This story is the continuation of a series. To start at the beginning, click here.
The face that hovered above his was white as worms, except for the eyes. The eyes gaped, shining and pitch black, abysses in the pasty, needle-toothed expanse. It was the face of a monster.
Its lips quirked with something akin to humor.
“One of us already?” It asked.
For some strange reason, it was the articulation that sent a sick feeling of shock through Eli’s ribs. For one thing, he couldn’t entirely place the accent.
For another, a face like that should never have learned how to speak.
* * *
There was a boot on Eli’s throat. That’s all Ketzal saw as she surfaced.
Then there were the figures. Four of them tall and straight like miniature mirrors of the city’s minarets, pale against the dark stone, and a fifth, bent like soft steel over Eli’s sprawled form.
Water sloshed into Ketzal’s mouth as she scrambled for purchase on the stone of the lakeshore. Gripping the rock with numb hands, she hauled herself up and out of the water, splattering water on the stone with a sound that, in the silence, echoed like the breaking of a glass.
* * *
The vampire bent closer, filling up Eli’s vision.
“How many have you killed?” He asked, in a tone that was almost hushed. “How greedy must you have been?”
“What?” Eli hissed. He tried to pull away, but the boot on his neck was keeping him immobile.
Instead of answering, the vampire rose and turned, looking up at the lake. His weight shifted, and Eli jerked himself out from under his boot. Eli got up on his elbows, shaking his head against the throbbing in his ears.
Ketzal was standing on the shore.
The same Ketzal whom he’d last seen swimming safely away. The Ketzal who should, by rights, be safe on the other side of the lake. That Ketzal.
That Ketzal was currently dripping water in a shining puddle, her neon hair lit by the glow of the lake, and her expression in shadow.
“You let him go,” she said, addressing the one whose boot had just left Eli’s throat. Her voice was low and quiet, creating only the barest whisper of an echo across the softly rippling lake.
“A breather.” One of the vampires whispered.
“The breather,” another replied. “Hear that heartbeat?”
The heartbeat, Eli thought, shaking his head again. The one that had been pounding in his ears. He raised his hand to his neck, feeling for a pulse to match the steady throbbing in his head; but there was none.
It wasn’t his heartbeat.
It was hers.
The vampire who had been standing on Eli’s throat stepped back, cocking his head.
“And if we don’t?” He asked.
Eli knew Ketzal. He had spent the better part of three months knowing Ketzal. And he knew exactly what it looked like when she was about to do something insanely reckless.
Eli leapt to his feet, sprinting to the shoreline and stopping on the edge of it, just in time to plant a hand on Ketzal’s shoulder and keep her from stepping completely out of the water. Her feet were still just barely in it, lakewater refracting light around the toes of her boots. Her shirt, soaked through, was burning Eli’s skin; but he didn’t pull back. She was pushing against him, trying to come on shore; and he could feel the others lurking, ready for the second she did. Ready and hungry.
He could feel her heart through his fingertips, beating far faster than it should have been, as Ketzal met his eyes. Her expression was equal parts burning rage and utter confusion. He could smell, thick and warm, the scent of raw meat and engine oil, the scent of a morning in the mines—
The smell of blood.
Her blood. The smell was heavy and insistent on the back of his tongue. His hand was flat against her shoulder, but it would have been easy—too easy—to shift his grip, to pull her on shore and within reach.
The thought was fleeting, and he shoved her back, a sickness in his throat like a lingering nightmare.
“Eli!” She yelped, protesting, as she regained her balance. She glared at him, her anger shifting to concern when she caught a glimpse of his burnt hand. “Eli, what is this? What’s going on?”
None of the vampires were moving. They merely took in the scene. Eli’s mouth was dry when he opened it to explain, and the words all tumbled over themselves as he realized that he had no explanation to give.
“You’re safe in the lake,” he was able to manage.
“If it’s safe in the lake, get in!” She said, and all Eli could do was shake his head.
“Safe,” He said, “from us.”
* * *
Eli was still holding out his hand, as though he could generate some kind of force field to make Ketzal stay where she was. As she stared, his blackened, blistered palm began to heal. She blinked, and it was whole again.
