Last Chance And The City Of The Undead (Last Chance, #5)

This story is part of a series. To start at the beginning, click here.

Ketzal stared. There were minarets. Underground minarets, carved straight from the native stone. She thought she could see the sharp edges of patterns, reflecting bits of light from the lake before the city’s towers rose too far into the shadowy depths of the ceiling.

“How far down do you think it is?”

Ketzal blinked. She frowned up at the minarets for another moment, wondering what Breek was talking about, before she glanced down and saw that he was staring into the lake. The glow lighting his face was rippling in strange patterns, his expression difficult to judge. Ketzal guessed that it was somewhere between ‘shock’ and ‘awe’, since—really—those were the only reasonable reactions to finding lost pirate treasure in an underground city.

Not that everyone’s reaction had to be reasonable. Eli was staring down into the lake as though he’d just woken from a nightmare. Or—no. Like he’d just found himself inside one.

It made no sense, but then again, Eli rarely did.

The minarets could wait. Ketzal peered down deep into the vibrant glow of the lake, squinting at the sparkling chrome.

“It’s hard to judge the depth, with water this clear,” she said. “It could be anywhere from twenty feet to two thousand deep, really.”

“How can we find out?” Breek asked, kneeling down to flick a finger at the water. It rippled quietly away from the disturbance, sending waves of refracted light dancing wildly over the cave walls.

“One second.” Ketzal said, feeling for the strap of her pack. “I’ve got—“ she patted her shoulder absently, frowning when her hand came away empty, “Something.”

* * *

Eli was aware that there was conversation going on over his head. Aware in a vague, unassuming way—the way you might be aware that the planet under your feet is spherical, or that someone, somewhere, is being chased by geese.

Mostly, though, he was aware of the lake, and of the things that shone and sparkled under the surface of the lake. He could almost feel the ripples of light leaving physical impressions on his skin.

He’d been perfectly prepared to find a death trap. Or a pile of useless, ancient junk. Or nothing.

Not once had he allowed himself to hope that there was actually any treasure. Treasure just lying around, free for the claiming. But here it was, and his fingers were prickling uncomfortably with the knowledge of how much had just come within his reach.

* * *

“Well, crap.”

Ketzal’s voice was flat. Eli came back to himself with the solidity of a loose clamp being locked into place.

“What?” He asked, peeling himself away from the the pale, rippling glow of the water. “What’s wrong?”

Ketzal was staring at the largest of the large boulders as though it had just rudely interrupted her.

“Well,” she said. “Remember that whole, falling, nearly being squished by giant rocks thing?”

“Yes,” Eli replied. He had the encroaching conviction that he didn’t to want to hear what this was leading up to.

“Well.” Ketzal said, “I had all of climbing gear in my pack.”

“Yes.”

“And I think it must have come off in the fall.”

That wasn’t so bad, Eli thought.

“We’ll look for it,” he began, then looked at Ketzal, standing stolidly with her hands on her hips in front of the largest and most immobile of boulders. She reached out her foot and toed a tiny bit of familiar fabric, sticking out from underneath it.

Oh.

“Oh,” Eli said, all helpful impulses grinding to a halt.

“Yep,” Ketzal agreed, evidently having boarded the same ship. She peered up at the gaping hole, so far above them, that led back to the surface. “‘Oh’ is about right.”

“You mean we’re stuck?” Breek, turned away from the treasure by more practical concerns just as Eli had been, asked. He glanced between them, his wide eyes reflecting slivers of pale light.

“Don’t panic,” Eli said.

The kid looked at him. “You know how we’re gonna get out?”

“No,” he admitted. “But don’t panic. It won’t help.”

It was good advice. Eli was trying to follow it himself.

Ketzal’s attention seemed to be occupied with the city on the other side of the lake.

“We could swim across.”

Eli followed her gaze. Ketzal glanced at him. “Whoever built that city must have had a way to get to and from it.”

Eli nodded, agreeing. Any passage out from the city could easily have caved in in the centuries since it had been abandoned, of course, or relied on some kind of power grid that no longer existed. He could already hear Breek’s half-panicked breathing, and so he didn’t mention it. He studied the water instead, trying to remember the last time he’d gone swimming.

Years ago. So many years. Colony 9 didn’t have water enough to spare—or time, either.

But he remembered, with sudden vividness, the pools on Red 16. They’d lived up to the planet’s name, the deep and sluggish water tinged with terracotta that would dye your skin as red as blood, and dry into a soft silt that rubbed off on everything you touched for days afterwards. The pools had been blessedly cool in the hot and arid afternoons; he’d spent hours swimming in them. The memory, so vastly removed both from the desperate years that followed it and from this cold and bloodless cave, sparked a strange kind of regret—a sadness that seemed to sink, uninvited, into his very bones.

But he thought he remembered how to swim, provided the water was really as calm as it looked.

There hadn’t been much in the way of pools on Bleachbone either, come to think of it. He looked at Breek.

“You know how to swim, kid?”

Breek looked at him, mouth crooked to the side, and shrugged.

“How hard can it be?”

This caught Ketzal’s attention.

“You don’t know how to swim?”

“Um,” Breek said, shrugging his shoulders into a slump. “No?”

Ketzal looked to Eli. “Do you know how to carry another person?” She asked. “Because I don’t.”

Eli thought for a moment, then shook his head. He was willing to risk his own life on his decades-old swimming knowledge. Not someone else’s.

Breek shifted his feet, squaring his shoulders. “I can figure it out,” he said.

“I’m sure you can, but now is not the time to be learning to swim,” Ketzal said. “I’m usually an advocate for impromptu learning, but if you start to drown here, neither of us could save you, and I, for one, would rather not watch you die.”

Eli blinked at the speech. It was strange to see Ketzal advocating for common sense.

“Tell you what,” Ketzal said. “Eli and I will swim across and find a way up. We’ve got more ropes on the ship; we’ll come back and pull you up.”

Breek shifted again, looking between Ketzal and Eli uncertainly.

“Uh, sure,” he said. “I guess. I’ll just—sit here?”

“Perfect,” Ketzal said. “It’s a plan. And once we’re all back up on the surface, we can formulate a plan for recording everything down here.” She glanced across the lake, wistful this time. “I thought that the most fascinating thing we could find would be Ma-Rek’s treasure, but—this city would have to be even older. Hidden down here, with no one the wiser.”

“No one but us,” Breek said, and Ketzal met him with a blazing grin.

Eli was listening. He was. Still, he found himself staring down, deep into the water, at the shine and glimmer of the submerged chrome.

“We will be bringing up the treasure, though.” He said. His voice sounded sharp, even to his own ears.

“Oh yeah, totally.” Ketzal said. “That too.”

Good, Eli thought, returning his gaze to the water.

Good.

* * *

The cave was filled with echoes as Ketzal and Eli splashed their way across the lake, sending riotous ripples over the calm surface and causing the light on the walls to dance wildly.

Breek didn’t want to drown. It was that fact, and that fact alone, that kept him from plunging into the lake after them.

Ketzal had promised that they wouldn’t leave him, he thought insistently. She didn’t seem like the type to lie—she hadn’t yet, anyway, not to his knowledge.

But there was trust, and then there were the facts. The facts were plain enough. They hadn’t wanted him along with them in the first place. Especially now that they’d found the treasure, he was useless. Anyone would be looking for a way to get rid of him, and this was the perfect excuse.

Breek watched them go, all the insisting of his mind solidified into one solid conviction. They were not coming back for him.

Eli’s arms were burning with unfamiliar exertion by the time he heaved himself, wet and dripping, out of the water. The rock was cold and solid under his hands, and the water itched like a chemical bath. Eli turned back, intending to send a reaffirming nod to Breek, but found his gaze captured by the treasure again. It glittered at him, and his skin itched.

He tore himself away from the sight with troubling difficulty.

“I think these are letters,” Ketzal said. She was a fast swimmer, and had come up on shore before him. Splattering water on the stone paving of the city entrance, she was tracing some carvings on the city gate with her fingers. They did look like letters, Eli thought, though he couldn’t have guessed the language if he tried.

He scratched at his neck.

“We’re looking for an exit, Ketz.” He said.

“Oh!” She said, pulling herself away. “Right.”

“It’s got to be on the outskirts of the city somewhere,” Eli guessed, frowning into the dark where a pathway ran between the city’s outer buildings and the cave wall. The glow of the lake only kept the path visible for so long, and it led into a deep, pitch-black shadow where they would have to find their was by feel alone.

It wasn’t any use just staring at it.

“You go right,” Eli said, “and I’ll go left?”

Ketzal looked into the dark on her side of the city, and nodded.

“It’s a plan.”

* * *

As Ketzal walked along the outskirts of the city, she studied the paving-stones under her feet. They weren’t individual stones, but rather a pattern, carved into the cave floor to imitate laid stone cobbles. Each raised stone bore its own carving—its own carefully created pattern.

She did not look up at the city. If she did, she wasn’t sure how she would pull herself away. Somewhere, deep in those buildings, lay the impressions of lives lived, of people who’d existed so very, very long ago. The story of who had built this city, and what they had built it for. Ketzal wanted nothing more than to look.

But, finding an exit came first. Once they found an exit, she could bring Breek and Eli to explore with her.

And, possibly more to the point, a flashlight.

So, Ketzal kept her hand flat on the far wall, trying to use the faded glow of the lake to see as she walked along it. The stone was rough under her fingers, hacked away almost carelessly to make room for the city.

She could feel the variance of the smooth cobblestone carvings through the soles of her boots, and startled a little when they turned into sharp crenellations. She glanced down as she walked, and found that there were letters under her feet. Not in any language she knew of, but they were too patterned and abstract to be anything else. She stared at them for a moment, trying to think of what it was that made them look so familiar to her. Large, curving letters, stamped comically huge on the road under her feet.

Like traffic directions.

She almost laughed at the realization. Traffic directions!

This, she thought, taking them in with glee, was exactly what she loved about history. Traffic directions were one thing—one single, not very interesting, thing. But the world that sprung up around them was not. Ancient traffic directions spoke of ancient police, ancient city planning engineers, ancient tourists finding their way by squinting confusedly at ancient maps. Just—people, vivid and alive in their own time, who existed now only in the blurred reflections of the things they had left behind.

As she walked, the rough-cut stone of the wall began to smooth out under her fingers, rippling against them with carefully carved curves. She glanced up, and her breath caught in her throat.

There were pictures carved into the wall.

Her fingers rested over the exquisitely detailed boot-straps of a towering man in an ancient space suit with the visor propped up to reveal a confident, strong-jawed face. He was looking towards the back of the city, arms akimbo as though surveying some proud accomplishment, and Ketzal was drawn further along the wall. The man was looking over a series of planets, each one presented as an unaccompanied sphere with a small representation of what the surface looked like carved into it. Some, Ketzal thought she recognized—they were planets from different systems. If the carvings of ships circling them meant what she thought they did, they were representations of of planets that this culture had explored and settled. In the background of the ships and planets, barely visible in the pale light, open space was represented as a sea of writhing serpents, open-mouthed and scowling. An appropriate view, she thought, at a time when intergalactic travel was so uncertain and risky that you’d have to be half insane to attempt it.

And in that time, these people had taken to the stars like a starving man to along-awaited meal, gobbling them down and exploring like their lives depended on it. The frieze of explored planets went on and on, interspersed every now and then with a proudly standing human figure—holding tablets, or weapons, or tools, to represent what they had contributed to the exploration effort. Dirty-faced mechanics and slim-fingered scholars and grizzled warriors, all alike represented as something glorious—something beautiful.

The light was growing dimmer with every step she took. She walked slower, trying to draw out the last few carvings as long as she could. She reached up, brushing her fingers along the curve of a small planet, represented as a lively jungle. She studied the carving for a moment, picking out the little jungle animals hidden cleverly in the leaves.

She blinked as she saw something she recognized. Curving antlers and wide, dead eyes; a mechanical torso attached to a slim-legged body.

So these people, she thought, knew about the Beast of Blue 12. Had they been responsible for it?

Belatedly, she remembered the radio message in the tunnels, and the one that had crackled over her speakers before the crash on Blue 12. A warning, or a welcome—the way that these people had marked out their habitable areas.

Fascinated, Ketzal brushed her fingers further over the stone, trying to pick out the shape of the next carving, even though it was hidden in shadow.

Her fingers stuttered over something that was not part of the carving at all. She frowned, feeling carefully. Sharp-edged and concave, the gouges in the stone ran in parallel lines. If she concentrated, she could almost see the edges of them by the light of the lake; but they scraped their way from that doubtful visibility into the pitch black of true dark.

The material of Ketzal’s shirt was wet and cold against her back, seeming strangely heavy when she raised her arm to feel the extent of the gouges in the stone. On instinct, she set her fingers into the deep grooves, drawing them down in a slow slashing motion.

They matched up with the gouges. Perfectly.

Sitting at the edge of the lake, Breek occupied himself by tapping his boots together in a steady, absentminded pattern, then stopping to listen to the echoes reverberate back to him across the lake.

The minutes passed.

They continued to pass.

He’d watched Ketzal and Eli pull themselves out of the water and go into the dark. Neither one of them had given him a backward glance.

He’d been waiting, and wondering, ever since.

He tried to break the monotony by reasoning with himself. Even if they weren’t going to come back for him, they had to come back for the treasure, right? He’d see them—not that it would do him a lot of good—but at least, then, he’d know.

Unless, some part of him—a nasty, unpleasant part of him that never seemed to go to sleep—said. Unless. How long, exactly, did it take for a person to die of starvation? He had water here, but no food. Three weeks? Four?

That wasn’t long to wait.

It would be a lot more convenient for them, he thought, to just—forget about him for a few weeks. Come back to collect the treasure later, when he was too dead to shout at them for it.

The thought sent a prickle up his spine.

They could have already reached the surface, he thought. They could be back on the Last Chance, congratulating their good luck.

He shot to his feet, staring across the lake, looking for any movement, any sign of life.

