The Warm Welcome
I'm sorry it took me so long to update, but working on two stories at the same time has its difficulties. Third chapter, please enjoy!
The fresh, sea breeze whipped her face as she stood against the boat rail. Her hair was flying carelessly behind her and her chest was swelled up with joy. Over five thousand miles away from home, Cassidy was feeling exceptionally lighthearted and liberated. She took a deep breath of fresh, salty air and exhaled with a sigh. This was life; the sun was shining bright and warm across a crystal blue sky, the dolphins were swimming playfully along the ship hull underneath and Cassidy was on her way to a small, idyllic island for the best vacation of her life.
A gentle hand on her shoulder made her turn her head around. Daniel smiled.
"Are you having a good time?" he asked. Cassidy shook her head up and down. "We're almost there" her cousin said and lifted his hand.
The girl's stare followed the finger pointing on the horizon ahead. She squinted her eyes, trying to detect a small sign of the land far ahead, but the only thing she could see was the light blue blur at the point where the sky and the sea met.
"You can't see, can you?" Daniel asked with a smirk.
"Err… no, I think… yeah, I think I see something" Cassidy lied.
"Why don't you just wear your glasses, Cass? Or at least, get lenses."
"I don't need glasses, I can see just fine. And I'm not putting anything inside my eye. Not that I need any, anyway. I see perfectly clear!" she insisted with a pout.
"Riiight" he agreed with faked seriousness. "I'll go down to the lower deck to meet with Duncan and wait for the landing. Coming?"
"In a minute" she said and turned around again. Leaning against the railing, she smiled, gazing ahead. A minute later she finally saw the small mass of land emerging through the waves. The island of Taphos.
Cassidy walked next to her cousin as they left the boat. Duncan was following shortly behind, carrying his bulky baggage – Cassidy wondered what the hell he had inside them. The girl looked around her, taking in the new surroundings. They had arrived at a small port, only a few small houses and some stores around the dock. Then her eyes spotted two people that were approaching them; one was a very tall, dark-skinned man with short cropped hair and a worker's uniform, the other shorter and wearing a pair of old-fashioned, thick myopia glasses.
"Hello" the shorter man greeted them with a big smile as soon as they approached them. "Are you mister Daniel Strand?" he asked with a heavy accent.
"Yes, I am" Daniel answered. "You must be Moussan. They told me you would meet us as soon as we got here."
"Yes, yes" the man answered gleefully. He turned to the man next to him. "And this is Zikar."
Daniel shook both the men's hands.
"This is Cassidy Strand, my cousin" he said gesturing at the girl next to him. "And that's Duncan Smith."
"Nice to meet you" Cassidy said while the man behind her simply grunted.
"Well, then, shall we be going?" Moussan suggested.
Cassidy followed the others to the jeep that was parked nearby. They all got abroad – Moussan and Daniel at the front seats with Moussan as the driver, Cassidy Duncan and Zikar at the back – and they took off. They left the port behind soon and drove through the desert. It did look like a desert, Cassidy thought. Just sandy soil and rock and the clear blue sky above them.
"Is the town far?" Daniel asked at some point.
"No, not too far" Moussan assured. "We'll be there in twenty minutes, more or less."
Eligor entered the cave. He found Beleth and Malphas studying a large map that was splayed across the stone altar, while Valefar played dice with Lena in a corner. His eyes lingered there for a couple of seconds before walking towards the two demons at the altar.
"They're here" Eligor announced with a wicked grin.
"Aah, great" Beleth grinned in approval. "You saw them?"
"Yeah, and I could hardly keep myself from bursting into laughter. You have to see that moron! He has to be around twenty-five and looks like a mama's boy. And he drags a weird girl with him. And of course, Duncan, that old bastard, wearing still that tough, frowning expression."
"Only those three?" Beleth asked with an arched eyebrow.
"Yeah. It's not even a challenge."
"Don't underestimate Duncan, Eligor" Beleth advised. "He might be just one man, but he's a sworn enemy to all demons and he hunts us down with a passion. And he's trained and dangerously weaponed."
"Yeah, remind me why we haven't put him out of his misery yet" Malphas groaned grumpily.