“Oh,” she managed, glancing from the healed palm to Eli’s wide, pitch black eyes. “You’re a vampire.”
There was silence for a moment. The lake—for some reason—was dangerous for vampires. Which meant Eli would have needed to be human, when they’d first swum it. He’d have had to—get vampired, somehow.
“When did that happen?” She asked. Come to think of it, she’d never heard of anyone catching vampirism. Was it contagious?
“Just go, Ketz,” Eli said, instead of answering. “I can’t follow. Get Breek, and get to safety.”
If Ketzal felt like being fair, this was not the most ridiculous plan she’d ever heard. But it was pretty close, and anyway, she didn’t feel like being fair.
“I’m not leaving you here,” she said, indignant. “That’s not an option.”
“You can’t tread water forever,” Eli pointed out. “That’s not an option either.”
“As of this instant,” one of the vampires interrupted, evidently deciding he’d had enough of sitting back to observe, “You have only two options.”
Ketzal narrowed her eyes at him. He’d stuck his boot on Eli’s throat.
“Who are you?” She asked, not really wanting to know. It seemed like a nice, jabbing kind of question, fitting her less than friendly mood.
“Aren, former first mate of the proud ship Salvation,” he answered. “And who are you?”
“The Salvation?” Ketzal asked, suddenly curious. That had been the name of one of Ma-Rek’s ships—most notably, the last one.
“Your choices are these,” Aren continued. “The first, and the one I’d suggest, is this: swim away. We couldn’t stop you. We don’t dare follow you. You’d be free and clear in a matter of minutes, with all of us nothing but an unpleasant memory.”
“Aren,” one of the other vampires, a slight woman with dark braided hair, interjected in a hushed hiss. The former first mate only held up a hand for silence.
“But,” He said, “You’d have to leave your friend here behind. And we would have to kill him.”
“We’d have to what?” The interrupting woman interrupted again.
“That does seem a little extreme,” another of the vampires, a man with a square jaw, commented. “He’s not exactly a threat.”
At this, Eli scowled.
“You know I can hear you, right?” He asked. “We can all hear you.”
All, evidently, except for Aren. He showed no sign of having heard anything, though he did choose that moment to repeat himself rather loudly.
“We would have to kill him,” he said.
“But isn’t he—” Ketzal stopped herself, just on the verge of saying ‘one of you’.
“You can kill vampires,” Aren said. “He’d fight, sure. But there are five of us, and only one of him. It wouldn’t last long—and neither would he.”
Behind Aren’s back, Eli was fixing the vampire with a glare that said otherwise.
“On the other hand,” Aren said obliviously, “You’ve got something we need. You can get in the lake, while the rest of us can’t.”
“You want to go swimming by proxy?” Ketzal guessed.
Aren leant forward, letting the glow of the lake turn his face an unsettling shade of green.
“In a manner of speaking.” He said. “I want you to dive for that treasure.”
* * *
Eli could tell that Ketzal was considering it. The look on her face was clear.
But that was not the worst of it. No, the worst of it was that Eli didn’t want to tell her not to. He knew it was a bad deal. He knew that, for Aren-the-overly-polite-vampire, a promise meant nothing and his simple request to dive for treasure would not end up being as harmless as it sounded. Eli even had an inkling of the creature’s plan–Ketzal had already swum the lake three times in the last hour. How many times could she dive before her limbs gave out, or before she started to freeze? How long before she had to pull herself up onto the shore—into their reach?
He should have been telling her not even to consider it. He should have told her that he didn’t need her help, that he’s more than glad to stay behind, if only she can be safe.
But his throat was too dry to form words. He didn’t want to die, and he especially didn’t want to die alone.
“So I dive for your treasure,” Ketzal said. “What do I get out of this?”
“We don’t kill your friend.” Aren said with a shrug. “Maybe he’ll find his way to the surface eventually. Or not. Either way, you’ll be able to console yourself that he is, in fact, alive.”
To Eli, being left alone doesn’t sound much better than dying alone. In fact, it sounds infinitely worse.