There was none.

Breek’s stomach twisted as though the starvation process had already begun.

They were going to leave him here to die if he didn’t do anything about it.

Breek stared into the lake, wondering if Ketzal had been lying about how difficult swimming would be, and if it would be worth the risk even if she hadn’t. He found a loose stone and tossed it in, watching as it sank.

And sank.

And continued sinking.

By the time it finally reached the bottom, disturbing a few chromium coins as it settled, Breek had decided that he didn’t want to try swimming. Not that it really mattered how deep the water was so long as it was over his head, but somehow, the notion of sinking that deep, of having breathable air that impossibly far out of his reach, sent a jolt of fear to the base of his spine, where it settled in to stay.

So swimming was out. If they wanted him to die, he wouldn’t do their work for them.

He looked up at the gaping hole that led to the surface, and then at the discarded suits and tangled tagalong line.

Climbing it was, then.

* * *

Eli hated the dark. His clothes had finally dried, though the ghost of the burning itch remained on his skin. He walked along the outside wall of the city, feeling his way and occasionally tripping over odd little ledges in the ground. He grumbled at them whenever he did. You’d think that people who had the great idea to carve a whole city out of solid rock would be able to make their roads flat, but evidently that wasn’t the case. The walls were mostly smooth, anyway, except for some odd bumps here and there.

He’d found an opening that could lead to the surface, almost immediately after parting ways with Ketzal; but now he had to find her again. The surest way to manage that was to continue on until they met up.

The wall was solid against his hand, and the further he walked, the louder was the heartbeat sounding in his ears. He couldn’t feel the throb of it in his chest, but his head was filled with steady thudding. It was unsettling.

Equally unsettling was the sense of looming shapes in the dark. He knew they were just buildings; but he could feel them, pulling at his attention with their weight, like the tug of gravity on the controls of a ship.

It was a relief when he rounded the corner and saw the light of the lake glowing in the distance. Set against the light in a stark silhouette, there was Ketzal. Eli felt a brief flash of exasperated affection, because Ketzal was studying the wall itself, and not looking for a doorway at all.

The next moment, his gaze was drawn to the side by a movement in the shadows.

A figure, also moving to stand against the glow of the lake. Eli froze for a moment, watching it move. It slunk forward, oh so silently, towards Ketzal’s distracted form. One figure.

And then another.

And another.

Fear flooded Eli’s his ribs like ice water.

Ketzal cocked her head, passing her fingers over the wall as though touching it could reveal some of its secrets. The pale lake-light caught on her bright yellow hair, twisting the color into a livid lime green.

The creatures crept on.

His throat was too dry to yell, but he burst forward, running flat out across the smooth stone. His shoulder hit another body as he ran, eliciting a brief yelp of surprise. Ketzal glanced up at the sound. Eli grabbed her shoulder, spinning her around and shoving her on ahead of him.

“Run!” He shouted, glancing back to catch a glimpse of the things following them. Pale, human faces with too-dark eyes. The faces were twisted up, revealing all too familiar over-sharp teeth.

“They’re vampires, Ketz!” He shouted.

“They’re what?”

The lake rose up like a rescue beacon in his peripheral vision, and he turned around just barely in time to see Ketzal, halted on the edge of it.

“What—“ she began.

“Keep going!” Eli shouted. He couldn’t stop. He slammed into her, bodily knocking her into the lake with a terrific splash. A wave of displaced water splashed back on Eli.

It was boiling hot.

Eli screamed, stumbling back from the lakeside. He stared down at his hands, bubbling an angry red. Panicked, he looked to where he’d knocked Ketzal into the water.

She was already swimming across the lake. Unharmed.

The next moment, hands seized his shoulders, pulling him down. He landed on his back, the pale grinning faces filling his vision. Eli struggled, pushing up against too-smooth hands, until he could he could look across the lake, see the dark shape of Ketzal as she swam away.

The hands were pulling him, twisting his limbs and all but tearing the muscles. He felt the rough clamp of teeth on his calf, around his wrist, ready to drain his blood.

He didn’t look at them. They didn’t matter. Ketzal was safe—nothing else mattered, as long as she was safe.

One of the creatures tugged his head to one side, taking the lake out his line of sight. Eli closed his eyes, and it sunk its teeth into his neck.

Ketzal’s ears were full of water and her heart was pounding hard in her chest as she dragged herself up on the far shore. The swim was a blur of adrenaline and splashing water. She coughed up some lake water, bitter and dribbly on her lips.

She looked around, wondering if she’d somehow found the wrong shore. Breek was nowhere to be found.

Breek was not there, but his suit was. So was her backpack, still squashed under a boulder. Ketzal frowned, and turned back, expecting to find Eli standing behind her.

She did not.

With a jolt, Ketzal saw the huddled group of figures on the far shore, gathered around a still figure in familiar clothes. Vampires, Eli had shouted. Vampires outside of Bleachbone, which was nearly unheard of.

Vampires who had caught Eli.

Afterwards, she would swear that she didn’t remember jumping back into the water.

* * *

The teeth are torn out of his skin almost as soon as they’re sunk in.

“Pah! What is this?”

Someone spits, and there’s a sizzle of hot liquid hitting stone.

The hands have left him, and Eli stuggles to sit up, his hand going to his neck.

“Not blood,” another voice cuts in.

His hand comes away wet with something black and viscous.

“Not human blood, at least.”

The liquid does not burn him as it drips down his arm, but it sizzles as it hits his sleeve, causing the fabric to wrinkle and blacken, shriveling away into nothing.

There was a sound of alarm from one of the creatures over his head, and Eli looked up into a pair of wide black eyes.

“He’s one of us.

* * *

Breek was dusty, sweaty, scratched-up and annoyed, but he was no longer stuck. He crawled painfully out of the rock crevice of the cave entrance, barely even minding the warm rain thudding its steady beat on his back and soaking through his shirt. He took a gasping breath, scudding his bloody hands on the wet rock, and gave a satisfied exhale. Even the damp, warm air of Greyscape’s surface was better than the tunnels.

Infinitely better. Especially since now, he could make his was back to the Last Chance, and—

Breek’s thoughts screeched to a halt.

The Last Chance was gone.

His heart thudded as hard as the rain as he searched the horizon, hoping he’d missed something. There was no way they had reached the surface already. There was no way they’d left the planet.

Was there?

He took a step forward, blinking against the water dripping from his eyelashes.

The ship was definitely, positively gone.

They’d left, Breek thought. Left him here to die. For an event he’d been preparing for ever since they’d landed, it hit him hard as a sack of concrete.

He took a few more steps on wobbling knees. The rain felt as though it was not just hitting his skin, but pummeling it, a thousand tiny boxer’s gloves that would leave a thousand aching bruises. The sound of it, deep and regular, filled his ears.

The all-encompassing nature of the rain was, really, what made the sudden click stand out. Breek froze for a moment, listening.

It clicked again, just behind him.

He spun around.

A pair of red-glowing eyes, set in a rusted metal skull, stared back at him.

Breek took a step backwards—partially from surprise, and partially because the thing just had too many legs.

It followed him, its strangely segmented body dipping down to block the entrance of the cave.

It chittered at him, a warbling, tinny sound like the doorbell of an old convenience store.

Breek waved his hands at it.

“Hey!” He shouted. “Go away!” He took an aggressive step, swiping at the creature. “Away!”

It did not move. It only cocked its head at him, calculating. Its legs clicked against the stone as it shifted.

The things head rose up, bringing its forelimbs with it. They were long and gangling, tipped with things like tools in the place of hands, and its torso, metallic and red with rust, seemed almost human in contrast to its over-large, insect body.

It tipped its head back and raised its voice in a long, chittering screech.

The click-click of even more metal legs competed with the sound of the rain. More rusted metallic skulls rose out of hidey-holes and over ridges in the ground. They all fixed their glowing eyes on Breek. He took a step back. Then another. Something bumped against his back.

When he turned around, a pair of red eyes looked inquisitively into his own.

He was surrounded.

To be continued…


Enjoy this story?

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Last Chance And The Pale Lake (Last Chance, #4)

This work is part of a series. To start at the beginning, press here.

Loris, colloquially known as Greyscape, was not grey at all. Not from the outside. From the outside, the heavy atmosphere was swirling with surface storms, wild and fascinating as pattern-welded steel, glowing in rich shades of blue.

Eli really hated the color blue.

The bright blue outer skin of Loris filled the entire front window of the Last Chance. He gripped the controls with white knuckles as the ship bucked, expressing displeasure as they descended into the exosphere.

“I know, girl,” he murmured. “I know.”

The feeling of being sucked down, the gravity kicking in and taking control, always made Eli’s stomach uneasy.

“See, this is a really tricky landing,” Ketzal said, sitting back in the co-pilot’s seat. Her hair was yellow today. “Because Loris has what seems to be constant violent storms—“

“Really not a good time for piloting lessons,” Eli said. Calmly. Through clenched teeth. There was a thud and a shudder as Loris’s gravity took a more confident grip of the ship, and they began a rapid descent.

“I can leave,” Breek offered, for the third time. He was standing, keeping a white-knuckled grip on the backs of the two mismatched bucket seats. The look on his face added ‘being thrown up on’ to Eli’s long list of worries.

“No, stay!” Ketzal insisted. “You’ll need to know this someday.”

They were entering the stratosphere. The controls had given up on lurching against Eli’s palms and instead had decided upon a tactic of attempting to jitter free, buzzing against his fingers like a fly angry at having been caught.

“Is it—is it supposed to do that?” Breek’s voice wavered a little as the front of the Last Chance burst into flames.

“Yep. It’ll stop soon,” Ketzal said, waving her hand dismissively. “That’s not the fascinating bit.”

The flames juddered and extinguished, trailing smoke as they continued free-falling into the roiling soup of Loris’s stormy troposphere. The heavy clouds hit them like a fist. Eli winced at the sudden jolt, snapping on the secondary propulsion system and counter-steering rapidly to avoid being sucked into one of the towering thunderheads. Purple lightning crackled in a perfect spiral around them, blindingly bright against the indigo landscape.

Eli’s teeth were set, and he was hoping that the high-pitched squealing was Breek and not the landing gear.

It was probably not the landing gear.

“The really fascinating part is that Loris has a fixed orbit, like Bleachbone,” Ketzal went on, unaffected by the chaos. “But, unlike Bleachbone, it’s too large to be temperature-regulated by its own atmosphere. The starward side is mostly burning desert, and the dark side is all icy wasteland. But there’s a thin strip of landing area that we’ll actually be able to survive.”

It was definitely not the landing gear.

“Ketz,” Eli tried to interject, before a thick buffet of wind tossed the Last Chance to one side. He clenched his teeth, course-correcting as best he could.

“And it’s further complicated by the fact that, since Loris never lost her original atmosphere, there’s a thick layer of stormy hydrogen and helium that we can’t see through at all,” Ketzal continued. The Last Chance executed an unplanned loopty-loop as it broke through the top layer of cloud into a second, darker, and seemingly more turbulent region. More than one alarm was blaring, and Eli couldn’t tell what any of them were for. Lightning flashed above and in front of them, jagged strikes that only missed the ship by a few meters. They had to get out of this, Eli thought. He caught sight of a downward twister.

Perfect.

“Hold on!” He roared, probably interrupting one of Ketzal’s explanations. It was hard to hear anything over the thunder. Warning given, he pointed the ship nose-first into the vortex. It lurched, slamming hard into the side of the twister’s wall. There was a brief moment of feeling like a bug glued to a wall before the storm took hold.

Eli couldn’t hear anything over his own yell as the twister sucked them down.

* * *

On the surface of Loris, all was quiet. There was grey stone, and grey rain, and the scuttling grey things that dug in the rocky surface under the grey sky.

One of them was out in the rain, letting the clear water stream down its rusted shell as it quietly scrabbled and scraped at the rock, tapping and cocking its head to listen, then tapping and listening once more. It had forgotten what it was searching for. It had forgotten many things, as the constant rainwater of Loris seeped into the carefully engineered plating of its skull and diluted the precious fluids there that conducted the artificial synapses of its brain. It had forgotten so many things; but it remembered that it was searching for something. It remembered that that something was deep below the surface of the planet.

So, scrape and tap and listen it did.

When it did finally hear something over the the staccato drumbeat of falling rain, though, it did not come from the ground. It was a distant whine, high up in the sky. The thing stopped and looked up, its dark, lidless eyes unblinking against the rain.

The whine grew closer, louder. The creature’s head swiveled around, tracking the sound, just in time to see the thing that broke through the dark canopy of clouds. It was metallic and boxy, trailing smoke. It banked, wild as a wind-drunk bird, and dipped towards the surface, nearly landing three times before it came to ground with a wild screech of stone and metal, somewhere beyond the thing’s range of vision.

It chittered. This was curious. This was new.

It would tell the others.

* * *

Breek was choking on stomach acid in the nearest disposal chamber to the cockpit, leaning down and breathing hard as he tried to decide whether or not to trust his newly-emptied stomach. So far, the verdict was leaning towards the negative.

“Whoo!” Ketzal’s voice was muffled, but audible. “We’re alive!”

“Are you sure?” Breek questioned under his breath

“Sure am!” Ketzal said, probably responding to something Eli had said, but it made Breek huff a laugh all the same. He winced directly afterwards. Laughing wasn’t a good idea.

“You alright, Breek?” Eli called back, interrupting Breek’s inner argument over whether he should stand up or not.

“Fine!” He shouted. And he was, really—or would be, once he could stop breathing through his nose.

“Come on up, then!” Ketzal said. “We’ve got a whole planet to search!”

A whole planet, Breek thought bleakly. His stomach felt steady enough now, but it was a toss-up as to whether or not he wanted to go look at this new planet. It had been easier, hiding in that incineration bin, to picture Loris as a small globe marked with a large X where all the unimaginable riches lay.

