Connie focused on the gun pointed in her direction. It was hard not to since the man behind it seemed all too eager to pull the trigger.
“Looks like we might be about to have some fun right now,” Val said. The swagger in her voice broke Connie’s gaze free from the threat of death that was pointing at them.
Val was smiling.
She was relaxed.
For a moment, Connie wondered if she knew the men who had found them, but then she saw the leers on the men’s faces. This wasn’t a friendly encounter, and it was going to end quite badly.
Connie smile and relaxed as well. Bad situations were her stock in trade.
“How many do you want?” she asked Val. There were a total of five men with rifles they could see in the passageway that led away from the bridge they were standing on. The corridor took a turn where the man farthest back was standing though, which suggested there could be more waiting around the corner.
Connie rather hoped there were.
“Three or four,” Val said, cracking her knuckles. “If that’s not being too greedy?”
Val clearly wanted to take a crack at all of them men in front of them. Or was it crack all of the men in front of them? Connie couldn’t picture things being resolved without a plethora of broken bones.
“That’ll be fine,” Connie said, gauging which of their opponents she would be able to get to first.
Since the men hadn’t opened fire the moment they saw Val and Connie, getting into striking range could have been as easy as letting the men come to them. Val’s words suggested she had something else in mind though, and as far as Connie was concerned, anyone who could appear out of nowhere in a forgotten dungeon in an inaccessible area of the Peruvian Andes was owed the benefit of the doubt in terms of being able to handle a bunch of half drunk guys who didn’t look like they could spell “gun” much less use one.
“Pretty girl thinks she can handle us?” the biggest guy said. “You can’t handle nothing, I’ll make you…”
Connie never got to hear what the guy was going to make Val do. There was a thundercrack that shook the bridge and swallowed the meaty, shattering sound of the leader’s rifle being slammed into his face hard enough to fracture his jaw into millimeter long bone fragments.
Val was standing beside him. She’d moved in the blink of an eye to close the distance and engage with their foes. Connie wasn’t sure how that was possible, but she wasn’t about to object to it either.
A band of disciplined men might have reacted properly to an enemy appearing in the midst. With coordinated fire, they could have caught Val with a few rounds and started to turn the tide in their favor. A bullet wound or two might not have killed her but it would certainly have slowed her down. Even a simple retreat might have bought them the time they needed, as the silver fire of the magic Val unleashed was sputtering out as fast as it had flared up.
The hired goons were not a disciplined fighting force though, which wasn’t surprising. They weren’t hired for for their skills or aptitude. Their value came from the facts that they asked no questions about their assignments and were willing to hurt, maim, or kill when ordered, without complaint. Even more importantly though, they were loyal, and would take that loyalty to the grave if need be (mostly because they knew they would wind up in the grave if they proved disloyal and being dead with their pride was better than being dead without it.)
Fortunately for them neither Val nor Connie were going to make them choose between loyalty and death. Unfortunately for the men, that wasn’t a kindness. Kindness was for later, when their lives were no longer endangered.
The leader with the shattered jaw blacked out from the pain and the severe head and neck trauma the strike to his face caused. He would recover but it would take over a year and he would never again be able to hold a gun due to the damage his hands suffered. While he recuperated, a missionary would visit him every day and read to him. Theirs would become a lifelong friendship which would eventually lead to the broken jawed leader taking up vows and living a life of service.
The rest of the men suffered similar fates, though their long term prospects differed based on their ability to take the chances life offered them.
The second biggest man fired his rifle the moment Val struck but it was pointing up at the ceiling. He hadn’t meant to keep it clear of his friends, but luck was on his side. It was somewhat less lucky that the unexpected recoil made him drop the rifle and that as he bent down to grab it he met Val’s rising knee with his face and then her descending elbow with the back of his head.
That took the fight out of him by virtue of shutting off his consciousness for a long enough period that the fight was quite over by the time he opened his eyes. He could, at that point, have risen and charged after them, but the head trauma and unconsciousness left him weak and nauseous to the point where laying down and trying not to fall off the swirling ground was an overwhelmingly agreeable option.
His recovery was faster, in part because he moved back home to be with his family, and spent long enough feeling lost and confused that he was willing to listen, at last, to what his grandmother had to say. The life that him found after that as a fruit seller lacked the action he desired as a youth, so he supplemented it by opening a boxing gym, though he never got in the ring himself, prefering to coach and guide people the way his grandmother had guided him back onto the path of charity of the soul.
The third, fourth, and fifth guards were all in range to strike back at Val after her initial onslaught and she only had two hands to brush their guns aside with. As Val had planned though, Connie was there.
As the guard to Val’s right rushed to get his rifle pointed at her, and not at his two friends, Connie stepped up and caught him with an open hand chop to the throat.
He tried to gasp for air but couldn’t. He tried to look for help, but his eyes were streaming with tears from the pain. He collapsed to his knees and shivered at the icy clutch of death that gripped his heart, but he didn’t perish.
The strike to his throat didn’t crush his larynx. In another moment he was able to draw breath, though that was the moment after Connie landed a crushing hammerblow to the his temple.
Val dispatched the remaining guards with simple Muay Thai kicks and elbow strikes, limiting the permanent damage she did, but ensuring that each blow would cause a debilitating amount of pain.
The three guards would recover and later try to find employment together, working as hired thugs again, until the youngest of them was shot. It was a wound that should have been fatal, the bullet passing through his left lung and grazing his heart, but thanks to a miracle of surgical skill, the young man pulled through. The other two were shocked to discover how much the cared for their young friend, and how little interest they retained in lives that could only end in violence. With their prayers answered by his recovery, the three fled across the Pacific and became the crew of their own fishing boat based out of Vietnam. The youngest married one of the locals and together they all formed an unusual but supportive little family.