Ketzal considered this for a moment. Finally, she nodded.
Eli felt a sudden and unexpected flash of hurt. Clearly unwarranted; she was trying to save his life. Save his life, or alleviate the guilt she might have felt over his death.
If only they came to the same thing in the end.
* * *
“So,” Ketzal said, peering down into the water. “What do you want first?”
Aren had crept up to the very edge of the shore, and was peering into the depths, his dark eyes eerily lit like the lens of a security camera.
She could’ve splashed him, if she wanted. She didn’t. She didn’t have a plan, yet. And attacking without a plan wouldn’t do anyone much good.
The others, lurking in the shadows far from the shoreline, heard her question and gave an eager response.
“The coins!” The small woman cried.
“No, the figurines!” Another shouted.
“The solid bars,” rumbled a third.
Aren’s eyes were wide and hungry. It seemed to take effort for him to tear them from the treasure and settle on Ketzal.
“Anything,” he said. “Anything you can.”
Ketzal nodded and plunged into the water. It rushed hollowly around her ears, rippling with sound in an unending, living echo. Her eyes stung for a moment, before she blinked and the water no longer burned the edges of her lids.
Luckily, the lake was not deep. A few strokes, and she reached the treasure.
It was, without a doubt, beautiful.
There were coins, figurines, and dinner plates. There were ill-advised laser pistols, cosmetic jars, and intricate jewelry. She took some figurines to stuff in her pockets, stowed away some of the coins and the jewelry. Something–a duller, warmer color, like silver– shone beneath the coins. It did not budge when she tugged at it. Frowning, she glanced over the rest of the treasure-trove. The odd metal stood out now that she was looking for it. Whatever it was, it was huge, lurking like a skeleton under the piles of smaller treasures. The shape was surprisingly familiar.
She would have looked futher, but her air was beginning to run out. She swam back towards the surface, breaking through the rippling curtain with a gasp.
Eli was sitting on the bank, looking dejected. He, along with the rest of the vampires, looked up when she came to the surface. Aren stepped forward, arms held out.
“What have you brought?” He asked. “Show us!”
Ketzal spat water out of her mouth. She could have easily tossed what she had onto the shore before diving down again for more, but she had the beginnings of a plan now.
“In a moment.”
“In a moment?” Aren repeated. “No! Now! Or do you want to watch your friend die?”
Ketzal glanced at Eli, trying to give him an expression that meant ‘yes, I do have a plan, it’s fine.’ Judging from the look on his face, it didn’t work. She was in too deep to stop now.
“If you kill him now, I swim away and you don’t get any treasure at all.”
Aren looked like a man who’d just realized he’d been trapped, and was doing his best not to let it show. His best was not very good. Ketzal suspected he hadn’t had a lot of practice.
“I’m not asking for anything monumental,” Ketzal said. “Nothing that would hurt or inconvenience any of you. I’m just a historian, you understand. I like knowing things, and I’d like to know how you’ve all gotten here.”
“That’s a long story,” Aren warned her.
Ketzal looked around at the cave walls, the rippling water, and the silent abandoned city.
“Sorry,” she said, “Is there anything urgent you need to get to?”
Aren narrowed his eyes.
“I won’t tell it all at once,” he said. “You’ll get a peice of the story for each peice of treasure. That’s fair enough.”
“Why should we be trading with her?” Another of the vampires, a tall woman with a crooked nose and pale cropped hair, said. “Why not just take what we want?”
Aren fixed the woman with a frustrated glare.
“You’re welcome to swim in and try, Fess.”
At that, Fess backed away, hiding herself between two of the others, a sour twist to her lip. Aren shook his head, then turned his glare on Ketzal.
“All right, then,” he said. “We’re former crewmates of a man named Ma-Rek. A pirate.”
Her theory confirmed, Ketzal tossed him a figurine. It sizzled, burning his hands as he caught it, but Aren barely seemed to notice, running his fingers over the smooth, wet chrome with an expression of pure wonder that vastly improved the look of his haggard face. The others began to crowd around him, jostling one another as they reached out to touch the treasure. Eli sat silently by the bank. His eyes had followed the flight of the figurine, but he made no move towards it.