It hadn’t really been until they had gotten close enough to the planet’s surface that the roiling storms blocked out everything else that he’d been forced to rethink that image. It was not a pleasant process. He did not like having all that space between himself and his hopes. In fact, he resented it.

Still. He wasn’t getting any closer by standing alone in a disposal chamber. Soon enough, he would have his share of that treasure, and he would never have to go galavanting across the universe ever again. No desperation, and no galavanting. It was his promise to himself; and it was a promise that he would not break.

He wiped his mouth and straightened his shoulders, letting the door zither shut behind him as he went to rejoin the others.

In the cockpit, the ship had quieted. The only sounds were the drumming of the rain on the window and the quiet murmur of Ketzal and Eli’s conversation.

“So this is Greyscape, huh?” He said, as he entered the cockpit.

Greyscape was a lot—bigger, than Bleachbone. Even with the cloud cover and the falling sheets of rain, it seemed incredibly bright, too, for a planet. Bright, and terrifyingly open. Breek determinedly did not let his heart sink within him.

“How are we gonna find something hidden in all this?” He asked.

“With diligence and hard work,” Ketzal replied, getting up from her seat. “Also, some clues. Excuse me,”

And with that, she squeezed past Breek and left the cockpit. Breek looked at Eli, hoping for some indication as to what that was supposed to mean, but Eli only shrugged. Slowly, one hand at a time, he peeled himself off the controls. Breek watched the process, thinking back to the landing. In his own terror, he’d thought Eli had been calm as Ketzal had seemed.

Today was a day for rethinking things.

Eli got up, giving him a wry look and nodding the way Ketzal had gone.

“Not much to do but follow,” he said.

* * *

Loris was beautiful. It was very wet, but it was beautiful.

Even in the cargo hold, shoving aside crates of tomato-and-chicken mash in order to find the one box that she knew was down here somewhere, Ketzal could still see it. The dark, roiling thunderheads, the thousand neon shades of lightning, the craggy grey rock all shining with the constant pounding rain; it was all there in her head, perfectly captured and yet only serving to sharpen her appetite for more. She’d been to many planets, and they were all amazing in their own way. Loris, though—Loris one was her current favorite.

Finally, she found the box she was looking for. Still wrapped in its protective packaging, stored for years without ever being used.

“There she is,” she heard Eli say, and she looked up to see him and Breek at the top of the stairs that led down into the hold. “See, it’s a small ship,” Eli turned back to explain, a smile quirking his lips, “So no matter how many times she runs off in some random direction, it’s only a twenty-minute search to find her again. Thirty, at most.”

“I don’t run off anywhere!” Ketzal protested, flipping her hair out of her face. Maybe the bright yellow hadn’t been such a good idea; it was a little distracting. “You’re just slow!”

“Hey, now,” Eli said, grinning at her. “I’m an old man. Show some respect.”

For that blatant ridiculousness, she threw a packet of tomato mash at him.

He caught it, laughing, and handed it over his shoulder to Breek, who after a moment of confusion, stuck it in his pocket.

“Alright,” Eli said, coming down the stairs. “What are we doing now?”

“Getting these suits out of storage.” With a grunt, she pulled the box free and scooted it out into open space.

Eli bent down beside her, tapping the box thoughtfully as he read the description written on it.

“The emergency spacewalk suits?”

“Yes.”

Eli cocked his head, squinting at her.

“Not sure if you’ve noticed,” he said, “But we do happen to be planetside, at the moment. We came through the atmosphere a few moments ago. It was that terrifying bit, with all the lightning?”

Ketzal’s shoulders slumped, and she fixed Eli with a look. She wasnt sure what kind of look it was, since it wasn’t one she’d practiced, but it was definitely a look.

“And I’m not sure if you’ve noticed,” she said, “but it’s raining outside, and none of us have any waterproof gear. These will work instead.”

“Ah,” Eli allowed, nodding.

“Plus, they have lamps for when we go underground.”

“Underground?” Eli asked.

“Underground,” Ketzal confirmed, with a grin.

* * *

Breek shrugged his shoulders, testing his range of movement in the heavy rubber suit.

It was clunky and uncomfortable, but to Ketzal’s credit, it was doing a good job of keeping him dry in the driving rain and wind. The surface of Loris was warm, though, and Breek was already sweating into insulation meant to protect wearers against the bitter cold of open space.

“We’re looking for a cave!” Ketzal shouted, her voice cracking loudly over the suits’ dusty inner radio. Breek jumped, fingers scrambling for a volume modulator. He found it, cranking it down just in time for Eli’s voice to come through and not break his eardrums doing so.

“Of course it’s a cave,” Eli said bleakly.

“Why a cave?” Breek asked. He knew Ketzal had already explained, but he’d forgotten to listen—and she never seemed to mind explaining things.

“I’ve been reading up,” Ketzal said. “They’ve actually found some of Ma-Rek’s old secondary stashes—not enough to have been his entire haul, but it’s definitely Ma-Rek’s work. He seemed to prefer underground locations, usually on the side of the planet closest to the Solar System. He was earth-born—there was a psychology paper that talked about how it meant he was always trying to find some kind of way to return home, or something. Whatever it meant to him, though, it was definitely a pattern.”

So, Breek thought. Cave. He could look for a cave. That didn’t sound too hard.

The rain was splattering against his face shield, turning the world into a mysterious mass of blurry shapes and colors, so he fumbled for the latch, swinging it up and away from his face. The warm rain splattered against his face now, splashing into his eyes and making him blink; but he could see a little.

Eli and Ketzal were both standing a few feet away, one of their half-bickering conversations crackling through Breek’s radio. Instead of listening, he started scanning the ground, carefully searching for any rift or opening that could lead into a cave.

The ground was dark and dull—almost black. It was a strange reversal, the light sky with the dark ground. Different from home, he thought, before angrily quashing that thought. Bleachbone had never been home; it had just been the only place he knew. He had spent sixteen years of his life planning to leave it, and that plan had not changed. If anything, it had gotten more solid, more real, now that there was treasure within reach—lost treasure, not even chrome he’d have had to steal or slave for.

He would find the treasure. Get the treasure. And then, enjoy never having to wallow on dangerous, ugly planets like this or Bleachbone ever again.

He was so focused on the ground that he didn’t notice, at first, the thing flickering just on the edge of his vision. It morphed and blinked, a moving light in the corner of his eye, barely there at first, and then an annoyance he was determined to ignore.

It took him a moment to realize that this was an uninhabited planet—and that Ketzal and Eli were behind him. His head snapped up with a jerk.

The thing, whatever it was, might have given one last flicker; or it might have been a trick of the light on the rain. The more he searched for it, the less he was certain he’d seen anything at all.

But he had seen something. Hadn’t he?

He took a cautious step towards where he thought the thing had been.

The line clipped onto his belt snapped, juddering him to a halt. He glanced down at it, frowning, and then looked back towards Ketzal and Eli. Ketzal was still stumbling a little, drawn off-balance by the connecting line, and Eli was steadying her with a hand under her elbow.

“Kid, what on earth are you doing?” Eli’s voice crackled loud and clear through the radio, though it was lost in the wind. “Get back here.”

“Have you found anything?” Ketzal asked, sounding breathless even through the static.

Breek didn’t think that a flicker on the horizon counted as finding something.

“No!” He shouted, and jogged back to within a reasonable distance. He gestured apologetically. “Forgot about the line thing.”

It felt a little like being on a leash, but he didn’t mention that.

“Well, I’m glad we have it,” Ketzal said, grinning at him. “Wouldn’t want to lose you.”

Breek nodded, even though he wasn’t sure if he agreed with the sentiment.

“So, cave.” Ketzal declared, and began walking off, studying the ground as she went. Eli fell into step beside her.

Breek had enough line to let them walk on for a bit before falling in himself. He held back, glancing over his shoulder at the horizon. It was completely still, save for the clouds and the rain.

But he could have sworn he’d seen something.

* * *

Eli had—he thought to his credit—decided to suspend his judgement of Greyscape until they had spent at least ten minutes on its surface.

It had been ten minutes.

He hated it.

It was hot. It was dark. The clouds were so heavy that it might as well have already been a cave for how open and free it felt, and they were currently looking for a way to sink even lower under the surface, piling more weight over their heads.

Just wonderful.

Eli squinted hard, trying to keep his eyes open enough to see without also getting them full of stinging rainwater. It was an impossible dilemma. Warm water ran down his face, and his too-large, too-heavy boots repeatedly stubbed themselves against the uneven rock shelves. Occasionally, he’d forget to watch the line, and it would run out and pull him off-balance, leading to a wild, flailing dance before he could right himself again.

At this rate, they would find a cave in approximately three hundred years. Eli resigned himself to a lifetime of being hungry and rained on.

Beside him, Breek was stumping along equally miserably. Eli was glad to not be alone in his bad mood. Ketzal, with her eternal cheeriness, occasionally felt like sunshine on a funeral.

The boy also kept stopping, glancing over his shoulder. It was making Eli nervous.

“What do you see?” He asked, after the third time. Breek looked at him as though he’d been caught stealing.

“Nothing,” he said. It was less than convincing.

Eli looked back to where the boy had been staring. There was the ship, all but hidden behind the sheets of falling rain, but there nonetheless. His heart cried out against leaving her, even though Ketzal had assured him that the planet was uninhabited.

There was something—a trick of the light? He stopped, frowning, trying to see through the rain. What was that?

“I found it!” Ketzal called, her voice echoing double—through the radio, and the rain-soaked air. It met his ears like a tap on the shoulder, pulling him away from his contemplation of the ship and towards the cave that Ketzal had found.

It had probably been nothing, anyway.

As it turned out, Ketzal’s ‘cave’ was little more than a crevice in the earth, just large enough for someone to squeeze through. It was raised up, protected by a shelf of rock, and unlikely to be flooded, even in the torrential rains. So, it was probably not a drowning death trap.

He could feel the walls closing in, though, just looking at it.

“We’re going in that?” Breek asked from just behind his shoulder. He sounded as excited by the prospect as Eli felt.

Ketzal glanced up at them both.

“I mean, it’s the only way underground we’ve found so far.” She said, reaching into her suit. She pulled out a tiny neon-green square and stuck it on the lip of rock overhanging the cave. It stuck there, clinging with incredible strength, and began to glow with a pulsating light: a marker to keep their place.

She brushed her wet hands uselessly on the soaked space suit, and stood up.

“Whatever Ma-Rek hid here, we’re not going to find it if we don’t look.”

Eli stopped himself on the cusp of saying that maybe, not finding the deranged leavings of a bloodthirsty pirate (even an ancient one) was a good thing. He’d proposed his death trap theory. Several times. Ketzal was determined to be curious. Breek, in his own way, was dead set on it too.

Eli was reminded of his own purpose here. He was here to keep them both safe. So, keep them safe he would, even if they were both utterly insane.

He leaned down, reaching a hand into the crevice. Nothing bit him.

“Well then,” he said, with a resigned sigh. “We might as well get going.”

* * *

Breek scrambled and scraped as he crawled into the cave after Eli. Ketzal sat on her haunches, waiting her turn, bouncing slightly on her heels to slough off some of her impatience. She loved this feeling—the prickling of not-quite-fear that started in her spine and ended in her fingertips. A new planet, a million and one new ideas and mysteries and stories. Maybe even treasure. Who knew what artifacts Ma-Rek had unintentionally preserved? Ancient coinage and art, metalwork and clothing. It was sure to be fascinating.

Finally, it was her turn. She unshouldered her pack and shoved it inside, then got down on her belly, wriggling and twisting to fit into the small space. The rubber suit made unhelpful bumps and rumples that caught on the stone, but soon enough, she was able to see the cave.

It opened out, after the initial lip, into a small, rounded chamber, large enough for Breek and Eli to stand up in. It seemed to be made of a different kind of stone. Unlike the matte grey surface of Loris, this stuff was pitch black and shining, gleaming under their lamps like the center of a giant jewel.

With one final kick, she worked herself free, sprawling into the cave and landing with a thud on the cave floor. Her lamp gave a faintly yellowish beam, making dancing triplicate shadows as it met with the beams from the other two suits.

“Wow,” she said, looking around the cave in awe. “I’ve never seen this type of rock before.”

Eli reached down a hand, helping her to her feet. He looked around the cave too, the bright bluish glow of his lamp enunciating the worry-lines around his eyes. “I’ve never seen this much of it,” he said.

Ketzal swung towards him, curious. “You know what kind of stone this is?”

Eli shrugged.

“We called it waterstone, on Colony 9. Sometimes you’d run into a little vein of it, and it’s not something the mining barons ever wanted, so we got to keep it. If you chipped off a little lump of it and kept it in your canteen, it’d keep your water from going funny. So, waterstone.”

Which was fascinating, really, but—

“Why did you need to keep your water from going funny?” She asked, lean not down to snatch her pack up off the floor. “Aren’t they supposed to keep it filtered?”

Eli huffed, something like amusement flickering over his face. “Well,” he began, but was interrupted.

“Hey!” Breek called. “There’s a tunnel that leads further down! It’s big enough to walk through!”

“Big enough to walk through?” Ketzal asked, huffing as she shouldered the pack, all heavy with climbing gear, She turned to Eli. “There’s no way this wasn’t man-made,” she breathed. “We’re getting close. We have to be.”

“Close to a death trap?”

Ketzal rolled her eyes. “Close to something.

* * *

Waiting for Ketzal and Eli to start moving, Breek studied the tunnel he’d found. It was long and deep, plunging down into the earth at a pitch that was just this side of dangerous. Far, far down, he could hear something, like a low hum. Air reverberating through the small space, he guessed, like the way the wastes of Bleachbone would sometimes be set to wailing for hours on end.

“Hello,” he called, softly. His own voice came back to him, several times over. Hello! Hello! Hello!

Ketzal came up beside him, bright-eyed. “OOh!” She called. “An echo!”

Echo! Echo! Echo!

Eli came up behind them both, his eyes shut and his mouth in a straighter line than Breek had thought nature ever intended.