"Because many have already tried several times and failed" Beleth reminded him. "Including yourself." The corners of the archdemon's mouth twitched upwards in a mocking grin. "Am I wrong?"
Malphas's face contorted in rage but he restrained himself. Glaring at Beleth one last time, he vanished leaving only dark brown smoke behind.
"So?" Eligor asked. "Are we going to do something? Or just wait?"
Beleth seemed to be thinking about it for some seconds. His green eyes narrowed as his twisted mind tried to decide the best approach. His sadistic side won in the end and the demon lord turned to the corner where Valefar and his human slave were still absorbed in their game.
"Valefar" he called.
The demon immediately got to his feet and approached the other two at the altar.
"Our guests have arrived" Beleth said.
"Yeah, I heard Eligor."
"We can't be cold hosts. I'm thinking… a welcome party. And at the same time, we'll remind the rest of the humans of our presence."
Valefar's face lit up with a sick grin that revealed his sharp, yellow teeth.
"What are you thinking?"
"I'm thinking of a special committee with you as the leader."
The green-haired demon's eyes gleamed and he licked his dry lips with his long tongue. He understood all too well what Beleth meant. And the idea excited him.
"I'll have to make some preparations" he said.
Beleth nodded and turned to Eligor at his side.
"What do you think?" he asked with a grin.
The demon's attention – who was staring off elsewhere with dreamy eyes – was brought back to his comrades.
"Uh, yeah, yeah, sounds like a good plan" he agreed absent-mindedly.
"Okay, then. I'm off. I have to go to Syria and gather as many as I can find."
"Be quick" Beleth ordered. "I want to witness the show tonight. By dawn, I want to hear the mortals' screams all over the island."
Well… she wouldn't exactly call it a 'town'. More like a big village… The truth was she had been expected something more glamorous from a Mediterranean island, even though Daniel had warned her otherwise. But it was okay; Cassidy wasn't into expensive hotels or night life anyway. She didn't mind spending some weeks in this small, quiet town, just relaxing and enjoying serenity.
They drove through the narrow dirt streets of the town until the jeep pulled over in front of a house.
"Here's where you're going to stay" Moussan informed them as he got off the car. The others followed his example taking the luggage along. "This house belongs to Mrs. Giannou, the town's teacher" he informed them. "This is where Mr. Giannou leaved before he… disappeared" he added awkwardly.
Apart from Zikar, who stayed outside, the others got inside the two-floor, stone house. As soon as Cassidy let her bag on the floor, a woman around forty with curly brown hair and a big smile came from a side door.
"Oh, hello" she greeted them. "Good grief, I didn't expect you to come this early."
After the appropriate introductions, the woman showed them their new room on the second floor of the house. Cassidy took the last room of the south wing. Once she was alone inside the bedroom, she threw her baggage on the floor and fell heavily on the bed. She gave out a deep sigh.
The room was quite spacious and apart from the full bed, there was a wooden wardrobe, a dressing table with a low stool and a couple of chairs. There was a single large window on the south wall, which was currently open and allowing the golden rays of the afternoon sun to bathe the bedroom into light. Cassidy stretched her limbs across the bed and yawned. They had been travelling almost all day yesterday, then had only a few hours' rest at a hotel in Cyprus early in the morning before getting on the ship that brought them to Taphos. She wouldn't mind getting some sleep, she thought to herself. She remained lying on the bed for several minutes, staring off to the wooden ceiling until her eyelids began feeling heavy.
She heard a knock on the wooden door and sat up on the mattress.
"Yes?" she asked rubbing her eyes and smearing some of the eyeliner around.
The door opened and Daniel got in.
"Hey. So, what do you think so far? I hope you're not too disappointed."
Cassidy shrugged. "No, why would I be disappointed? It's… cute."
"Moussan told me there is a restaurant or something like that in the town. And I'm guessing you must be hungry. I know I am. Shall we go? Or do you prefer to get some sleep?"
Cassidy thought about it for a moment. She was a bit tired, but she was also hungry and she was sure her stomach would start complaining soon.