There was something about the treasure, Ketzal thought. Something twisted and strange, like a myth with the wrong ending. She did not like not knowing what it was.
“So you did know Ma-Rek,” she said.
Aren’s gaze did not lift from the chrome in his hands. “You say that name like you know it.”
“Like I said,” Ketzal replied, “I’m a historian.”
Fess snorted. “Must be pretty recent history.”
It would be difficult to judge time while trapped underground in the dark, Ketzal thought. She’d never considered that before.
“Not really,” she said, not bothering to break the news gently. “Ma-Rek died two thousand and thirty-three years ago.”
The vampires, hitherto primarily occupied with the chrome figurine, went still and looked up.
“How long?” Whispered the square-jawed man.
“Two thousand and thirty-three years,” Ketzal confirmed.
The stares that followed were utterly blank. Finally, someone chuckled.
“Bet the old bastard never thought we’d outlive him by this much,” they said. The whole bevy shifted into laughter, except for Aren. He was still looking over the chrome in his hands. When he spoke, it was distracted, as though he was speaking only to himself.
“You’ll want another piece of our story, then.”
Ketzal nodded, and Aren acknowledged her without looking up.
“We are trapped here by two curses.”
“Curses?” Ketzal asked, tossing a pocketful of coins on the shore. The vampires all crouched down, gathering fistfuls, save for Eli, who watched in silence, and Aren, who still held on to his figurine. Aren nodded.
“Curses,” he confirmed. “The first was laid by an old woman on a burning transport ship just before it blew. The second was laid by Ma-Rek himself.”
* * *
“Get!” Breek shouted, stomping at one of the crowding robots. He almost caught one of its legs with his foot, but it skittered back and away just in time — though not far enough for Breek’s comfort. He hadn’t had time to count them. All he knew was that they covered every nearby surface with their click-clacking legs, segmented bodies, and dully glowing red eyes. Apart from the disturbingly human torsos, they looked a lot like oversized insects. Unlike the jumping-scabs that had infested every home back on Bleachbone, however, they did not scuttle away from a scare.
Or, possibly, they just weren’t afraid of him.
The one who had gotten too close was advancing again, its rusted skull cocked to one side as it issued a curious chirrup.
“Get!” Breek shouted again, lunging forward to stomp at it.
Instead of skittering, as Breek hoped, or tanking still, as most of the bots had done so far, the bot shot out an inhuman hand and seized his leg. Breek screamed. He kicked instinctively, getting nothing but a curious chirp from the bot, and summarily fell flat on his back.
He kicked at the creature again, but it only grabbed his other leg. To his horror, it began to drag him along the wet stone, chittering at him all the while. The other robots followed along, clacking their fingers together in a never-ending chorus of apparent excitement. Breek fought, but every move he made only caused them to grip him tighter. Their bulbous heads and glowing eyes gathered above him, dripping with rainwater and blocking out the roiling storm-clouds.
He was out of his mind with fear. He must have been, because—against all logic and reason—he began to call for help.
“Eli!” He shouted, punching one of the bots wildly and getting bloody knuckles for his trouble. “Ketzal!”
It was insane, pointless hope. He knew that. But there was just enough of that insanity that now, in the midst of his fear—it almost seemed like there was a chance. A chance that they weren’t too far away to hear him; a chance that, hearing him, they would have it in their hearts to come and help.
“Please!” Breek shouted, as the chittering bots dragged him along. Rainwater was soaking his skin, pouring into his eyes and his mouth. “Please, help me!”
The bots screeched and squealed at one another, hauling him up a steep slope. Finally, they let go. Breek struggled to his feet, the ground shifting oddly under him. It was also slimy. He picked up his hand. His palm was red, covered with rain-soaked rust.
Breek looked down. He was standing on a pile of ancient metal plating, worn down to uselessness. All around him, the bots were chirruping and chittering amongst themselves, making gestures and—to Breek’s eyes—discussing his fate.