“If you could both never do that again,” he said, “I’d really appreciate it.”

“Never again!” Ketzal called.

Again! Again! Again!

Eli sighed.

* * *

Luckily, echoes were not endlessly enthralling. Not even to Ketzal. She stopped with them after the first fifteen minutes, and then, the only things to echo back on them were the sounds of their own footsteps.

The tunnel itself had a ringing kind of hum in it, like air blown over the top of a bottle. It was mournful-sounding. Every once in a while, there was a thud, or a click, like something moving in the shadows. Eli was used to strange noises in tunnels. Most of the time, they meant nothing.

Breek was less steady. He was quiet about it, but every odd, discordant sound made his gaze skitter towards the shadows.

“Hey,” he asked, after one particularly strange series of clicking noises. “Why isn’t there anyone here?”

Ketzal turned at the question, but she had that starry-eyed look on her face that meant she couldn’t pay proper attention to anything, except maybe old artifacts.

“Here, in the caves?” She asked.

“No,” Breek said. “Well—on this planet. It’s habitable, right? So why isn’t anyone here?”

Ketzal shrugged.

“Not all habitable planets get habited,” she said. “They’re discovered, mapped, and forgotten. It happens.”

“So,” Breek said, “There’s not—a reason.

“Not a sinister one,” Ketzal said. “That I know of, anyway. Stuff like that tends to spread a lot of stories.”

She was being reassuring, but Breek was not being reassured.

“But, like,” he said. “It couldn’t be like in those Beast of Blue 12 movies? Where people have tried to settle and something got them?”

Eli raised both of his eyebrows, and caught Ketzal’s look over Breek’s head.

“What?” Breek asked. “What did I say?”

Eli grinned.

“Kid, you wouldn’t believe us.”

“Wouldn’t believe what?

“Eli killed the Beast of Blue 12 with an ion laser,” Ketzal said.

“Yeah, sure,” Breek said. “I’m serious. Tell me how we know there isn’t something here.”

“I’m being serious too!” Ketzal protested. “He did! It’s how we met! Eli, tell him.”

“Yep,” Eli confirmed calmly. “It tried to hurt my ship, so I stabbed it right in the eyes.”

“Yeah, sure. Really, though,” Breek said.

“Eli!” Ketzal said. “You’re not helping!”

“Don’t worry, kid,” Eli said. “If anyone had landed and never been heard from again, there’d be stories. They’d have been missed. If it happens more than once, it builds up a legend. There’s no stories about the monster of Greyscape.”

As soon as he was done speaking, every suit’s radio crackled to life with a staticky signal, overloud in the confined space. Eli flinched, reaching for the dial to turn the radio down. The noise was cut, but the voice droned on, a stream of nonsense syllables interspersed with static. The fluctuation was headache-inducing, and Eli shut his radio off. Breek and Ketzal, on their own time, did the same. The voice stopped.

Breek’s face had gone suddenly pale, but Ketzal was almost glowing with excitement.

“It’s a ghost signal,” she said.

“It’s a what?” Breek asked, but she didn’t seem to hear him.

“We’re close to something!”

“Close to what?” Eli asked, but she was already shooting off, going down the tunnel faster than ever. Eli jumped to try and keep up, if only to keep from being dragged by the tag-along line, and Breek broke into a jog to follow him.

At first, Eli didn’t connect the strange reverberation under their tramping feet with any danger. It wasn’t until the ground trembled and the walls of the tunnel shook around them that his stomach plunged and he halted, planting his feet on the stone.

“Ketzal!” Eli called. “Be caref-“

Breek slammed into him from behind, knocking them both over. There was a rumble, and a crash, and a sudden jerk as the line pulled taut around his waist; and then Eli’s mouth was full of dust and the ground gave out beneath him.

* * *

“This,” Breek said, “Is what broken ribs feel like.”

His voice was muffled, coming fuzzily to Eli’s ears. As Eli gained more awareness of his surroundings, he realized that this was because Breek just happened to by lying on top of him.

“Damn your ribs,” Eli growled, into a faceful of space suit. “Get off my head.”

Breek only groaned, so Eli shoved him. Breek continued groaning from a slightly different spot on the vast pile of rubble, his suit’s lamp making a dull vertical beam in the dust-choked air.

“Are you all right?” Eli asked.

“No,” Breek said, but he was already getting to his elbows, so Eli ignored him.

“Ketzal?” He called. “Ketzal!”

“Over here.”

The air was deathly still, the ground uneven with rubble. A hazy beam of yellow light moved, swinging around wildly, and Eli could make out the lumpy shape of Ketzal in her too-large suit. His own lamp, he realized, had been crushed. It was no longer shining.

“Are you alright?” He asked.

“A little dazed, but fine,” she said. “I almost got squished by a giant rock. Are you okay?”

‘I almost got squished’ was not a good thing to hear at the best of times. Right now, it was only adding to Eli’s crushing awareness of everything that could have happened. He unclipped his tag-along line—half of it was underneath the pile of rubble between him and Ketzal.

“I’m stuck,” Ketzal said, sounding small and unnaturally confused, and Eli jumped up, hurrying over. She was trying to tug her line off without properly unclipping it, and blinking down in confusion every time it refused to come loose.

“Here,” Eli said, taking it out of her hands. “Let me. Are you dizzy at all?”

“No. I’m fine.”

He didn’t really know anything about head injuries, except that they made people a little off sometimes. Or a lot off. Or dead.

Heart pounding, he unclipped her line, then held up two fingers.

“How many fingers, Ketz?” He asked, but she was looking straight past him. “Ketzal,” he snapped, worried. “How many fingers?”

She glanced at him briefly, brushing his hand away in the next moment.

“Two. I’m okay, Eli, just a little shaken up. Look,”

Her gaze seemed clear enough. Relieved, Eli followed her gesture.

The dust had settled somewhat, allowing him to see further. They had fallen into a huge chamber. Above them, the hole that had broken in the floor of the tunnel gaped, dull and dark; but beyond that, the cave opened up into a realm of strange, clear light. The light rippled and reflected, shuddering against a dark vaulted ceiling with a life all its own, and the remaining airborne dust was a dark and dreamlike haze, obscuring the source of the light.

Breek had shed his space suit. He was a narrow silhouette against the glow, staring down into the glow and letting it reflect against his face.

“Look at the buildings, Eli,” Ketzal breathed, and Eli followed her vague gesture. Sure enough, past the rippling, glowing light, there were the hints of tall, strange structures, seemingly carved out of the stone walls. “This was a city.”

Eli nodded. He was less fascinated by the buildings, though, than by what, exactly, was causing the eerie light. He stood, helping Ketzal to her feet. She stood steadily enough. Eli started down the faint incline of rock. As the glow grew brighter, he was vaguely aware of Ketzal following along beside him, her lamp creating dull shadows against the chamber walls. When they reached the edge of the stone, she took in a hushed breath.

It was a pool. The water itself was alight, shimmering with the light of something fallen deep into the bottom of the lake. Eli squinted, trying to see.

He couldn’t believe his eyes.

Under the water, there was a pile of chrome larger than the Last Chance herself. Bars and coins and ingots and cups and bowls, pure and untouched in its bed of water.

It glittered. It shone. Light refracted through the pool and off the polished black walls, dancing slightly to some unheard tune, and Eli could feel the light of it on his skin, holding him still as the very stone.

Ketzal let out a little, half-choked giggle, and laid a hand on Eli’s numb shoulder. “We found it.”

* * *

On the surface of Loris, the machines had gathered. They had left their holes and their cubbies, their never-ending tunnels, to crowd around the new member of their company; a huge, boxy, beautiful thing that neither moved nor spoke. It was charred and dented by its dive through the stormy atmosphere, but its bones were unlike anything the machines had seen before, and it carried strange metals alongside familiar ones.

They chittered to one another, marking all its beautiful qualities. They ran dull metal fingers over its dented surface, collecting handfuls of cosmic dust. They tapped its sides, hoping to wake it up, and posed questions with undulating radio waves.

The ship did not move, and it did not answer.

It was dead, they agreed. Dead—but not useless.

The machines exchanged their fingers for lasers and claws, ratchets and pliers, and began to harvest what they could. One of them—it was the fastest with the ratchet, and the strongest with its fingers—was the first to peel away a sheet of travel-worn, dull plating. It came loose with a shriek and a clang, and the thing chittered happily as it skittered away with its prize. The plate dragged behind it, comically large, displaying its chipped paint to the cloud-darkened world above.

The paint formed curling, bright letters. They read: Chance.

This story is continued in Last Chance And The City Of The Undead.


Enjoy this story?

You’re in luck, my friend! There are many more. Why not delve into one of these?

Jester

Justice And Sandwiches

The Curious Case Of B-712


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What Is Left Undone

A glance over her shoulder, fleeting and instinctive, revealed nothing but trees.

Temati sucked in a steadying breath, trying to strengthen her unsteady legs. The deep shadows between the thick trunks gaped wide as wounds, unknown poison hidden within them.

Her hand did not leave her dagger. She could have sworn she’d heard voices.

The trees rustled their leaves, creaking against one another as they swayed under the influence of a breeze that Temati, caked as she was in soot and dried sweat, could not feel. She was a heavy, sagging, half-dead thing with a frightened animal for a heart; the beauty of the day could not touch her.

The sunlight came down in sharp shafts and lazy pools, shining green-tinted through the leaves. The light shifted and settled in harmony with the swaying branches.

The dagger handle stuck unpleasantly to Temati’s fingers as she released it. The leather of the hilt was still tacky with dried blood.

Nothing was moving through the underbrush after her, Temati assured herself. It was only the trees and the wind. This was not the city, with its hard lines and solid shadows, where any irregularity could prove to be a threat. No one had followed her here.

No one could have.

Another breeze waved the treetops, sending sun-spots dancing wildly across the ground, and Temati’s hand went to her dagger again, her sore muscles stiffening in readiness before she realized that it was—yet again—only the forest. She cursed under her breath.

She missed the city.

She did not, however, miss the city enough to risk the sure death sentence of returning to it. She forged on instead, picking her steps carefully over the narrow path.

Nearer to the Capital, the Kingsroad was a glorious feat of engineering, solid and dependable under the feet of horses and travelers, the wheels of ox-carts and carriages and bright-painted circus vardos. But the further out it went, the narrower the road became—narrower, and lumpier, devolving from stone to gravel and then finally pale sandy mud. By the time it came to the Great Forest, the Kingsroad had become nothing more than a footpath. It wound over and through the thickly wooded hills and valleys, the dirt worn away until it was little more than connecting plaster between the thick roots and dark stones.

Perhaps the change would have been less stark if she had not made the journey from the coastal Capital to the inland forests in one footsore, sleepless scramble. Taken more gradually, perhaps it would have been barely noticeable. Temati picked over the uneven surface and thought fondly of her old familiar rooftops, their dearly-remembered patterns of tile and thatch.

The air around her was still and warm. The tree-trunks creaked like thirsty throats, gossiping secrets; small animals rustled in the leaves, and—

Temati stopped, her ears catching something that jarred against the quiet, natural noises. She had heard a voice.

The cry was pitched and yet low all at once, heavy as a death-wail. It made Temati’s back prickle and her stomach turn gently sour. She could almost smell the sharpness of burning thatch again, the iron stench of blood as it boiled, and the wailing—the wailing that rose high as the black smoke—

The patches of sunlight danced as the tree-tops swayed under another breeze, and she shook herself, pushing the memory back into the past where it belonged.

The voice remained.

Hand on her dagger, Temati ducked low, creeping forward through the shadows, feet falling noiselessly on the smooth roots and stones of the path. The crest of the hill gave way to a steep, jackknifing path down into a narrow valley, the sunlight hazy through the pale-leafed trees.

At the very bottom of the valley, the source of the cry was lying in a crumpled pile on the ground. A taller, boyish figure was bending over her, seeming to be trying and failing to get her to get up. Temati frowned through the branches, trying to get a better veiw of the scene. She could see the boy’s sooty face, the skirts of the crumpled girl’s dress all darkened with singes.

Refugees from the fire. Children. They had traveled fast and far, to get here before her; it was little wonder that one of them had lost the strength to go any farther.

She went silently down the hill, intending to swing through the forest around the tiny mourning-party once she got a little closer. She could sidestep them neatly and leave the already terrified children none the wiser to her existence.

The closer she got, the clearer the words came through.

“She’s gone, Mis,” the boy said. He was still young enough to have a voice that cracked midway through his sentences—unless that was a by-product of the smoke. He knelt over the girl, both hands looped under her torso, and struggle to pull her to her feet. “Come on, we’ve got to go. She’d want us to go.”

“No!” The girl said—and she is a little girl, Temati realizes, unfamiliar as she is with children. Little enough to have wispy yellow hair that barely reached her ears. “No! Mia!”

Children, Temati’s mind supplied for the second time. She’s not sure why it matters. What difference does it make, that they are children?

Adults. Children. The old, the infirm, the proud and the angry and the humble and the kind—all are touched by war. All are claimed by death. She had wet her hands in the blood of too many slit throats to have any right to care, so what did this matter?

Why did this, of all things, halt her in her steps?

She stayed on the verge of the forest, unnoticed by the little group at the valley bottom. Safe in her shadows.

After a moment, she realized she was hiding. From children.

With a flash of indignance at her own cowardice, she stepped free of the shadows and continued down the path.

The boy noticed her first. He set his beardless chin in a stubborn jut, moving in front of the girl protectively.

The little creature looked up at his movement, and when her eyes caught on Temati coming down the path, they widened. In fear, Temati assumed. But before she could say a word, the child scrambled to her feet. It was only the boy’s arm, looped in a restraining hold around her torso, that kept her from barreling headlong for Temati.

“You have to help us!” She shouted with all the power in her tiny lungs, ignoring the boy when he hissed at her to be quiet. Temati took a cautious step backwards, away from this unexpected—exuberance? “Mia’s in there!” the girl pointed towards the thick and quiet forest, squirming in the boy’s grip all the while. “The trees ate her!”

