in the Peruvian rainforest. The closest civilisation is the water-locked city of Iquitos. If Ashley's smart, she'll stop there for a guide. Sadly, Ashley has the only map so once we get there, we'll be wandering blind."
"How did she get her hands on a – you gave it to her... If this is one of your desperate attempts to get your claws on vampire blood, Nikola, then I am going to kill you myself."
"I assure you," he replied, "that although it might be true that I'm making the best of the circumstance presented to me, I did nothing as advantageous as orchestrating it. It was your pet sand creature that attacked me in the middle of the night, remember?"
He had a point. "There are no copies of the map I presume..."
"Helpful, Nikola." Helen glanced at Will as he bent forward in pain. It was starting again. He didn't have long. "You're coming with us. Pack light everyone, we have a plane to catch. Not you Henry –" Helen caught his arm as he headed for the door with the others.
"But I've been researching this. Helen, I know the data. You might need someone with this information – you can't just trust that man."
"And you trust his research? For all you know Henry, he may have left that there for you to find. We have Nikola, and for the moment at least, our goals are the same. The fewer people we have with us, the faster we can move. I don't want Ashley out there alone."
"You know, 'that man' is standing right here..."
"Stay out of this, Nikola," Helen glared at him. He bowed out of the room with a smirk.
"Helen, you're going to need me," pleaded Henry.
"I'm sorry," she said. "But Will needs you more."
Ashley surveyed the river cutting through her path. There had been unseasonal rain, and now rivers were popping up that were not labelled on the map. This one was about three metres wide but gushing with a frightening velocity. If she missed the bank, Ashley would be washed in its current god knows how far off course.
There was no choice though, she would have to cross it.
Her backpack went first, flung across the gap where it landed safely on the other side.
"See, not so hard," she said to herself. If her backpack could do it...
Ashley backtracked, taking a run up through a patch of clear, but muddy ground. She took one last look at the murky river as it raged past and then dug her heals in, launching herself at it in full run.
Her legs stretched out, striding through the air as her arms clawed forward until she hit the opposite bank. She landed on the ground hard and immediately started sliding down its inclined bank toward the river. The ground was covered in silty mud that was nearly impossible to get a grip on.
"Urgh, come on!" she hissed, as she felt water rushing over her boots.
Helen tightened her belt, drew her long, weatherproof coat around her and concealed an assortment of weapons on her body. John rested against the wall beside the front door, watching the large clock tick away the time as they waited for Nikola. Their bags were ready to go and the car was out front, prepped to take them to Helen's private jet parked in a dark corner of the airport.
"What could possibly be keeping him?" Helen paced over the floor.
"He was never particularly reliable," commented John, readjusting the tape Helen had strapped over his face where the creature's claw marks cut deep.
"Will you two ever get over each other?" she shook her head. "Sometimes I think that this jealously was more about competition than actually loving me."
Henry bounded into the room, kitted out in jeans and a jacket with heavy boots and a bundle of bags.
"Henry, we discussed this," said Helen sternly, eyeing his travelling clothes.
"Mr. Tesla is gone," he panted, out of breath from the run down the hall. "I checked all of the motion senses and security cameras. He disappeared into the library and never came back."
"Typical," grinned John.
"Don't you dare enjoy this," Helen instructed. "The reality is that without him, we've got no chance of finding Ashley – what is it Henry?"
Henry held up a bundle of papers. "I know where he's going, Helen. I can do this. Will's dead if we don't leave now. Worse than dead."
Helen shifted her gaze between the expectant Henry and the impatient John, who shrugged his approval.
"Ready to leave?" she nodded at Henry's bags. "Let's go then. Next time I see Nikola, he better have a bloody good explanation."
Ashley looked like a mud monster that had crawled out of some festering swamp. She sniffed her arm where the mud was starting to dry into a shell and crack off. This was just like the old days, she thought, tracking abnormals in their native environment. The only difference here was that she knew that the abnormal in question was way smarter than her, worse still, she wasn't just hunting it, she wanted to talk to it.
"Right map," she held the book with slightly muddy hands. "A little help would be good."
There was no path to speak of, only a trickle of water running over a twisting line of boulders cutting through the foliage. She clambered over each one, sliding on their rough surfaces until she reached their top and could stare out over the next fall of jungle.
Suddenly, the ground underneath her gave way. All she saw was the stunning view vanish to black as her body curved, freefalling. She held onto the journal, pulling it to her chest as she hit the soft ground. Ashley's vision blurred, her thoughts fractured by the fall. Above was the bright hole where she had fallen through the weak earth. Tree roots dangled around her, one brushing over her face. She moved it aside, sitting up with a groan.
An avalanche of dirt drained off of her – not that she could get any more filthy...
"Urgh..." she rested her head on her knees, closing her eyes. "Ouch."
It was a while before she located her torch and began inspecting her situation which couldn't possibly be a good one. The ground which had given way was four – maybe five metres above her head. Initially, she thought that she might be able to climb up the sides of the hole, but the earth was too soft. The tree roots, though prevalent, pulled free every time she tested their strength.
With the obvious route of escape failing her, Ashley turned her attention to the ground level. The hole extended into the earth around her, almost like a cave. On closer inspection, she found that one of the side walls had been propped up by timber. It was soft and mostly rotten but at one stage it had definitely been a doorway of sorts. The inside of it was blocked by a recent fall of dirt from above, flowing out into the main room. Perhaps it would be possible to clear a space through that.
The rest of the floor was bare. There was nothing at all that she could use as leverage to climb up toward the hole at the top, not even a well placed bolder like the thousands that she had trampled over to get this far.
"I refuse to die in a hole," she told herself firmly.
Returning her attention to the ominous doorway of wood, Ashley began to dig into it with her hands. She kept her torch off, conserving its battery unaware of the tunnel waiting beyond.