Breek swallowed. The place he’d been brought to seemed to have been made entirely out of scrap. Dismantled ship plating lay, disused and dark with rust, in piles tall as people.
Most of it, at least, was rusted—old, and half-rotting. But not all.
On the pile closest to the one upon which Breek had been deposited, there was a perfectly new and shiny plate, with a line of fresh welding bisecting a pair of familiar words.
What hope had lain in Breek’s heart promptly died. Eli and Ketzal weren’t coming to help him.
They couldn’t, because they had never left.
They were gone.
* * *
In Eli’s opinion, Ketzal was enjoying herself just a little too much.
“What was the first curse?” She asked, holding up a handful of coins.
“The one that made us blood-born.” Aren ground out. “Treasure, girl.”
Ketzal tossed a single coin on shore, and got a growl from Aren for her troubles.
“Details.” She demanded. And just like with every prior question, the vampire pirate finally capitulated.
“We’d found a merchant transport ship,” he said. “Tiny little thing, carrying textiles. Not a fortune’s worth, but enough to bother taking. They could have surrendered. We’d not have killed anyone who didn’t try to kill us first. But they fought, and it turned into a massacre as soon as you could blink.”
Sitting on the shore as he is, Eli can only see the man’s back silhouetted against the lake. There is no more expression in his figure than there is in his voice.
“Only one of them was left alive when we were done. Old woman. The ship was about to crack, and we were unloading the cargo before it did. Ma-Rek and I, we were supervising—happened to be standing next to where she was, bleeding out with a bit of her own ship stuck through her middle. She asked the captain, are you in charge of this band of murderers, and he said he was. I’ll never forget what she said after that.”
“What?” Ketzal asked, clearly mesmerized.
“Toss over the chrome, and I’ll tell you.”
“Tell me, and I’ll toss over the chrome.” Ketzal returned. “I can sit here all day.”
She couldn’t, but she made it sound as if she could. Her voice was strong, confident and determined. Eli admired her for it.
He also hated it and wished she’d just swim away to safety already, but he admired it, too.
“Cursed be the chrome that’s won by blood.” Aren’s voice was cold and still as the lake itself, echoing someone else’s words. “Cursed be the men who covet it. Cursed to hunger and never be filled.”
Aren snorted, bending down to pick up a handful of shining chrome coins. He held it up, letting it sparkle in the light. Eli’s eye was drawn immediately to the shine, and a clawing feeling in his heart wanted. Not his own want, he thought. A curse’s want. A hunger he not asked for, but had somehow earned. Through what? His own desires? What sane person saw treasure and didn’t covet it? He shut his eyes, shaking his head against the foreign sensation.
“Old hag,” Aren said, letting the coins trickle through his fingers and clink one by one against the stones. “How wrong she was.”
Ketzal tossed another handful of coins onto the shore.
“That was one curse,” she said. “What was the second?”
“Well,” Aren said, “After the merchant ship, nothing seemed to change for a few weeks. We’d all forgotten about the curse by the time our next prey came in our sights—a big Alliance tax freighter, heavily guarded, but holding a fortune. We expected to lose a few crew in the attack—just part of the job. But when it came to it—” he stopped, shaking his head.
“We didn’t lose a single man. And—we couldn’t help ourselves. I’ve been in a few battles in my day, and plenty of massacres; but that was the only one that I could have called a bloodbath. We tore through the crew in a matter of moments. We drank from them, barely knowing what it was we did; and we squabbled over the haul like starved warp-rats, chasing crumbs. It felt like–it wasn’t just the thrill of a fight, that day. It was ecstasy. But afterwards, there wasn’t one of us that didn’t feel afraid. Ma-Rek, I think, most of all.”
“Ma-Rek was just the same as any of us,” another of the vampires cut in, over Eli’s shoulder.
Aren looked back at them briefly, nodding.
“He was worse,” he said, with conviction. “He was worse. By the time that day was over, he was bathed in more blood than any of us had drunk. The only bit of him you could see were his eyes; and the fear must have hit him harder than the rest of us, too, because they were dead. Black, and dead.”
