County Kilkenny, Ireland
Dunmore Cave is too powerful for even you!
His mother’s words kept playing over and over in his mind. She would not be happy with him if she lived today. She had nicknamed him La Cuchilla, The Blade, because he had been her favorite child. Neither sibling had his gifts, nor understood that with great power comes great expectation.
For him, that expectation meant he would rise above all others who had come before him. By ten, he’d proven to be more deadly than the sharpest blade. His mother would whisper her special name for him when calling on the powers of her ancestors, who went back to days of the ancient kingdom of Ossory, now known as County Kilkenny in Ireland.
He used La Cuchilla as a code name these days, as none could link it to his face, but one day, once he rose to the level of the most powerful beings, that name would be known—and feared—by all.
To his core, he was La Cuchilla and no human man. He refused to fear any ethereal presence living inside this cave.
You promised, La Cuchilla!
His mother’s words hammered his conscience.
He’d sincerely meant the vow he’d given to her at ten years old when he promised to stay far away from this treacherous location.
Now, at thirty-four, he realized how naïve he’d been to utter those words. If his mother still lived, he hoped she’d understand, because he’d been inside Dunmore Cave for over an hour, waiting for staff to close the place to visitors.
That had happened ten minutes ago.
This wasn’t actually the area she’d warned him about, where all but one soldier of an army had met their end many generations ago. He waited in a part of the cave that had become a museum for humans to wander through and admire, clueless about what lurked deeper inside, behind thick walls.
Shrouded in darkness, he gathered himself for the task ahead as the staff cleaned up after another day of sightseers.
Today’s humans were curious of the past, but lacked the ability to truly appreciate stories they considered little more than myth. Most of these puny humans toyed with electronic devices while wandering through the cavern. No respect for those who died here.
Some came only to see if Dunmore Cave was truly haunted.
Wouldn’t you expect a place where a thousand women and children had been murdered to house a few spirits?
Allowing another minute to be sure all workers were gone, he moved quietly through security lighting, but he was invisible to any video monitoring. He’d learned how to cloak himself by the age of twelve. All three children of the famed Piri Barajas had inherited her gifts, but as the middle child he’d shown far greater ability than the other two.
He’d also worked harder than his brother and sister.
“You are special, La Cuchilla,” his mother would say.
It was true. Not ego so much as confidence.
Some might call him a warlock or sorcerer, but his mother had been the first to refer to him as a mage. He’d hidden his abilities from others when necessary. His mother had taught him that showing off his gifts was to invite his death.
Moving quickly, he chose his path through the narrow walkways carefully. This place smelled too clean, too new for an ancient burial site. His mother’s voice continued to harp at him to turn back.
He had heeded her advice his whole life ... until now.
He had an opportunity to gain immortality.
That had to be worth the risk of entering the Cave Of The Damned, as those in his mother’s secret coven had referenced it in hushed conversation.
His heart hurt when he thought of how disappointed she would be, if she still lived, at him breaking his word. But she was long gone, as were his father and two siblings.
Of his two parents, his mother had possessed by far the greater power.
She’d carried the blood of the witch Seanmháthair Piritta, his Celtic, many-times-great-grandmother, who had lived during the time of the Viking raids on this land. Piritta’s village had been near this cave when the area was still known as Ossory.
Poor Piritta had been only fifteen when she arrived too late to save her child from dying with many others in here.
Piritta raced to the cave when she heard the Vikings were raiding her village. Another woman had been watching her baby while Piritta cooked. She and the other mothers had agreed that if danger came to their home and their men were outnumbered, they’d hide all the children in the defensible cavern.
With a severe downslope to the narrow entrance, the women believed they had the best chance at killing the heathens in small batches by using the cave mouth as a choke point.
In 928, hulking Vikings, both men and women, from Dublin had been on their way to attack the Vikings in Waterford. The Vikings of Ireland were not at all united back then. The bloodthirsty pagans lived for a brutal battle and to bludgeon all who were of no use to them, but they captured women and children as slaves.
Upon discovering where their future slaves hid, the Vikings decided to force the captives out of hiding by setting fires near the cave entrance.
Unfortunately, a thousand innocent women and children died of asphyxiation.
Coming upon the scene, Piritta lost her mind, screaming at the Vikings and racing out into the open to save her child.
As her captors dragged her away, she cursed them.
According to his mother, Seanmháthair Piritta eventually escaped the Vikings, married again and had more children, then lived to well over a hundred.
But she never forgot her murdered child.
She spent a year perfecting a spell that pushed the King of England to slaughter young Dane males of fighting age. That campaign was now known as the St. Brice’s Day massacre, and those Danes would have been the next generation of Vikings.
The bad blood between Vikings and England lasted for over sixty years.
La Cuchilla chuckled to himself. Piritta knew how to dish out revenge.
A bird caught inside the cave fluttered and chirped, pulling his attention up. He smiled, recalling how he’d studied many birds growing up, but his favorite would always be the Halcón Peregrine, a magnificent falcon. He’d been sad over his prized bird faltering with age until inspiration struck and he realized how his falcon would become even more valuable after death.