“We should get going,” Val said once the five men in the corridor and the three around the corner were down.
“What is with these guys?” Connie asked. “Where did they come from?”
“Funny story that,” Val said, leading them downwards as best she could. “From what Tam told me, there were apparently people who found these ruins before you did.”
“Why didn’t they publish anything about their find? This whole place is a goldmine!” Connie said.
“Not for the kind of gold they wanted,” Val said. “See it turns out that hidden ruins that no one knows about are a great place to stockpile all sorts of illegal things.”
“But the treasures here are literally priceless!” Connie didn’t try to lower her voice even though she knew it would be far wiser to.
“It’s old pots and funny scribbles on the walls from what they can see,” Val said. “Or it mostly is. The catacombs they have some serious respect for.”
“The ones they put us in? Why’s that?” Connie asked.
“They’ve observed that if you stick someone inside the catacombs they eventually turn into living husks,” Val said. “Let them out after they’re fully turned and you’ve got a mindless but highly obedient workforce who can never answer questions or incriminate anyone.”
“That’s what they intended to do to us? Wait, that’s what’s happening to Joe and Tam?” Connie asked.
“Nah, the husking process is an effect of eating the glowing fungus down there. Without any other food, people trapped in the catacombs eventually turn to that and it turns them into the things you saw.”
“Can they be turned back?” Connie asked.
“Tam thinks so, but it’s not necessarily easy, especially not if the guys running this place catch wind of it. If they think these people can speak about what’s been done to them then the only option for keeping the husks silent will be to kill all of them.”
“How do we stop that from happening?” Connie asked. “We’re in the middle of nowhere and I’m guessing they have a lot more guys than those eight.”
“Yeah, there’s a small army here,” Val said. “Fortunately, we have an answer for that. Our first step though is to rescue Tam and Joe.”
The trip down to the lower bridge involved only three more brawls, but each one raised the time pressure they were under in Connie’s mind. Sooner or later, probably much sooner, someone would notice the pile of unconscious bodies they were leaving in their wake and then a general alarm would be raised.
For as amazing a fighter as Val looked to be, and even with her own bare knuckle prowess added to that, Connie was reasonably certain that they couldn’t beat an entire army on their own.
“You said you needed my help earlier?” Connie asked when they reached the right level for the catacombs.
“Yeah, Tam’s our info person and she’s a bit overworked,” Val said. “We’re hoping you’ll agree to join us and take some of the load off her.”
“I’ve already got a job though,” Connie said.
“So does she,” Val said. “Associates can pursue their own interests in addition to working for the Second Chance Club. Oh, though in your case? Your old job might not be something you want to go back to.”
“Why?” Connie asked, her eyes narrowing.
“You know how the private library you work for helped fund your expedition? Well, it turns out they were hoping you’d fail and declare this area clear of any interesting ruins.”
“That’s not quite how things work, but why would they do that?”
“They’re kind of in league with the cartel that’s running this place,” Val said. “The articles that you found that led you here? Those weren’t supposed to be published, but it happened and now they’re trying to limit the damage done to their operation.”
“They expected me to fail?”
“The coordinates you originally had were a bit off,” Val said. “Apparently they thought you’d give up before you went too far afield and found the stuff they didn’t want you to see.”
“Yeah, but I told them about our breakthrough,” Connie said. “I…oh…I told them that we’d discovered we weren’t at the right digsite, but that we’d find the right coordinates and that we’d be moving the exploration tomorrow.”
“And that’s when they sent in the goons,” Val said, leading them over the bridge to the vault.
“Note to self: resign with extreme prejudice when I get back,” Connie said.
“What does that mean?” Val asked.
“I’m not sure yet, I think I’ll just get creative when the time comes.”
“Looks like we’ll need a bit of creativity now,” Val said, stopping before the vault door. “I was kind of hoping this would be easier to open from this side.”
“Oh, it is,” Connie said.
“You can crack safes?” Val asked.
“It’s a hobby,” Connie said. “I’ve got a lot of hobbies.”
She stepped up to the vault door and with a dramatic flourish, pulled on its handle and watched it slide effortlessly open.
“The lock wasn’t engaged,” she said. “You can’t open it from the otherside if it’s closed but from this side all you’ve got to do is pull.”
“Darn,” Tam said. “I could have used a bit more practice time. How did it go getting here?”
“Only hit a few guards,” Val said. “Plenty left though.”
“Yeah, you said there’s an army of them, but we had an answer for that?” Connie asked.
“That we do,” Tam said and whistled.
From the quickness with which she stepped aside Connie was convinced to make room so the door would be clear. That proved to be a fantastic idea as a moment later a giant pack of wolves came charging out of the darkness and out towards the ruins Val and Connie had just snuck through.
Or not a giant pack of wolves but rather a pack of giant wolves. Or both? And were some of them a bit more bipedal than a wolf really should be?
“This is going to sound crazy, but were those werewolves?” Connie asked.
“Yeah, and funny thing, the army upstairs? They’re not packing silver bullets. I checked,” Val said.
“Let’s get you folks and the Living Husks to safety,” Tam said.
“But what about all of relics?” Connie asked, horror struck at the idea of the artifacts being collateral damage.
“Oh, most of the werewolves are archaeologists,” Tam said. “They’ll take care that nothing’s damaged too badly.”
“They’re what now?” Connie asked.
“Archaeologists, I mean anyone can have a hobby right?”