Aren sighed, and Eli turned away from the slow slump of the vampire’s shoulders. He could still feel the steady thud of Ketzal’s heart, thrumming through him like his own heartbeat had only this morning, and he wondered what else in him had changed.
Beyond his pwn worries, the ancient story continued.
“Following that day, we all tried to pretend nothing was wrong. We were stronger, which was good; and we didn’t need to eat, and we couldn’t manage to sleep—but it was just more time to ourselves. Ma-Rek pretended right along with us—keeping to himself, locked away in his cabin. Told us he was planning something big—too big to be talked about. And we believed him.
“He had us held up on some backwater moon for almost a month. Building a monument, he said, to our victories–though even then, we wondered why he’d put it where no one would ever see it. Left half the crew behind there, told us all that they couldn’t be trusted. It seemed strange, but—we believed him again. Why wouldn’t we? The man had brought us through time and time again; why not now?”
“Finally, we came here,” he said.
Ketzal bobbed in the water, eyes aglow with lake-light.
“Ma-Rek knew this place, somehow. Gave us a lot of talk about how it was a perfect hiding-place. Stowed us and the treasure both down here, and then tried to go back to the surface without any of us noticing.”
Curious, Eli scooted closer, dangerously close to the edge of the water. As before, the glow of the chrome caught his eye, drawing him almost against his will. He found himself staring at it, and tried to pull his eyes away.
Before he could, though, something caught his eye. A shape, just the right side of familiar. A vast shape, lurking just beneath the piled chrome.
“We caught him at it, but it was already too late,” Aren said. “He spoke some words–not in a language any of us knew–and fled. We chased him, hard on his heels, but he was too fast for any of us. The lake burned us, as it had not before–part of his curse, I assume.”
“He left you.” Ketzal spoke quietly, the water rippling softly around her.
“He left us!” Aren’s voice echoed across the lake. “He left us as if we meant nothing!”
Eli, for one, had little investment in Aren’s feelings. He looked from the shape under the water, to Ketzal. Her eyes, caught in an expression of sympathy, met his, and he knew that she’d seen it as well.
The vast, spidery shape underneath the piles of treasure was far deadlier than any curse. Inactive, it was nothing but machinery and pressurized gases.
Activated, though–it could destroy everything in these caves.
He stared at her, and watched as a small smile spread over her face. They couldn’t talk. He didn’t know–exactly–what her plan was.
But he knew he didn’t like it.
“We’ve been trapped here ever since,” Aren concluded, and Ketzal redirected her attention to him.
“So the rain burns? Or is there some other reason you don’t go to the surface?”
“The rain does nothing,” Aren said. “The robots, though–they keep us underground, as surely as this treasure does.”
“The what?” Ketzal asked.
Eli’s thoughts, which had been focused on underwater chemical bombs, were abruptly derailed.
“The robots,” Aren said. “I’m surprised you didn’t see them. Bloodthirsty things. There used to be well over twenty of us, but after the skirmishes with them—” he shrugged. “Well. Here we are.”
Eli’s gaze snapped to Ketzal, and he saw his thoughts reflected on her face.
* * *
The vampires that had been watching Eli had all but forgotten about his existence, too caught up in the stories and artifacts of their past to remember the present. Eli had never told her if he’d found a way out or not, but from the way he jumped to his feet now, she guessed he had.
The sudden burst of action startled the vampires. Ketzal threw what treasure she had up on shore, adding to the general confusion before she dove. All sound was dull and numb underwater. Tt might have been just her imagination, but she thought she heard muffled shouting coming from above the surface.
She swam down, down, until she reached the pile of treasure and the thing that lay underneath. She’d recognized the shape from her studies of the anti-unity war of Ma-Rek’s day, and she prayed that the charge was still functioning. She found the trigger and pulled it.
Thank every star in the System, there was a delay. Enough time to get to safety—for her, anyway. Not for the ancient things above the surface—the never-alive and the undead alike. As the dull metal came to life with rippling orange light, Ketzal set her path for the shore, and sent up a prayer for forgiveness for all she was about to destroy.