Temati looked at the trees. They had done what?

With a vigorous twist, the girl slipped the boy’s grip like a desperate yellowfin and came racing for Temati. Surprised by the sudden assault, Temati stepped backwards, off the path. The leaves crunched under her ragged boots, and she could feel the fingerlike brush of twigs on her back. The girl halted abruptly, mouth dropping open as she gazed at something just beyond Temati’s shoulder.

She just had the time to recognize the fingerlike brush of something that was not a branch against her back before a cool hand wrapped itself around her arm from behind.

Temati freezes, her stomach plunging deep into the pit of her belly. For one blank moment, she is helpless. She cannot remember what she is supposed to do, how she is supposed to get away. A whispering like rustling leaves sounds, somehow just behind and yet all around her; a series of almost-words, like half a conversation heard across a noisy room. The hand is hard and implacable around her arm as it begins, ever so gently, to pull her into the woods.

The girl-child was motionless, transfixed by the sight of whatever it was that held Temati’s arm, but the boy was not. In one bounding step, he was at the edge of the forest, reaching out to snatch Temati’s wrist. His grip is more bone than muscle, but he tugged with all his might, and the warm, desperate grip on her wrist was enough to make her remember to move. She lashed out at the thing she could not see, and her elbow cracked painfully against something as hard as stone. With a twist and a jerk, her arm came free, and she fell backwards on the path, toppling over on top of the boy. He yelled in protest, but his words hit Temati’s ears like the handle end of a throwing knife, falling away again with hardly an impression left behind.

There is a face in the forest. It stares out at her, pale and narrow, with green-glowing firefly eyes. She blinks, disbelieving.

When her eyes open again, it is gone.

Like a trick of the light.

Heart throbbing in her ears, she stared into the deep shadows between the trees. Nothing there but shadows and sunlight.

Nothing.

“Get off of me, you sack of salmon guts!” The boy griped, jabbing her sore ribs with his knee. She struggled to sit up, wincing at the new pain in her elbow, and he gave a relieved gasp, scrambling to his feet.

Temati couldn’t take her eyes off of the spot where the face had been. Not even to protest being called a sack of salmon guts.

“What,” she asked instead, “Was that?”

The boy, brushing dirt off of his already filthy shirt, scowls at her without replying, but the little girl piped up.

“A tree.”

Temati’s gaze snapped down to where the tiny, soot-stained face was looking matter-of-factly at her. “A what?”

“A dryad,” the boy finally supplied, reaching out to press the girl protectively against his side. “A tree spirit.”

That was too much. She turned to look at him.

“Tree spirits aren’t real,” she said. “They’re made up by circus actors to add drama to forest scenes.”

He shrugged irritably at her.

“Alright, they’re made up. Why don’t you just step off the path again, then. See what happens.”

“They took our sister!” The little one said, and turned to her brother. “Tef, we has to get her back. We have to!”

Tree spirits weren’t real, Temati thought again.

But—there had been something there. Something that couldn’t have been her own eyes deceiving her—could it?

“What did they take her for?” Her eyes were drawn to the woods, to the dark and empty shadows. “Why—why did they try to take me?”

“Because you both stepped off the path,” Tef said, and graciously did not add on, idiot. “Thought we’d covered that.”

This exceedingly helpful explanation finished, he turned back to the little girl, whose tears were drying in sticky patterns over her sooty face. He knelt down to be on a level with her, and spoke quietly.

“Mia’s gone,” he said, and Temati can hear the grief in his voice. “they’ve taken her, and we can’t get her back, all right? We’ve got to go on. She’d want us to be safe.”

This, gentle as it is, only serves to stir the girl right up again. Her eyes flash and her hands form into tiny fists.

“I won’t leave her!” The child shouted. “I won’t! You be safe! I’ll die with her!”

Temati glanced between the argument and the woods, growing more confused that before. Was the sister dead, or not? How did a tree—or a tree spirit—eat someone? Curious, she thought back, trying to remember what she knew about tree spirits.

She had not seen many plays. She had always considered them fanciful, frivolous things; in the world she’d lived in—one of blood and stone and shifting loyalties—the melodramatic frippery had never seemed any better than a lie. Now, though, she wished she’d paid more attention.

According to what she’d seen, though, tree spirits lived in forests. They had a habit of derailing young lovers as they fled from their oppressive parents. They were—they were afraid of iron, weren’t they? Or had it been silver?

She found herself fingering the dagger at her hip. It had been an elegant thing once, charred and bloody as it was now; blued steel and black leather, with a boss of etched silver, tarnished with long use.

She had cleaned enough blood off the thing to dye the water of the freshest well red, she was sure. Blood of guilty and innocent alike; politicians and craftsmen, witnesses and rivals. And for what? For money? She had none now. For loyalty? As if anyone had ever shown such faith to her.

All she’d gotten for her trouble was the memory of sparks and screaming, and the scent of burnt blood in her nostrils no matter how clean the air she breathed was.

Perhaps the dagger could see a better use before she died. A plan—slim and strange, but growing stronger—was forming in her brain, and her soul was filling with the impetus to see it through. If the girl was alive somewhere, perhaps she could make up for one of the lives that Temati had taken. And if she was not—well.

These tree spirits would not live to take anyone else.

“All right,” she said. Both children ceased their arguing, looking towards her.

“I’m going to try and get your sister back.”

* * *

It was not, Temati reminded herself, the most pigeon-brained thing she’d ever done. That honor went to the great duck-kidnapping plot from her second year as an assassin.

Still, shouting at trees was not going to be very far down the list.

“Dryads of the great forest!” She called to the waving branches over her head. They were thick enough to block out almost every patch of sky, and glowed beetle-wing bright with the light of an unseen sun.

Tef flicked a glance over her as though sizing up her insanity and judging whether or not it was dangerous. She couldn’t exactly blame him, but she crossed her arms over her chest and raised her head high anyway, determined to see this through to its no doubt embarrassing end.

“You have taken a child!” She accused. “I demand her back!”

Next came the bit of the plan that still made Temati uncomfortable. “In payment for her safe and whole return, I offer myself,” she called. “An exchange.”

That was the whole speech, as far as she’d planned it.

It was received with silence. The trees were motionless, the children holding their breath; for a long and uncomfortable moment, Temati tried to calculate all of the ill-fated decisions that had led her to this moment.

Then it struck her. The trees were silent. Utterly and completely silent. Not a bird stirred, not a branch waved, there was no distant creak of trunk against trunk.

Temati shifted from foot to foot, glancing through the hollows between the trees.

Slowly, she began to discern figures.

It was not that they appeared, so much as they allowed themselves to be seen. A dark shadow in the underbrush, with no visible change, resolved itself into a slim crouching figure with jade-bright eyes. Something that, mere moments before, had been nothing but a quiet sunbeam was now a pale-eyed creature with a hard-set maiden face. Not a thing moved; but in the brief space of a few moments, the empty forest was filled and peopled with nigh on three thousand statuesque figures, all staring impassively at Temati and her shouted demands.

A tall, boxy-figured dryad stepped free of her sisters, not a single leaf crackling under her careful steps as she came up to the path and—just before her toes stepped over the last edge between under-scrub and packed earth—stopped.

Temati had seen many women in her life. She had seen starving old crones in rags and soft-skinned baronesses dripping with ancient jewels. She’d seen light-footed laughing dancing-girls and log-limbed working women with hands all reddened by lye. She had looked in mirrors and seen herself—a scared child, an angry young woman, a grown adult with grey-streaked hair and eyes that were heavy with all they had seen.

The dryad looked like none of these.

Her eyes were a pale, glowing gold, set deep in a smooth, butter-colored face. Her features were sharp and decisive as an eagle’s beak, strong-jawed and solid as a sculpted goddess. Wild, stick-borne leaves made a structure something like hair and something like a headdress on top of her head, carried high and proud like a crown. A dress of olive-tinted lichen and steel-grey bark fit close around her thick torso, dripping with pale moss that swayed and swished around her legs. She moved like a living thing, but when she stood—she might as well have been made of stone.

Belatedly, Temati realized that she was staring.

The woman stared back. Tilting her head thoughtfully, she held out a hand.

“You wish to join us?” She asked.

Temati was halted a little by the mildness of the words.

“The girl,” she said. “You took her.”

The woman nodded slowly.

“We did.”

“We want her back.”

At that, the woman frowned.

“Why?”

Temati blinked.

“Because—because we do,” she said. The dryad’s apparent confusion only deepened, and Temati decided it was time to move to more relevant details. “I offer myself in exchange.”

The woman’s face cleared.

“You wish to join us.”

This time, it was not a question. Temati’s hand slipped down a centimeter or two, closer to the dagger. Around them, the silent forest burst into a quiet rush of leafy voices, and Temati’s head snapped up to see the thousands of statue-solid maidens, whispering excitedly to one another.

While she was distracted, a cool hand landed on her shoulder. Temati snapped her gaze back to her opponent, her hand slipping down and seizing the dagger by its hilt, but the woman’s grip on her is stronger than any human creature’s.

“Come,” the lady said. Her voice was like wind rushing through the treetops. “Let me show you our peace.”

There was a tug—the strange, panic-inducing sense of imbalance that is always caused by being pulled off your feet—and then Temati was on her back, the roots and thorns separating the path from the forest scraping at her legs and the wide eyes of the two children staring after her for a single split second before she was swallowed up by the dark boughs.

* * *

Tef blinked, and the woman is gone. Devoured, just like Mia.

The dryads are gone too, every last one; it is as if they had never been. Mis, who had clung to his waist when the creatures had appeared, is crying softly into his shirt. It’s a slow, hiccuping sob, wracked from tired lungs. He knows he should be doing something, trying to get them both to get out of the forest, onward to—to somewhere safe. If there is anywhere safe.

He knows he should move, but suddenly, it does not seem worth the effort.

Mis sobs again. Holding her close, Tef sinks to the ground, trying and failing to blink back the dark prickling behind his own eyes.

“I know, Mis,” he said. “I know.”

* * *

As soon as the iron grip on her shoulder let her go, Temati fell flat on the forest floor. The wet leaves slid and slipped under her fingers as she scrambled to her feet. She twisted back, fighting through the branches and the underbrush, expecting to see the patchy sunlight of the path.

It was not there. There was only darkness.

Something crackled behind her, and she spun again to find the woman there. She was a dark figure in a darker landscape, punctuated by two glowing eyes.

Fumblingly, Temati found her dagger and pulled it free, holding it out in front of her like a holy relic to ward off a demon. The woman reached for her, and Temati stabbed with the dagger, keeping her away.

“Iron and silver,” she announced, waving the weapon warningly. “Everything your kind hates. I’ll use it, if you don’t let us go. Me and the girl both.”

The woman’s eyes flickered.

“Let you—“ she began, and then shook her head. With steady steps, she approached, seeming to care little for Temati’s wild dagger-jabs. With her heart rising in her throat, Temati ducked low, lashing out to drive the blade square into the center of the creature’s chest; but the woman caught the blade easily, prying it loose from Temati’s hands as though taking a plaything from a child. The bloody leather peeled free of Temati’s palm, and Temati could only watch, terror pounding in her ears, as the woman held the dagger flat on her palm, considering it curiously.

“Iron,” she said, softly. “It is nursed, even now, deep beneath our roots. Where mankind cannot find it.”

It was only by the glow of the woman’s eyes that Temati can see what is happening at all. She watched, petrified, as the steel blade began to redden and warp with rust. The dark leather dries and cracks and begins to swarm with tiny devouring insects as it, and the wooden handle beneath it, begin to fall away.The silver tarnishes, pitting and peeling like some ancient artifact. “Silver ore, too, runs beneath us. Why would we fear these things? Our roots have found more jewels and precious metals than your human mind could ever imagine. All the things you scramble and scrape, bleed and kill for—you think they affect everything as powerfully as they affect you.”

Temati’s dagger was desiccated to the point of uselessness. The woman’s pale hand closed over it, gently crushing it to dust and scattering it onto the forest floor. One of the tiny insects escaped her fist to skitter up the woman’s arm, and she paid it no mind as it burrowed in the bark that was creeping over her collarbone.

Temati swallowed thickly. She searched through the leaves for any hint of the solid weapon that was there only a moment ago, and found nothing but quietly rotting leaves. When she spoke, her voice was as weak as she felt.

“What do you want?” She asked.

“We do not want.” The dryad said. “We do not hunger, or thirst, or fear. We have feasted on the dead of many battles, and when the battles of this age are done, we will make life of them as well. We have peace.”

Temati is surprised by her own laughter.

“Peace,” she chuckles. It’s a word that belongs to her past, to youthful dreams and idiotic notions that she could somehow change the ways of the world. “Sure. Peace is a nice thing to think about, but—it’s not real.” She shakes her head. “Not for us humans, anyway.”

Thinking otherwise, she’d learned, just led you and led you, dangling hope in front of your eyes until you blinked and suddenly you found yourself looking down at a burning city with a torch held in your hand.

“We would share our peace,” the dryad, unoffended by Temati’s laughter, said.

Temati shook her head, amused. “Really? How would you do that?”

The dryad tilted her head. Reached out with one pale hand.

“See for yourself.”

At the touch of the woman’s fingers, Temati felt—different. She blinked, but her eyes did not want to open again. They felt crusted over, all the immediacy fallen away, as if she’d just had a long night’s sleep with the promise of a quiet day ahead. Her skin was clean. Her spine was straight, without the twinge of pain it’d had ever since she’d slipped and fallen off a rooftop one night and landed in a slops-bucket. She felt clear-headed and proud, as if she could stand as straight and tall as the richest queen.

She was standing tall, as a matter of fact. She could feel it. She was free of the smoke-induced itch in her lungs and the latent travel-stink and the sticky, ugly, unbathed feeling that had plagued her for so long. The sun was warm and pleasant on her cool skin. She swayed in time with the push and pull of the breeze, raising her limbs high overhead, soaking up the warmth of the sun through her leafy fingertips. The birds were singing, and an industrious squirrel was making its nest in her armpit.