"Okay, I'll go with you" she agreed finally and got up. She would have a nice meal of the Mediterranean cousin and then, full and satiated, sleep tightly until tomorrow.
"I'll leave you to change and freshen up and we'll go in half an hour" Daniel said and left the room.
"Freshen up…" Cassidy laughed. Nah, maybe just correct her eyeliner. And – she lifted her arm high and sniffed – yeah, maybe change her T-shirt, too. It was pretty hot here in summer and not even deodorants were no miracle workers.
Cassidy used the knife to cut the steak into smaller pieces. Which was not that easy, since the meat was beyond well done. She pinched a small piece of pork along with a roasted potato and brought it to her mouth. She chewed it as she stared at the three men in the table; Daniel was talking with Moussan while Duncan was sitting by silently, the usual grim expression on his face.
'Hmm, it's not that bad' the girl mused inwardly as she swallowed the food. It was definitely not the taste she was used to, as there were several heavy flavourings and spicy condiments, but it was rather interesting. Cassidy pinched another piece.
A tug on her T-shirt made her turn around. A boy around ten was standing next to her chair, big green eyes that contrasted to his dark skin staring right at her. He was barefoot and his shirt and short pants looked rather worn out.
"Yes?" Cassidy asked.
The boy brought forward his right hand which he was hiding behind his back until then. A small rock was in his hand. Cassidy stared at it and then back at the boy's face.
"What?" she asked.
The boy said something but Cassidy had no idea what he was talking about.
"He says it's for you."
Cassidy turned her head and looked over at the men next to her.
"It's a welcoming gift" Moussan explained. "Take it."
"Um, but…" Cassidy turned to the boy again.
He was still staring at her with those big eyes and holding out the rock for her. Feeling a bit uncomfortable, Cassidy took it. She held it in front of her and examined it. Its surface was rough and greenish and it seemed to reflect the light where it hit on it. She realized it was quite pretty and looked unique. She looked at the boy.
"Thank you" she said.
Moussan translated it for the boy. Then spoke to Cassidy again.
"People here are poor but generous. We don't see many visitors often, so we like to pamper the ones that come here. This is Elijiah, by the way. He's ten."
Cassidy looked back at the rock in her hands. It was something completely inexpensive and could be probably be found in any of the island's beaches, but the gesture behind it was truly… sweet. She couldn't remember anyone ever giving her something as a gift for no reason.
"Cass." The girl looked up at her cousin. "I'm gonna take a look at the excavation site now. Why don't you go to the house and get some rest? You must be tired after the travel."
"No, I'm not. I'm coming with you" she said immediately.
The man looked as if about to object but then he simply shrugged as he saw her getting up and tidying her jeans; he knew better than arguing with Cassidy. Once the girl put something in her mind, nothing would change it.
They went to the jeep and were getting in when Cassidy noticed the boy from before following them. Moussan noticed him too and said something to him. When the boy answered, he turned to the others.
"Elijiah says he wants to come with us. What do you think, professor?" he asked Daniel.
The young man smiled at the boy warmly.
"I don't mind, of course. But won't his parents be worried? It's almost dark already."
"Elijiah's an orphan. No one will be really worried about him" Moussan said rather coldly.
Cassidy frowned at the cynicism with which the man talked about the boy as they all got on the jeep. The drive was quite short as the site was located less than fifteen miles from the village.
Zikar, who was driving pulled the jeep over and they got off. Cassidy looked around the place examiningly. They were on a low hill and there was a mound of dirt nearby. When the girl looked closer, she realized it was some kind of dome that protruded from the ground.
"That's the temple" Moussan said next to her. Then he pointed to the opposite direction and Cassidy saw a large building standing several metres away. "That's left from when the Syrians searched for oil in our island" the man explained. "Now we use it for storage and shelter during the excavation."
"I wanna take a look at the church" Daniel said.
"I'll wait here" Cassidy said dryly, not too interested in visiting a half-buried church. She watched the others walking away and towards the big lump.