* * *
Eli didn’t think anyone had managed to chase him. He could hear no footsteps pounding aside from his own, though with the way all found echoed and reverberated through the tall and silent pillars of the city, it was difficult to tell.
The dark was not as dark as it had been, though whether that was a change in the caves themselves or how he saw them.
He could feel the effects of the curse more strongly now. His legs felt lighter, his steps swifter and more solid. The cave walls flew by him at an alarming speed.
But even with all the benefits of the curse, it was still a curse. Every step he took that led him farther away from the treasure felt like a burning in his bones, as though he’d dipped his very skeleton into the waters of the lake. His lungs no longer needed air, but they convulsed in his chest as he ran, forming their own silent protest against the path.
Breek was in danger, somewhere on the surface.
Aside from his legs falling off and rolling away, there was no obstacle any ancient curse could make that stood a chance of stopping him.
* * *
Breek slid backwards off the pile of metal plating with a terrific crash. The robots, which had been quietly chittering among themselves, turned towards him with high-pitched screeches. Breek struggled to his feet and began to run, the rust-red ground of the scrapyard slipping under his feet. The robots swarmed after him, their screams echoing through the towers of scrap. Breek scrambled away as best he could, fleeing from the robots and also from the imminent knowledge that, really, he had nowhere to run to. He was doing nothing but prolonging the inevitable.
Breek looked over his shoulder. The bots were click-clacking steadily after him, but couldn’t seem to manage any gait faster than a speedy walk. Breek began to scramble up another scrap pile, hoping to use the climb to slow them down. It felt different under his hands. Lighter than metal, and smoother. He glanced down.
His fingers were splayed across the pale tines of a bare rib cage.
In shock, Breek jerked his hand away. The whole pile shuddered under the movement, and began to teeter. With a dull clattering rush, it fell—right on top of Breek. He screamed, paralyzed under the weight of a mountain of human bone. The chittering of the bots came closer, their metal bodies adding extra weight to the crushing force on top of him. Red eyes glowed through the criss-cross bone pattern. The bots took hold of him with cold metal fingers, dragging him out, but still he couldn’t make himself move. One of the machines lowered its great rusted skull to his own, making a low chittering sound. Breek closed his eyes against it, fear rushing over him in a flood, and knew that he was about to die.
But oh, he was not about to die like this.
Breek opened his eyes. His hands weren’t tied down. He lashed out, punching the bot in the face. Pain shot through his arm, and there was no change to the bot except a streak of bright blood across its skull, slashing down between its eyes.
But this wasn’t about winning, he thought, punching it again. This wasn’t about stopping what was going to happen.
This was about Breek. This was about who he was. And he was not someone to take death quietly.
He drew back his fist again, baring his teeth in the bot’s impassive, bloody face,
There was a rush of air and a sudden clatter.
The bot was gone.
Breek sat up, looking for it. The bot was flat on its back, its legs making tiny jerking motions as the solid human figure above it punched it repeatedly into the ground. The rain pinged against its corpse.
Finally, the bot went still with a sad and solitary whir. The figure turned around, meeting Breek’s stare with eyes that were utterly black.
Eli grabbed Breek’s hand, pulling him to his feet.
“We need to get to the ship!” He shouted. “Where is it?”
Breek had no breath to give a proper answer. He gestured.
Eli looked at the scrap surrounding them both, and seemed to understand.
“Damn it,” he growled. “Grab a weapon, kid.”
Breek ducked down, picking up a long, solid bone with a heavy joint at the end of it. It was slippery in his hands. Eli spun around, setting his back against Breek’s.
“What are we going to do?” Breek asked, his breath finally halfway caught.
“We’re going to fight,” Eli growled.
Breek peered over Eli’s shoulder, at the horde of angry robots. They were click-clacking their way towards them with the inevitability of an oil spill, cramming into the narrow valley between the towers of scrap, towards the dead end marked by the pile of bones.
“Okay,” Breek said, not wanting to inject any doubt into Eli’s confidence.
Suddenly, the ground rocked and shuddered underneath them. Breek stumbled under the force of it. As one, the robots halted, chattering among themselves, their heads swiveling in search of the explosion’s source.