She paused.

A squirrel. Was making its nest. In her armpit.

Her eyes snapped open, and the dryad, who had been holding a statue-soft hand to her forehead, startled back. Temati attempted to do the same, but there was a sharp, grinding pain in her legs and her feet would not move. She snapped her gaze downward. Her legs were slowly being covered in smooth bark. Instead of her own worn and weary feet in old and tattered boots, the thick trunk and roots of a tree stood. She could feel them, as if they were a part of her; she could feel the cool earth pressing, the thin shoots and tendrils of the roots plunging deep in a search for water.

“I don’t want to be a tree!” Temati said, as emphatically as she knew how. She tried tugging herself free again, but felt only the harsh hurt on the edges of her where tender flesh had yet to turn into solid wood. “I’m a human being, not a—a vegetable!”

The dryad looked at her, wide-eyed, holding her hands out as though pleading with Temati to stay still. Temati gave another excruciating jerk, just to spite her, and the woman took a step forward.

“Stop fighting!” She said, sounding panicked. “Why are you struggling? I’m giving you peace—haven’t you fought long enough?”

Temati stopped, breathing hard. The words struck her like a knife in the back, driven in by an old friend. They were unexpected. But she had fostered those words, hadn’t she? Held them in her heart, without ever seeing them for what they were. She had felt those words—before the coup, when she had noticed the streaks of grey beginning to drown out the old brown color of her hair. During it, when her lord had smiled and asked for one more favor, I’ll pay you handsomely, and she had realized that her only retirement would be a grave. Not ten minutes ago, when she, worn and smoke-charred and sweating, had listened to two children weep over a lost sister.

The dull ache in her legs was traveling upward. The flesh hurt, but where she had already turned to wood was painless. There was life there, but it was a life that did not hurt. The mere absence of pain felt like the release of a long-carried burden.

Haven’t you fought long enough?

She had. She had been fighting for years. And what had it gotten her? A lifetime of regrets? An uncomfortable confrontation with a dryad? Her whole body, sticky and smelly and aching as it was, hungered for a rest. Her rapidly growing roots were clean and calm, drinking life from the fertile earth. It felt a lot like peace.

Her flesh was weak and trembling against the solid wood, aching against the slowly encroaching change. Soon it would reach her ribs, her lungs, her heart. One moment of pain, and then—it would be over. All over, all done. She could finally rest.

She wanted, with every scrap of her fragile human want. She ached for this rest.

But still, she shook her head.

“It sounds like you’ve got it nice here, with the sun and the birds and the dirt,” she said, “But I’ve—“ she halted. Thought for a moment. “I have fought too long. For all the wrong things. I’d like a chance to fight for the right ones.”

The dryad blinked at her, slow and uncomprehending.

“You would choose the struggle? You are willing?”

Temati was so, so tired. Willing? Perhaps not. But determined?

“Yes,” she said. “I am.”

The dryad leaned back slightly, considering. Her body creaked as she moved.

“I would not be,” she said. “All we have watched, all we have seen—we did not think that anyone—we did not think,” she continued, taking a step back. “That girl. Would she have chosen this as well?”

Temati was still half tree and all exhaustion. She shook her head again.

“I do not know,” she said. “You’ll have to ask her that, if you still can.”

The dryad nodded.

“I will,” she promised. “You’ve made your choice. I don’t understand it—but you may go,”

As she spoke, a shaft of golden light opened up, spilling past Temati’s feet and slicing into the dark hollow. Suddenly, Temati can no longer feel the slow, life-seeking twists and turns of the roots, the protective hug of the bark. She twists, and the tree-trunk cracks like a burst eggshell, letting her stumble free. She can feel her toes again—her own human toes, untethered to anything but their own aches and pains. She cannot resist the urge to wriggle them. Temati can see the way to the road. She half-turns, ready to make for it, but the woman’s voice halts her.

“If you ever wish for peace,” she said. “You may always return.”

Temati could feel that offer settling in her brain, and half-wishes it had never been made. She knows it will haunt her, this one last glimpse of an elegant goddess hidden in a mossy shadow.

“Thank you,” she said.

The patchy sunlight is calling for her, and she begins to scramble through the underbrush, ignoring the thorns as they rip at her and the branches that smack her face.

As she returns to the path, she finds it almost exactly as she left it. It is still lying in the divot between two high hills, with an arduous upward trek lying upon either side. It is still narrow and lumpy and half-overtaken by thorns.

But instead of two sooty children, there are three, Mis and Tef both wrapped tight around another young girl, who is crying and laughing and clinging to them all at once. Temati halts while she is still several paces distant, not quite able to make herself walk away.

The girl looks up, catches a glimpse of her. There is no recognition there, and she moves protectively between Temati and her siblings. She is a small, delicate thing, all wariness and bruises. Temati would have judged her weak, but she knows—knows the choice this girl had made, if she was here now. She knows it was not an easy one.

She nods, a gesture of respect, and the littlest girl—Mis—notices her. She tears free of her siblings, slamming into Temati’s legs and hugging them, babbling something into the dirty cloth of Temati’s breeches.

Temati stares down at the tiny figure, and cautiously lays a hand on her little shoulder. A feeling flickers deep in her chest.

It is not peace. It is not even happiness—not quite.

But it is something good, all the same.


Enjoy this story?

There’s more where it came from. Why not try one of these?

Sunset Soliloquy

Cracks In The Concrete

This Screaming Earth


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Muddied Waters

With an oil-rag in one hand and a wooden countertop in front of him, Tobias was ignoring the rain.

It thudded against the roof, steady as an impatient customer’s drumming fingers. It ran and splattered from the eaves of the inn, audible even through the shuttered windows; and even the thick, cozy scents of warming liquor, hot mash, and woodsmoke could not hide the permeating smell of the drenching, soaking rain thudding so hard and thick into the earth that it left muddy, mushy bruises and deep, wounding gashes.

Tobias knew what he’d see, if he looked out there. The blackened fronts of the battened-down houses. The river that used to be a street, running slowly but steadily out of town to drown the fresh-started crops into uselessness; the sky as dark as lodestone, clouds hanging so low over the town that the surrounding mountains disappeared into them—two halves of a horrendous jaw, about to swallow the known world whole.

Tobias rubbed more oil into the stained wood of the bar, watching the color of the wood bloom to life under his attentions.

He knew what was out there, but he was ignoring it. He’d done what he could to keep his hotel from being swept away; now, they could only wait for the Thunderer’s anger to be worn out—or for the whole town to be demolished by the flood.

It was a madman’s wager, which would come first.

A crack of lightning sounded across the sky, flashing briefly through the shutters before it sizzled away in the space of a second. It shook the earth as it went. Tobias looked up, assuring himself that the roof was holding steady. It was. He frowned at it for a moment, distracted by the cobwebs.

“We know, ya great blowhole!” One of his guests shouted, pausing in his game of checkers. “Hush up and let a man think, would you?”

Tobias chuckled. Garrett was a farmer whose stead had been washed away in the rain. He, along with his wife and children, had found shelter in the hotel for lack of anywhere else to go. He hid his worry well, but if anyone had reason to be yelling at the Thunderer—it was he.

“Hush, Garrett,” the man’s wife hissed, leaning forward over her nervous knitting while Bryce, the second checkers-player, pretended to pour every ounce of his attention into the game. “Do you want to make him even angrier?”

“What’s he gonna do, Bette?” Garrett snapped back. “Rain on us some more?”

Tobias listened with a frown, wondering if he should step in. It had been a long three days, and everyone’s nerves were frayed. His hotel was not full—most everybody had stayed battened down in their homes—but the people that were here were worried and displaced, driven in by the storm as it had hit or by the loss of their home in the first few hours of the Thunderer’s rage.

Tobias had been running the Marquette Hotel for twenty years now, and he was good at his work. He knew how to calm people’s worries and settle them into a semblance of peace.

But it had been three days, and he was tired. He ignored the couple as they huffed and snipped at one another, rubbing the oil-rag in soothing circles.

The whole sky rumbled above them, shaking the earth, and Tobias grabbed the jar of oil to keep it from tipping over. The doors slammed open, and he jumped at the noise, believing for one idiotic moment that the storm itself had put skin and bones on to invade his little den of comparative safety.

It was not a storm. It was a person.

A slim, tall person, grinning the reckless grin of someone who had experienced the full wrath of bad weather, and survived. He took off his hat, sluicing water out onto the floor. It splashed and splattered on the floor, adding to the muddy puddles already made by the stranger’s soaked boots and dripping coat.

Freed from the hat, the stranger’s hair sprung up in a wild red nest on top of his head. It seemed to glow in the lantern-light, and his grin glowed with it as he ignored the questioning glances thrown his way and began to take off his coat.

“Quite the storm!” he remarked cheerily, hanging his coat up on a sturdy hook meant for lanterns.

“That it is,” Tobias agreed, setting an empty glass on the counter. “Local Thunderer, showing his strength. It’s a privilege of living in the sky, I suppose—not having to care ‘bout what happens to us here on the ground.”

He set a bottle down next to the glass as the stranger settled on a stool and planted his elbows on the bar.

“Liquor’s three cents a glass. You got a name?”

The stranger looked at the amber liquid with marked distaste.

“Do you have any cream?”

Tobias raised his head and fixed the stranger with a look that plainly said he was not someone who appreciated being jerked around. Cream, really?

The kid’s expression didn’t have a trace of mockery or sarcasm in it. Just a blank sort of hopefulness that made his mess of hair seem to stand up straighter than before. As Tobias held his gaze, that hope seemed to fade.

“I suppose not,” he said, with a dejected shrug. “That’s all right.”

“No,” Tobias put in, not wanting to lose business. “We’ve got it all right, but it’ll be four cents if you want it in a glass. Not many people want to drink cream, is all.”

The stranger was looking blank and cheerful again. “Many people,” he noted, “Are fools.”

Tobias snorted in agreement, making his way back into the kitchen.

Cream.

He shook his head.

* * *

The stranger got his glass of cream. Tobias went back to the bar, watching the wood soak in the healing oil, glow with the attention. Checkers clacked lightly from the far corner of the room, blending in with the clicking of Bette’s knitting needles in a futile attempt to drown out the sound of pounding rain and howling wind.

The stranger ran his finger around the rim of his glass, taking in the room with wide eyes.

“So,” he said, breaking the silence. “A Thunderer, eh?”

It was an awkward attempt at conversation, but Tobias nodded along, used to fielding all kinds of talk with friendliness, even when he wasn’t feeling particularly friendly.

“Sure thing,” he said, rubbing oil carefully into a deep gouge in the wood where, one interesting evening, a man with a hook for a hand had made an enthusiastic point. “They not have those, where you’re from?”

The stranger shook his head.

“Desert-born,” he explained. “We’ve got the thought-stealers and the jackal packs and the echobirds, but I’ve only ever heard of thunderers in stories.” He shifts in his seat again. “What’s it like?”

Tobias raised his eyebrows at the boy, and made an open gesture meant to indicate the current state of the outside world.

“Ruined crops and rampant hoof-rot is what it’s like,” he said. “You must have seen it, coming in. I’m impressed you even managed to get here, wherever you’re traveling from. Reckoned it’d be about impossible, by now.”

He was hoping that the man would reply with something at least vaguely enlightening—about where he came from, why he was here. But the stranger only shrugged his bony shoulders and said, with a smile scrawled awkward as an illiterate’s signature across his face, “I’ve got a knack for travel, I guess.”

Tobias nodded amiably, and scrubbed a little at a stain in the wood that had been there for years.

There is calm silence, for a few moments. It’s broken only by the click-clack of knitting needles and checkers tiles. The stranger is circling his finger around the rim of his glass—once, twice, three times. The glass begins to send out a soft, eerie hum.

“So,” the stranger said, suddenly, “As it turns out, I don’t have four cents.”

Tobias looked up.

“I don’t do business for free.”

As if to emphasize this point, another crackle and flash of lightning gave way to a deep boom of thunder. The stranger looked towards the window as the white light flashed outside, and for a moment, Tobias thought his eyes looked odd in the light. Too pale, too wide, reflecting the lightning back with a glow like a wolf glaring down a camp-fire.

It was over in a moment. He might not have seen anything at all. As the floor shook under their feet with the receding voice of the storm, the stranger looked back at him and tilted his head towards the shuttered window.

“Three days, and this storm ends.”

Tobias huffed a laugh.

“It’s a Thunderer’s rage,” he said. “No rhyme or reason to it. It’ll end when he’s worn himself out. Or died.”

Neither was likely to happen soon.

The stranger smiled at him, and lifted his finger from the glass. It stopped humming, abruptly, leaving an odd flavor of silence in its wake.

“Maybe,” he said. “Either way. For this glass of cream, I will see this storm ended in three days.”

Tobias frowned. First at the stranger, and then at the dripping overcoat, hanging up on its lantern-peg. For the first time, he caught the warm glint of silver protruding from one side of coat—a sword-hilt, if his eyes weren’t betraying him, wrought up in fancy and decorated with turquoise. It was exactly the kind of sword he’d expect from a young adventurer promising to slay Thunderers.

Tobias looked from the half-hidden sword to the boy’s beardless, hopeful face, and realized that the stranger was serious. He was going to fight the thunderer, and he was going to get himself killed.

In three days.

Another clap of thunder shook the inn, and Tobias sighed.

“Drink all the cream you want, boy,” he said, and dipped his rag in the jar of oil again.

* * *

“Are you really going to fight the Thunderer?”

The question came from a wide-eyed girl who barely brushed three feet. The stranger looked down from his place at the bar, considering her seriously.

“I’m going to talk to him.”

It was morning, though the sky outside was no less black than usual. He had taken Tobias’s invitatation to drink all the cream he liked seriously. He’d been sitting at the bar all night, nursing glass after glass and looking around the open barroom like it was the most fascinating thing he’d seen in his life.