Several minutes later…
Cassidy kicked a small pebble that lay on the ground, pushing her hands in the pockets of her jeans. She looked up at the sky; it was already completely dark and she could even see several bright stars on the dark blue velvet of the sky. She then started realizing that she was indeed feeling tired. The idea of the soft, warm bed that awaited her in Mrs. Giannou's house was getting more and more enticing. She wished her cousin would soon finish looking around the site so they could head back to the village. She wouldn't go over to him and sulk about being sleepy, though; she wouldn't want to look like a complaining little girl. She would have to wait.
A distant scream pulled her out of her sleepiness and she looked up in surprise. She saw only Elijiah standing some feet away and he was too looking around in confusion.
"What was that?" she gasped.
Then she saw Zikar running wildly towards her and the boy, coming from the dome. She narrowed her eyes trying to see better in the semi-dark. She sucked in a sharp breath when she noticed the three – no, four hyenas that were chasing after him.
"Shit!" she swore. Where there hyenas in such a small island? And they were attacking people like that?
Cassidy looked around her in panic. Where was Daniel and the others? The man was approaching them and shouting in terror. Cassidy thought she should start running as well. And then the hyenas got him. They jumped at him and threw him on the ground, attacking with claws and fangs. The girl watched with horror-filled eyes at the cruel spectacle. Those beasts were tearing him apart! And yet, she couldn't take her eyes from it.
The boy next to her screamed something and she turned to him. Even though she didn't understand his language, she knew exactly what he meant; they had to run. Casting a glance at the hyenas that were already glaring threateningly towards them, she made a run for it, the boy by her side.
Cassidy's heart was thundering inside her ribcage. Adrenalin was rushing through her veins like never before – as did the fear that swelled up inside her. She had just watched a man getting attacked and being torn apart by hyenas! She could hardly believe something like that had taken place before her eyes. And what's worse, she had no idea where Daniel was. Was he alright? What if one of those vicious creatures had…? No, no, she didn't even want to think about that possibility. She had to run as fast as she could and find a shelter from those beasts.
The boy that ran by her side yelled something. Cassidy turned to him but before she could ask him, she heard a vicious bark from behind them. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw two hyenas running after them. And the one of them… Cassidy almost drew to a halt from the shock. This couldn't be, this wasn't a normal hyena. Apart from the fact that it was almost twice the size of a typical adult, its eyes glowed red, its tusks were so large, they sprung out of its mouth towards every direction and its mane was unnaturally long and greenish. This was not a hyena, this was a monster.
Overcoming the initial shock, Cassidy strained her legs to run even faster. If that beast caught them, it would tear both her and the child apart with those huge jaws and long talons. And it would catch them if they didn't find shelter soon.
Their only hope lay a few metres ahead; the old storage building. If they could reach it before the hyenas got to them, they would be safe. Sprinting for one last time, Cassidy reached the open door. She pulled the boy in along with her and closed the door just as the two hyenas lunged towards them. The wooden door shook in its hinges as one of the beasts – surely the larger one – crushed on it with fury. Cassidy took a step back, eyes filled with horror. Another assault made the door creak dangerously. Cassidy's heart was about to break. There was something about this assault on the door that terrified her to the depths of her soul. The next crash almost brought the door down. The girl's heart stopped. And then everything went silent. For some moments that felt like years, she waited for the final blow. But it never came. Only some distant screams and barks could be heard from afar.
Cassidy took the first breath after several seconds. And collapsed to the ground. The muscles of her legs strained painfully from the exertion and she could see black dots blurring her vision. But most of all, she was shaking; shaking with fear and shock. She couldn't believe what had just happened.
A light tap on the shoulder made her jump. She whipped her head around to see the boy, Elijiah, looking at her with his big eyes. Cassidy swallowed.
"It's okay" she whispered. She licked her lips that had completely dried off. "It's alright" she repeated, and tried to sound somewhat more confidently this time. "They'll… the others will come for us."
Cassidy didn't know why she was saying all that; Elijiah didn't speak English. Yet, the boy stared at her and shook his head lightly as if he understood. The girl gave an attempt to smile for his shake. But then she heard a sound coming from somewhere near and her temporary relief turned to fear once more. Eyes widening with renewed concern, she looked around in alert. She didn't see anything suspicious but the sound was repeated. Something broke and soft steps followed. They were coming from the left side door and they were sounded closer and closer.