He’d possessed more than one peregrine falcon over the years, but the one he had now would become a truly exceptional creature if his mission today were successful.
Now was not the time to allow his thoughts to wander if he intended to survive, and he did.
In spite of archeological explorations of this cave, the spirits prevented discovery of one particular pile of bones that lay beyond a tunnel, which dwindled until it appeared to terminate.
He remembered every word his mother had shared about her ancestors. She’d passed them down only to her most powerful child, but even so, she had not told him everything. Some things he’d discovered on his own.
When he encountered a printed sign ordering him to go no farther, he slipped by and continued to the tunnel he’d waited his entire life to enter.
Deep inside, the narrow passage split off in two dark directions. Opening his hand, he whispered words and a flame appeared above his palm. Now he discerned that the arched ceiling of the left side had a dip in the center.
That was the marker.
His heart thumped loudly in his ears as he headed down the left vein. The deeper in he traveled, the lower the ceiling of the tunnel became until he was on his knees.
He kept placing his left hand against the short wall, beginning to worry when he continued to encounter no indication of an opening.
On the third try, his fingers tingled.
Taking a deep breath and swallowing hard, he killed the flame and closed his eyes, then spoke the words he’d found in his mother’s journal. She probably never expected him to translate the odd text passed down from one generation to the next.
Sweat beaded his upper lip. He repeated the words two more times, then his fingers pushed through the wall as if it had turned into a cloud.
No going back now.
He twisted his body and wiggled his way through the ethereal opening. Energy sizzled across his skin.
Once everything stilled, he reached his arm outward. Was he on the other side of the wall?
His heart thumped so loudly the sound should be echoing in here. This place was darker than the souls of those Viking raiders.
As he stood, he called upon his majik. A glow grew around his feet and climbed toward his face, spreading slowly until the soft light reached the walls on each side of him. He glanced up to find a ceiling that soared two stories. As the light expanded and touched the upper walls farther back, he estimated this room stretched at least eighty feet.
The sound of something moving drew his eyes down to find a thin vine snaking slowly from the dark floor, which his light had failed to conquer.
Was something, or someone, blocking his majik?
The vine moved slowly toward him.
He smiled and kept his voice calm as he spoke. “I am a descendant of—”
A thicker vine shot out from behind him and wrapped his throat, choking him. He grabbed at it, fighting to pull away something with the strength of steel.
That’s when light rushed through the room and he finally saw the entire floor of skeletons covered in vines with glowing, red-orange flowers the size of his hands. The stalks had thorns as long as his fingers.
His chest heaved for a breath. He squeezed out, “I ... am ... blood kin.”
The neck vine would not let up.
Panicking, he clawed at the plant strangling him. He’d been told to never call up his majik here, but he had no choice. He had to break the living rope trying to kill him.
Squeezing out hoarse words, he fought to keep from passing out.
Smoke boiled around his face.
The killer neck vine hissed.
His eyes filled with tears and his chest wanted to explode.
A small plant at his feet lifted into view, stopping when it had grown much thicker and reached waist high. The stem divided into two offshoots.
A flower blossomed at the top of each one.
What did that mean?
Thorns sticking out just below the flower grew and extended six inches from the stem. The vine whipped back as if yanked away and came flying forward and down, hitting him square in each thigh.
He screamed in his head, because his tongue bulged in his mouth. Tears poured from his eyes.
Agony lashed up his legs and through his body.
Everything spun into a blinding red haze. He could see nothing else though his eyes were open.
Then, all at once, the thorns retracted from his thighs.
He heard a hissed word being repeated, but not in a language he knew.
The pressure around his neck released just as quickly.
He doubled over, hugging himself, coughing as he slid down the wall to sit. His mother had been right when she told him that to come here was to ask for his death.
Blood trickled from his mouth.
“You are not welcome,” whispered viciously through the air, then more voices echoed the words over and over.
Plants rose, along with spirits, above each skeleton lying prone on the floor. The spirits stared out through huge, dark eyes and had black holes for mouths. Their filmy bodies were dressed in clothes from the era in which they’d died.
His body ached from head to ... hell, his legs felt numb. “I ... am family,” he wheezed. He coughed and spit up blood.
A small female spirit from the center of the room glided over plants that moved gently in her wake, as though she were nothing more than a summer breeze.
When the girl reached him, she said in an emotionless voice, “I know your blood. Not you.”
He caught a breath. “Please don’t kill me. I’ll explain.”
She waited there, weaving back and forth. Was this Seanmháthair Piritta’s child? Her black mouth opened with another question. “Who are you to come here?”
He cleared his ravaged throat and spoke. Giving any being of power your real name was never wise. “I am called La Cuchilla by my mother. She was a descendant of Seanmháthair Piritta, who I believe was your mother. My mother was named Piri after her.”
The small child’s head tilted in confusion.
Rather than waste this chance, he kept talking. “It’s true. I am descended of your blood.” Then he considered something they might not know. “Do you know that your mother lived long, and made Vikings regret killing you?”