Garrett and Bette’s daughter, whose name Tobias always forgot—he thought it started with an E? Looked even more awestruck.

“What are you going to say?” She asked.

The stranger got up from his stool and smiled at her.

“Things,” he said. The girl—Ellie? Scowled at him.

“What kind of things?”

“You’ll just have to watch and see,” he said. Bette realized where her daughter had gone off to and hustled over, taking her arm to bring her back. The girl let her mother lead her away, but she gazed back at the stranger, utterly ignoring Bette’s stern warning about being cautious of strangers.

Unaware of his admirer, said stranger took his now-dry coat from its peg and shrugged it onto his shoulders. The silver detailing of the sword-belt glowed in the dim light as he buckled it on, and Tobias leaned over the counter from where he was rubbing a set of glasses dry to get a better glance at the weapon. He saw the silverwork a little clearer, got a solid glimpse of the red and yellow leather wrapped in a strange pattern around the hilt, and then the stranger flapped his coat around himself and gave Tobias a smile.

“Wish me luck!” He said. Laughing like he’d said something clever, he exited the hotel, greeted by a low rumble of thunder as he left the double doors swinging in his wake.

He’d forgotten his hat.

With a grumble, Tobias stepped out from behind the bar, grabbing the hat from its hook and jogging to the still-swinging door, hoping to call the boy back so he wouldn’t have to go slogging after him through the mud.

He pushed the doors open, holding the hat up, and paused on the cusp of a shout.

The boy was striding down the road through the middle of the town, water swirling around his feet, the slicing rain plastering his wild, fire-red hair flat to his head. The wind beat his coat around his long, skinny legs, and as the boy walked, he tugged the sword free of his coat and of its sheath, raising it high over his head like a lantern to threaten the darkness of the clouds.

The blade was wide and straight, double-edged, the solid metal etched on either side of the deep tang with a pattern of raised wings, like an eagle’s first wild flap when it took off from its perch in chase of some recently sighted prey.

The boy held it up for a moment, and then lowered it carelessly to one side, squinting up at the clouds and blinking the rain from his face.

“Thunderer!” He bellowed, and Tobias jumped. The boy was almost as loud as the thunder himself. He felt a tiny press against his leg, and saw the brown braided head of the girl, her hand pressed to his thigh as she leaned around him to see.

A moment passed in which the boy got no answer, though the clouds above them swirled and trembled in deep shades of stone-black and steel-grey.

“If you do not stop this storm in three days,” he shouted, and now that Tobias was used to the impressive volume of his voice, it was easier to hear how it was dwarfed by even the lowest rumble from the clouds above, “You will die!”

There was another moment of silence.

Then, mission evidently accomplished, the boy turned on his heel and, sheathing the sword, began stalking back towards the inn.

Tobias stepped aside as he reached the doors.

“Was that it?” The girl asked skeptically. The stranger smiled at her.

“For today, yes. Oh, my hat! Thank you.”

Tobias let the hat be taken from his hand. The stranger replaced it on the lantern-hook, along with the sword-belt and dripping coat. This done, he resumed his seat at the bar and gave Tobias a sparkling smile.

“Do you have any more cream?”

* * *

Tobias spent the rest of the day mopping the floor, settling an argument that broke out over a game of checkers, and starting an account of how many glasses of cream the stranger was consuming. The tally was running high at one hundred and thirty-eight.

By the time the three days were up and the storm was still raging, Tobias was banking on the notion that the stranger’s bill would be high enough to demand his sword in payment. It was good craftsmanship, covered in precious stones and metals. It would be enough to begin rebuilding the town and repairing the damage from the storm.

All in all, it was a good plan. Tobias firmly believed that gaining a hapless adventurer, even one terrible at keeping his promises, was the best thing that had happened to the town in some time.

The next morning, Tobias came down to find the stranger’s coat hanging on the hook, but no stranger. The girl—Emma? And her mother were both huddled by the door, staring out. Tobias adjusted his eyeglasses and walked over to watch with them.

The boy was shouting at the sky again.

“—in three days, you will die!” He roared, holding up the sword.

The sky snapped and crackled in response, clouds swirling and roiling. Tobias thought he caught a glimpse of pale white in the black of the clouds—but in the next moment, it was gone.

The mud was up to the stranger’s calves as he trudged drippingly back, and the rain showed no signs of stopping. The boy offered them all a smile anyway.

“Not much longer now,” he said, and hung up his hat and sword before returning to the bar.

* * *

The morning of the third day, the boy seemed to have given up. He sat at the bar all day, drinking glass after glass of cream and seemingly ignorant of the resentful looks being cast his way by everyone in the hotel.

That evening, Tobias ordered his accounts and wrote out a bill for fifteen dollars and fifty-six cents—more than enough to demand the sword as payment.

Armed with the bill, he stalked out into the main room of the hotel, where Garrett’s game of checkers and Bette’s knitting had been joined by old man Harold determinedly trying to play a song on the hopelessly tuneless piano and a pair of young ranchers quietly drinking and playing cards. Bette and Garrett’s youngest two children, flying free of the supervision of their sister, were making a game of stealing cards and checkers on the sly and running across the room gleefully while the game-players were forced to get up and chase after them.

The stranger was watching from his habitual perch at the bar, nursing a glass of cream thoughtfully and smiling whenever the children ran wildly past him.

He turned that smile on Tobias as soon as he came near, and Tobias very pointedly did not smile back. He set the bill decisively on the counter and pushed it forward for the stranger’s observation.

The boy smiled at the bill. Then he smiled at Tobias.

All this smiling was beginning to set a prickling tension up Tobias’s spine.

“And this is?”

The boy’s questioning tone was so blankly innocent that for a moment Tobias entertained the notion that he was asking about the nature of paper and ink itself. In response, Tobias crossed his arms.

“It’s been three days,” he said. “The Thunderer’s still alive. Here’s what I’m owed for the cream.”

He was expecting shamefacedness. Bravado. Possibly protest. The boy, however, didn’t seem flustered at all. His smile did not falter, though it was tinged with a hint of confusion.

“It’s not been three days yet,” he said. “It’s not quite sunset.”

Tobias crosses his arms tighter.

“And you’re going to find and kill him in the next twenty minutes?” He asked. “Kid, that’s not—“

A flash of lightning shone white and blinding through every crack and cranny in the walls of the inn, bright enough to be blinding. The crack of thunder that followed on its heels shook Tobias’s bones and the very foundations of the inn. The bottles lined up behind the bar trembled and cracked against one another, several smashing down on the floor, and Bette let out a small shriek.

The inn was cast in a deeper darkness than before, the sharp ozone scent thick in the air. Tobias blinked, shaken, but the stranger merely set down his half-drunk glass of cream and looked up with a smile.

“Ah,” he said. “Just in time.”

* * *

“Pipsqueak!”

It’s a hollow, deafening voice, sizzling like lightning, rumbling like thunder. The stranger stood up from his stool, snagged his coat off its hook, and swept through the hotel’s double doors, leaving them swinging in his wake.

Tobias looked around the room, where everyone had stopped what they were doing. They were stiff as statues, staring at one another.

“Hello then! You’re almost late!” The boy shouted, his voice slightly muffled by the walls and doors; and as one, everyone in the room—Tobias included—rushed to look out the windows.

The street outside was all but unrecognizable. It had been battered, watered and churned so as to become a veritable sea of mud, running swift as a river. The boy was sunk into it past his knees, but he seemed unflustered by the fact. He stared up, unfazed, at the sky.

The sky had a face.

The sky, more specifically, had a skull.

The clouds had darkened, almost pitch-black, and they thrummed on every side like the beat of heavy wings. In the midst of the deep and wild dark, white bone shone, looking down through empty eyes at the stranger. Lightning snapped and crackled around the Thunderer’s teeth as he spoke, rattling back down the pale structure of his spine, crackling fissures in the oppressive dark.

“It is you who are late,” the hollow voice snapped. “It has been three days, and yet the storm continues, and I still live.”

Under the storm-heart of the Thunderer’s ribs, the rain had ceased, though it swirled around all the harder under the beat of his dark wings. The stranger stood in the relative quiet and set his hands on his hips with an air of petulance.

“Why is everyone in such a hurry?” He asked. “It’s not sunset yet. It won’t have been three days until sunset.”

A blinding flash of lightning threw the thunderer’s skeletal form into sharp relief for a moment, crackling outward, giving his wings and snapping tail brief definition, and Tobias flinched back from it, eyes burning. The world returned to the storm-dark shadows as the rumbling thunder of the creature’s laughter rattled its ribcage.

“It is not fifteen minutes until then, pipsqueak,” it said. “What—have you some concealed dagger? Will you take a mighty swing, and let it glance off my toe?”

He laughed again, and Tobias shut his eyes and ears, cringing from it; but when he opened them again, he saw the boy still standing, hands on his hips, looking up at the Thunderer as though he had never been obliged to look away.

When he spoke, he sounded sad.

“You’ve grown arrogant,” he said. “But there’s still time. You can still stop this storm. You can still live.”

The Thunderer laughed his deafening laugh again, and while the earth still shook with it, there was a heavy thud that Tobias felt trembling up his legs. The Thunderer had come down to earth, his great claws sinking into the mud. He took a prowling step forward, lowering his head to look directly down upon the stranger’s rain-plastered head.

“I? Arrogant?” He asked, blue electricity dancing around his jaws and flashing up through the empty sockets of his eyes. “What is arrogance, that it could apply to me? Have I taken more than is my due—I, who shake the earth with my wings? I, who scorch the sky with my breath?”

“Shake and scorch if you like,” the boy said. “The earth and the sky have been here before you. They will be here after you.”

The lightning flashed up bright and sharp in the Thunderer’s eyes, and with a tremble of air and a rattle of bone, he took a step back.

“Says a creature who sees the beginning and end of neither,” he snapped. “Do not preach to me, pipsqueak. It is you—you, who come threat-making and sinew-flexing—you who is arrogant. There is a price for such presumption.”

The crackling lightning was building, shining through the sockets of the Thunderer’s skull, a clear and present threat, but the boy only shrugged, raising his hands.

His empty hands.

Tobias’s eyes snapped from the boy, minuscule in the face of the Thunderer and his rage, to the sword, hanging sheathed and useless on its lantern-hook.

He needed his sword.

With no more thought than that, Tobias shoved through the small, terrified tangle of people who had gathered at the doors, sprinted the two steps to the lantern-hook, and tore the sword free of its sheath. The blade hummed and trembled like a living thing in his hands, but he had no time to wonder at it . He ran to the door, his guests parting like blown wheat before him, and out into the storm, sinking knee-deep in the mud within his first few steps. He would never be able to get to the boy in time.

“Seventeen seconds until sunset,” the Thunderer crackled, bending threateningly, and Tobias lost what little sense he’d managed to hold until now.

“Stranger! Your sword!” He remembered to roar in warning, and flung the blade in the boy’s general direction, and the Thunderer glanced up, surprised by the shouting.

He realized, as the blade left his hand, just how idiotic of a thing he was doing. The sword was heavy, it would fall. It would stab the boy. It would get lost in the mud.

The sword disagreed. It left his hand. It flew.

The blade rose, spinning, in an elegant arc over the boy’s head. The crackle of lightning flickered against the rain-wet metal as it hung, frozen, for one second in time.

Then it plummeted down, and the Thunderer had no time even to flinch away as the blade sliced into his skull and buried itself deep.

The lightning in the Thunderer’s mouth flickered for a moment. Then, with the shudder of a receding storm, the great frame of bones began to collapse, the swirling meat and matter of the Thunderer dying out and fading away.

He shook the ground one last time as he fell.

* * *

Tobias was knee-deep in mud when the sun reappeared. It set the west on fire, spreading orange and yellow and pink light over the mud-brown world in a way he hadn’t seen since a week past, when the Thunderer had first come down from his mountain.

He blinks at the monolithic skull, sunk to its jawbone in the deep-churned mud of the street and still managing to tower almost as tall as the storefronts. The pale columns of wing-bones arc up and over the buildings, with joints planted somewhere on the outskirts of town.

He’s only vaguely aware that there are people—coming out of his hotel, out of the houses, out of everywhere. They are slow, tentative, not quite managing any greetings just yet—just staring. They blink at one another in the unfamiliar sunlight.

Tobias does not think of the stranger until he catches a glimpse of the sword, shining like a perverted crown jewel in the very center of the dead Thunderer’s forehead. He turns, scanning the familiar faces.

The stranger is gone.

Epilogue

With a tube of polish in one hand and a soft cloth in the other, Tobias was spiting the dim light.

In all fairness, the sunset was being no more inconvenient than usual. The real inconvenience, or rather inconveniences, were the guests that had crowded the Marquette Hotel to bursting. Tourists, wanting to come see the remains of what is—what was—the very last Thunderer in existence. Fifteen years since he’d died, and still, the tourists came. They kept Tobias at the bar long past his usual hours, pushing his current task back until there was barely the light for it.

Squelching out a fresh dollop of polish onto the cloth, Tobias rubbed away at what might be a bit of tarnish, or possibly a shadow, on the silver hilt of the blade.

He can’t complain, really. The tourists pay well, even if they make more mess and noise than they’re worth. Even when they etch patterns into the Thunderer’s bones and climb up on his skeleton and try to tug the silver sword from his skull for a keepsake.

He huffs a laugh at the bent of his own thoughts, and squints at the sword-hilt. He’s getting old, and he should have brought a lantern.

“It’s after sunset, now,” a voice said from over his head. “Long past time to be done.”

Tobias jerked, and looked up.

Against the twilit sky, a sharp-edged, gangling figure is standing on the top of the Thunderer’s head, looking down at Tobias with his head cocked to one side. Tobias stares for a moment, and then settles, looking down at his work.

“Just one more grubby fingerprint, and I will be done,” he says. “And if you’d have remembered all your belongings for once, I’d never have had to come out here at all.”