A small hand tightened on her shoulder and she could feel the young boy shaking next to her. She wasn't shaking; she was simply petrified, she didn't even breathe. The light steps replaced the missing beats of her heart. The sound of a rhythmic, hollow breathing filled the air along with the heavy smell of sulphur. Step. Breath. Closer. Step. Breath. Close…
And that was when something snapped inside of her. A moment before the dreadful creature appeared through the door, Cassidy jumped up, grabbed the boy's arm and lunged towards the right door. She heard the savage howl of the hyena behind them and used all her strength to run faster than she had ever run in her life, practically dragging the boy with her. She ran through a long corridor and reached another room. But when she entered it, she realized it was a mistake coming here; there were no more doors, this was a dead end. And the giant hyena would be there any moment, she could hear it running down the corridor behind them.
"God, we'll die…" she breathed out unconsciously.
A sharp tug at her shirt made her turn. The boy was blurting something in his language while pointing frantically over the opposite wall. Her eyes widened; some of the adobes were broken down and there was a hole on the lower part of it. It was small but it looked like they could both fit in there, depending on how deep it was. The beast would never manage to get in there, though. This was their last chance. Cassidy ran towards the wall and pushed the boy inside. Before following him inside the cavity, she turned her head around and her eyes fell on the door. The hyena was just entering the room. Its eyes were gleaming red with hunger and it let out a bark as soon as it saw the girl. Then it lunged forward, claws extended in a death reach. Cassidy bent over and tried to enter the cavity. Just as she squeezed in, she felt a sharp pain on her right buttock. She screamed and kicked maniacally, crawling further inside the hole. She turned around and her eyes widened in horror. The beast was trying to get inside the hole but it was too big to fit its massive body in. Only his head and left paw had managed to get in but it was already stuck. Cassidy shrunk at the back wall of the cavity with the boy next to her. She watched horrified as the hyena growled and tried to squirm further inside, eyes fixed on her while thick saliva ran from its deadly jaws.
Cassidy wrapped her arms around the boy and closed her eyes. Was this nightmare never going to end? The sound of stone cracking made her reopen her eyes a moment later. She gasped in horror. The horrid beast was pushing forward frantically and the stones above it were already starting to give in under its brutal power. God, this thing would stop at nothing; it was going to break the rest of the wall down in order to eat them alive. This was not normal hyena behavior.
Cassidy couldn't take it anymore. If the beast was going to kill them, she wouldn't go down without a fight. If this situation was crazy, she would go crazy, too. Slipping a bit forward, she drew her right leg back, then jerked it forward with as much force as the narrow cavity would allow her. Her boot found the creature square on its massive snout. Almost immediately, the girl delivered a second kick, harder this time. She heard something crack and the hyena let out a roar. The next moment, sharp fangs closed around her foot. Cassidy tried to draw her foot back but it was captive to the creature's jaws. And even the hard, rubbery material of her army boot's sole wouldn't stand a chance against those jaws. In a last, desperate attempt, she used her other foot to deliver several blows on the hyena's head. At the forth one, her heel sank in something soft and the creature screeched, finally letting go of her boot. Cassidy crawled backwards as the hyena retreated from the cavity's opening, leaving a trail of blood behind it. Cassidy realized she must have hit it in the eye.
Outside, the creature barked and howled and roared in what sounded like pain mixed with rage. Cassidy realized she was sitting on wet ground. She touched down with her hand and brought it up to examine it in the little light that entered the cavity. Red, thick liquid covered her palm. But it couldn't be the hyena's, not so deep inside the cavity. Next to her, she heard the boy saying something. Suddenly she was feeling very weak, very tired. Her head throbbed and her eyelids felt heavy. The stuffy smell of sulphur burdened her senses. And soon everything went black.
Damn! I have no idea what I did with this chapter. I should probably proofread it one more time, but my head hurts and if I don't post it now, I won't post it until next week (I'll be gone from home till next Monday). Please, be so kind as to drop me a review or two, 'kay?