One of the mountains of scrap shifted.
The robots looked at it.
So did Eli.
So did Breek.
The mountain of scrap squealed, leaned, and fell like a ship in a gravity drop.
Where there had once been an army of angry robots, there was now a pile of half-rusted metal sheeting, plinking steadily under the onslaught of the rain.
“What was that?” Breek asked.
And, really, he should have known enough by now to expect Eli’s answer.
* * *
Eli scrambled over the pile of bones and started running back towards the cave entrance, distantly aware of Breek running just behind him. Ketzal had set off the bomb. It had saved them, twice over—but all Eli could picture were the million ways it could have gone wrong. She could have gotten caught in the blast—thrown against the wall by concussion—crushed by a pile of rubble.
But she hadn’t been. She was standing, muddy, wet, but grinning, over the entrance of the cave. All of Eli’s panic fell limp as a cast-off jelly mold. He met her in two strides and wrapped his arms around her.
“Eli. Ribs. Ow.”
“Sorry,” he said, immediately letting go.
“No, you don’t have to let go,” she said, scooting closer. “Just—gentle, please.”
Eli wrapped her in a hug again. A gentle one. Somehow, she stilled smelled like dust and hair dye, even after spending so long in the lake.
“Come on in, Breek,” Ketzal said, opening her arm. “You went and missed the vampires.”
Breek chuckled. “You missed the robots,” he said.
Then, to Eli’s surprise, Breek wrapped his arms around them both in what had to be the universe’s soggiest hug. Eli could feel their heartbeats, throbbing strong in their fingertips.
And—with a strange rush of utter relief—he could feel his own. Thrumming warm and wild in his chest, sending life and blood to every limb. He closed his eyes, resting his head against both of his friend’s. They were alive. They were all, by some miracle, alive. The curse was dead.
A few moments later, Ketzal pulled away. She scanned the horizon. Frowned.
“Incidentally,” she said, “Where is our ship?”
“She’s bleeding again,” Ketzal noted. Eli looked up, to where the rough-patched seams of the ship’s walls were oozing with a strange mixture of oil, water and rust, staining the already splotchy metal with a bright streak of red.
“So she is,” he agreed. “We’re almost to Bleachbone. Pax will fix her.”
“He’s going to hate us,” Ketzal said.
“He’s going to hate you,” Eli said. “I’m going to hide in the ship to avoid being yelled at.”
Ketzal looked at him, indignant, but it was at that moment that Breek chose to walk into the cockpit.
“How much farther?” He asked. “One engine is out and the other is shaking against the hull.”
“Nearly there,” Ketzal promised.
Breek nodded, looking solemn. The dark shape of the habited moon loomed on their viewscreen. There was something odd in the way he watched it, and Eli turned from the controls to look closer at the boy. Breek met his gaze with something that wasn’t quite a smile.
“I’d say I’ve packed, but I didn’t bring anything aboard in the first place, so.” He shrugged his shoulders, then took off his jacket, handing it to Eli.
“This is yours,” he said. “Sorry I took it.”
Eli looked from the jacket, to Breek, and back again.
“Packed?” Ketzal asked. “You’re leaving?”
Breek looked at them both, seeming off-balance. “Don’t I—have to?”
“When did we say that?” Ketzal asked. She looked at Eli. “Did we say that?”
“No,” Eli said. He took a hand off the controls, pushing the offered jacket back to Breek. “We said nothing of the kind.”
“You’ll both need better jackets than that where we’re going, anyway,” Ketzal said. “There’s a shortage of stars by the Caravian asteroid belt.”
Breek halted in putting his jacket back on.
“The what?” He and Eli asked in unison.
Ketzal grinned, raising her eyebrows at them both. They were descending into the outer layer of Bleachbone’s synthosphere, the bright lights of the hidden town glowing in her eyes.
“Another adventure,” she said. “That is, if you’re both interested.”
Eli looked at Breek, and Breek stared back before speaking for them both.
“Asteroid belt,” he echoed. “Sounds fun.”
Ketzal grinned even wider.
Infectious, Eli thought, shaking his head.
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