The image wavered back and forth as if the child’s spirit was anxious. “How?”
That had to be a good sign, yes? He told her of her mother’s life and of the St. Brice’s Day massacre.
For a moment, none of them made a sound.
Then the most horrible howling erupted.
His ears hurt, but he feared moving and ending up stabbed or strangled again.
Hold everything. This racket was a good sign.
The spirits were actually cheering.
Moving his hands to the holes in his thighs, he covered the wounds, hoping to heal them. But when he moved his hands, thick black blood oozed and smelled disgusting. He had to stop that before his damn legs rotted off.
If they allowed him to leave soon, he could heal, but that was a big if, after the reception he’d received.
When the noise quieted, the child spirit’s voice returned to sounding flat and empty. “Why are you here?”
He’d originally thought to tell the truth, that he wanted their plant majik for his own use, but he was rethinking that plan. This group of spirits had once wiped out almost an entire army sent by a goddess. From what he knew, no one from the preternatural world had dared to visit this tomb again.
Gathering his courage, he said, “I wish to ask a favor of you.”
He held his breath, but the small spirit lifted a translucent hand.
Once peace settled again, he continued. “Your mother made the Vikings pay in her day, but I have encountered their descendants. They do not deserve to live. I have done my best to rid the world of them, but I am not your mother. I have some gifts and only ask humbly for help in destroying the rest of your enemies.”
That eerie quiet descended again.
Could this child spirit know he lied?
She said, “I will grant you this aid one time if you do as you say.”
He could find some Viking descendants and kill them to make good on his offer. “Thank you. I require only a small plant.”
More hissing. Another ghostly hand signal.
She said, “That is the same as taking a limb from one of us.”
Was she really going to give him the plant? “I understand and will not let you down.”
“The last person to steal a plant did so without giving an oath. We are stronger now and will not allow that again. You swear on the blood of our family to do as you say and also harm no female or child.”
That was not a question, but a demand.
He hated to swear anything to a supernatural being, but what was the consequence of crossing this spirit? If he asked, she’d probably refuse to give him a plant. Besides, if her reach went beyond this cave, wouldn’t she have gone after the last person to steal a plant?
She must have taken his silence as confusion. “Break your oath and you will join us for eternity.”
Once he left this place, he’d never come back here. Just standing here had his skin crawling. His plan was simple and he answered to a powerful goddess. Once he succeeded at what he had in mind, though, he’d never need this kind of magic from anyone.
He’d be immortal.
Nodding, he said, “I swear on our family’s blood to do as you request.”
“Not a request. An order.”
A sharp curse sat on the tip of his tongue for this mouthy brat, but he was too close to pulling this off. “My mistake. I swear on our family’s blood to use the plant you gift me as you expect.”
Floating back, she lifted a plant ten inches tall and carried it in her open palm. When she reached him, he took the offering.
As soon as he did, her tiny hand disappeared.
Damn, that was weird.
But he lived in the world of weird.
Ready to get out of there, he tried to push up to stand, but his legs wouldn’t work. What the hell?
He asked, “Uh, will you allow me to use my majik to heal my legs?”
“No. Your legs carry your oath.”
This might not turn out as he’d hoped after all.
“Close your eyes,” she instructed in her monotone voice.
Should he do that?
Was she jerking his chain and intending to finish him off? What could she do once he closed his eyes? How was he going to reach the door between the museum area and outside? He’d placed a spell on the door to open when he was ready to exit, but he couldn’t move his legs even to crawl.
“Do you wish to stay with us?” the child asked, sounding genuinely curious.
“No.” He probably shouldn’t have said that so loud. “I mean, no, please. I want to go, so that I may fulfill my duty.”
When she said nothing else, he gave up and closed his eyes.
The red haze returned, but it was inside him.
He twisted and turned in a whirling ball of writhing energy that seemed to go on forever, then suddenly stopped. Dragging in deep breaths, he opened one eye to peek.
Nothing but darkness.
Had she fooled him after all and locked him in with the rest of them? His heart beat crazy and blood rushed through his ears.
Then he felt ... grass beneath the fingers on one hand.
Opening both eyes, he moved his hand again, happy to feel more natural terrain around him. He looked up to see a bare outline of clouds hiding the sliver of a moon.
“I’m outside,” he whispered in a thankful voice. He tried moving his right leg. No pain. He breathed a sigh of relief.
Calling up his majik, he created a tiny glow to keep from drawing any attention until he figured out exactly where he sat.
A hint of moonlight slipped out to shimmer across the top of the hill overlooking the cave.
“I’ll be damned.” Had the little child spirit teleported his body out here?
That was some kind of power.
“Wait!” He looked around frantically, then saw the plant she’d gifted him.
The stem moved gently, waiting patiently as a puppy, with an open flower turned to stare at him.
“Hello, baby,” he whispered and reached to stroke the petals.
The flower hissed.
He snatched his hand back and reminded the plant, “She promised you’d help me.” Drooping over, the flower seemed to sigh.
That was more like it.
He hadn’t gone through all that to get a pure Noirre plant for it to misbehave as soon as he touched it.