It was far too dark to see what he was doing anymore. He tucked the rag into his pocket, but didn’t move to get up, looking up at the familiar silhouette.

“You going to take it back?” He asked. “If you don’t, one of these boys might actually get it loose someday and carry it off.”

There was silence for a few moments, as the stranger merely looked down at him. Thinking, Tobias assumed, though he couldn’t see the man’s face.

“Have you ever tried?” He asked, finally. “To pull it loose?”

Tobias huffed. “Why would I?”

The stranger shrugged. “To sell it,” he said. “To use it. Just to see if you could?”

“Can’t say I have.”

The stranger looked up, a profile against the deep blue of the sky, and once again, Tobias thought he caught an odd light in the boy’s eyes—a strangeness, gone as soon as it was seen.

The boy got up, dusting himself off.

“Well then, that’s for the best.” He said. “Whoever can draw that sword, can be assured—they will have need of it.”

Tobias nodded, as if this sort of proclamation was the kind of thing anyone might take their leave with. As the boy turned to walk back down the Thunderer’s spine, Tobias didn’t ask where he’d come from or where he was going. He called out,

“There’s a bottle of cream under the bar. Take it, for the road.”

The boy turned around, flashing a grin at him.

“You’re a true friend!” He shouted, and leapt down and out of sight.

Tobias huffed in response, and began to ready himself to climb back down off the skull.

He thought for a moment, before he did. The glint of silver was no longer quite visible in the dim light, but he knew where it lay.

He remembered the thrum of life in the blade. He remembered the ease with which it had flown from his hand.

It was a silly instinct, he thought, shaking his head at his own foolishness as he reached out, wrapping his hand around the solid hilt.

The metal hummed, trembling like the flank of an overexcited stallion under his hand, and Tobias felt his heart flutter.

He gripped the sword, and tugged.


Enjoy this story?

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Bazar-Tek And The Lonely Knight

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Dragon-Slayer


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This Screaming Earth

Day 5

The sun was a hard-edged yellow disc in the sky, providing little light and less warmth, when Hamish looked up through frozen lashes and saw the temple.

It was huge, a great monolith of solid stone, rising out of the flat plains with the brutal grandeur of all large things. The pale sunlight made mirrors and abysses of its sharp-edged planes.

He stood for a moment, staring at it. The wind shoved at him, making him stumble a little—shaking the grasses, stirring the fallen snow up into fresh whirlwinds. Struggling over snow that slid out unhelpfully from underfoot, Hamish began to run.

He reached the doors and shoved at them, half-expecting them not to budge under his weak assault. They swung open easily, opening upon a dark cavern of space. He entered, boots clattering oddly against the smooth floor, scattering snow and bits of dead grass with every step.

The doors swung slowly shut behind him, and Hamish slumped against them with a hollow thump, raking greedy breath after greedy breath into his frozen lungs.

There were no more wailing people.

No crunching snow. No howling wind.

Just silence.

Day 1

Hamish sat in the straw of the prison cell, entertaining himself by fiddling with his chains. They were worn and slightly rusted, a testament to the prison’s long life.

“You have two options before you,” the scribe said. He stood outside the prison bars, holding a flat wax tablet and a sharp copper stylus. Hamish did not look up at him.

“Your first option is to appeal to municipal law, and consent to be tried before the county judge. This would likely result in a punitive amputation.”

Hamish did glance up at that. His fingers stilled over a link in the chain, prickling in protest.

“A what?”

The scribe cocked an eyebrow at him. “Your hand,” he said. “They’d cut it off.”

Hamish knew what an amputation was, damn it, but he hadn’t thought—he hadn’t thought what he’d done was that serious. Was it?

“What’s option two?” He asked, throat dry.

“Since it was a temple you stole from,” the scribe continued, looking back at his tablet, “You may apply to be tried by theocratic law, instead of a municipal judge. The priests would assign you a fitting penance. I’m told the most likely one is a temporary exile to the Wailing Plains.”

It was not really a choice.

Day 2

Hamish shifted from foot to foot, half in the temple courtyard and half in a dusty store-room, watching an equally dusty priest rummage through piles of liturgical necessities like animal pelts and brass censers.

“What are the Wailing Plains?”

The priest looked up from his search of the storeroom. The temple was evidently supposed to provide its exiles with supplies appropriate to their destination. Those supplies, he’d learned, included a coat, a scarf, boots, mittens, and whatever it was the the priest was currently searching for. No food. He was told he wouldn’t need it.

He hoped that meant it would be short penance. Somehow, he doubted it.

“It is a physical location,” The priest said, turning back to shuffle for the last of Hamish’s ‘supplies.’ “Though we have so far only reached it through mystic arts, so where it would lie on a map is unknown. Very few have been there, and returned.”

Which sounded less than encouraging, really. Hamish wondered how bad it could really be, life without one of his hands. He could get a hook, right? He could probably live with a hook.

‘Probably’ was not enough certainty to try and change his fate now.

“The few who have been there describe it as— not properly of this world,” the priest went on, finally finding what he was looking for. A flattish ebony box, inscribed with swirling, unreadable letters. “One grows hungry, but never starves. Grows cold, but never freezes.” He blew the dust from the box, and then turned, handing it to Hamish. “They say the true temple of the Silent God is somewhere on the plains,” he said, looking Hamish in the eye. “You will look for it. Should you find it, you may return.”

Day 5

Inside the temple, the air was close-knit and still. It was a balm on Hamish’s wind-worn skin and aching lungs.

He couldn’t stay here forever.

In just a moment, he would get up. Leave. Go back.

There were so many who wandered on these plains, so many whose ears bled under the weight of the eternal screeching. This place, whatever it was—he had to bring them here. He had to show them.

So he would get up, he would.

In just a moment.

Day 2

Hamish held his mysterious box, and again wondered if a hook would be so bad, after all.

“Open that,” the priest said, nodding at the box. Hamish did. Inside, lying on a bed of velvet, were two perfect spheres of black wax.

“You’ll need those,” he said. “There are…creatures, on the Plains. They will not harm you, but you cannot listen to them, not for one second.”

Hamish had never liked priests, or people telling him what to do. The combination of the two now was enough to loosen his tongue.

“What happens if I do?” He asked. If he was going to starve to death on an otherworldly hellscape, he would rather not do it with wax in his ears.

The priest’s gaze was soft, almost compassionate, but it allowed for no argument.

“You would become one of them.”

Day 3

The first thing he noticed was the wind.

It cut through his every outer layer, biting at his skin with no regard for his thick coat and stabbing itself into his finger-bones as though the mittens on his hands were mere prayers for warmth. Under the thick grey sky, thinly streaked with yellow by an indifferent sun, it whipped the brittle brown grasses and made intermittent whirlwinds of the icy snow—the refuse from the last blizzard, reliving its glory days by snapping hard icy pellets against Hamish’s face.

The third thing he noticed was that the priests had managed to give him a scarf of exactly the wrong size.

It was wide. It was long. But it was not quite wide enough to cover both his mouth and his neck and the awkward triangle of space where his coat didn’t quite button, and not quite long enough wrap around twice to make up for its deficiencies in wideness. He pulled it up to cover his mouth and keep the cold from entering his lungs, but that only let the cold in to slice, knife-sharp, at his throat. He shoved it back down to cover his throat, breathing through his nose; but he had already breathed on the knit wool and now it was wet and cold. His nostril hairs were frosting up and sticking together.

He growled, feeling the sound low and deep in his chest without hearing it. It was strange, not hearing his own voice.

The balls of wax in his ears were cold and itchy. His attempts to ignore them were failing.

Even with the ready distraction of his many annoyances, his attempts to ignore the second thing he had noticed was failing too.

They were everywhere.

Pale, ghost-grey things, with wide open mouths and cavernous eyes, solid as stones and—if their wild stumbling at every gust of wind was any clue—light as feathers. Milling around aimlessly, they didn’t seem to notice Hamish. He was glad of it.

More than once, Hamish caught himself being drawn in to look at their faces—the wide, pale eyes, the gaping mouths. Every time, he tore his gaze away again. The shivers that ran down his spine had nothing to do with the wind.

Look at them too long, and they might well look back. The wax in his ears itched, but he didn’t dare touch it.

Look for the temple, Hamish thought. It was a simple enough task. Or, it should have been. But the plains were flat as a skipstone, wide and wild, with a barely perceptible line for a horizon; and nowhere did Hamish see a temple. Not even the ghostly outline of one.

He squinted, wondering briefly if it was possible to build a temple underground. He looked down at his boots, half-buried in some dormant snow, and kicked experimentally. He took a step forward, still squinting at the ground.

Something solid collided with him, sending him sprawling on his back. Hamish caught a glimpse of wide, dull eyes and outstretched hands as the creature trampled over him, seemingly unaware of his existence; and then he blinked, and found that he was staring up at the sky.

That was when he heard the screaming.

Hamish sat up with a panicked jerk, turning to scrabble in the powdery snow in a vain search for the gobs of wax. He succeeded only in getting snow wedged into the gaps between his mittens and the ends of his sleeves. The snow was soft, and cold, and unhelpful. The wax was gone.

While Hamish was still on the ground, another of the stumbling creatures tripped over him. It did a sort of one-legged dance, trying to regain its balance, and then finally seemed to gather itself. It moved on, mouth open and face lifted as though it intended to drink the sky, letting out a wild animal wail as Hamish got up and brushed himself off.

Their cries were piercing, high and sharp enough to carve the moon into a harvest scythe. Remembering the priest’s warning, Hamish hastily stuffed his fingers into his ears. Another of the creatures brushed by his back, screaming almost directly in his ear, and Hamish flinched away, wondering if his skin was already turning gray, if he was going to start wandering aimlessly and screaming at the sky. He clenched his teeth shut to ward off that possibility as long as possible.

This wasn’t worth it, he decided. Not all all. He turned back—but when he swung around, he couldn’t tell if he was facing back the way he’d come or not. It all looked the same.

There was no way home.

His beating heart throbbed against his fingertips, doing little to dull the endless screaming, and Hamish swallowed the dull lump that clogged his throat.

The only way back was to find the temple. Wherever it was. If it even existed.

He wasn’t going to find anything by standing here. He started walking, dodging away from the grey bodies that wandered about so carelessly of his own and trying to ignore the spike of fear every time he tripped over the uneven ground.

Day 4

After one night without sleep, Hamish stopped stuffing his fingers in his ears. His arms were too tired, and the priests had probably lied about him turning into one of those creatures anyway. Lying, just to scare people, was what priests did.

His legs were jelly-soft, wobbling as he walked, and his whole body was aching under the oppressive weight of the wind.

It was shortly into this second day of exile that he began to recognize words in the screaming. Jumbled, garbled words, all being screamed over one another; but words.

He checked his hands frantically, wondering if he was beginning to go grey, if something about him was changing that he could understand the inhuman screams; but no, red-blooded flesh still laid beneath his mittens.

It was only a matter of time before the words became sentences in Hamish’s ears.

“Fire! There is fire, everywhere there is fire!” One cried, spinning almost into Hamish before spinning away again.

“Where do I go? Where am I supposed to go?”

“Floods! The rains are coming! The rain will kill us all!”

“I am beautiful! I am new! I am young and lovely!”

Hamish could have sworn it was enough to make his ears bleed. He walked as fast as he could, squinting against the flakes of snow that pelted his eyelids, trying to block out the noise.

Intent upon his feet, he didn’t see the figure until it collided with him. The solid body knocked him flat on his back, and he found himself looking up into a pair of pale, wide eyes, set into a long, sagging face. Irritably, Hamish got up, expecting it to wander off again.

The watery eyes followed his motion as he rose, and the keening, wordless cry died down a fraction. Hamish, occupied with brushing himself off, stilled. A spark of fear flared up bright in his belly as he realized that the creature was actually looking at him.

“Swords!” the creature bellowed, a hollow sound from hollow lungs. He watched Hamish without blinking, as though in expectation of a response.

“Swords, really?” Hamish said, trying to shake the snow out of his mittens.

“Swords! The grass is made of swords!” A gust of wind blew up, and the creature stumbled a step, but held his ground. The watery eyes stayed fixed on Hamish.

Hamish had spent so long carefully not looking at the creatures or their faces, only catching glimpses of the wide-wailing mouths. The thing’s face is strange, disturbingly solid and fleshy despite its ghost-gray color.

“The grass,” Hamish said, “is swords.”

“Old swords! Ancient swords,” the creature said, volume decreasing slightly as it spoke. It was as though the simple act of listening had created a thin shield around them both, blocking out the incessant screaming, if only for a few moments. The thing bent over, careless of the wind that nearly tipped him flat on his face, and plucked a bit of brown grass out from its bed of snow. It lifted it up, waving it in front of Hamish’s face.

“Blade!” It said, and then let out a wild whoop of laughter. “Blade! See? The grass is made of swords!”

Hamish blinked. He was cold. He was hungry. He was tired. He did not want to listen to a theory about the origin of grass, much less a theory based entirely upon a pun.

“Fascinating,” he said, even though it wasn’t. “I’m on my way to the temple, though, so—“

The man’s gaze snapped suddenly to his.

“The temple is empty!”

“It’s—you’ve been there?” Hamish asked. “Wait! Where—where is it?”

But the creature’s gaze had already slipped away from him, and when another snap of the wild wind made the thing stumble away, it began stumbling off aimlessly, once again screaming to the sky about swords—and grass—and swords. Once again just another dull figure in a horde of dull figures, all ears made deaf by their own shouting.

Hamish watched it go, heart pounding.

The temple is empty. That was what the creature had said. Not it’s gone, not there is no temple.

It’s empty.

There was a temple, then. There had to be. For something to be empty, it had to exist. And if that thing had found it, then Hamish could too.

The thought did not settle a sense of determination in his stomach. It did not invigorate his body with fresh energy.

Instead, his feet felt frozen to the earth.

The only thing that stirred them was desperation—desperation at the thought of an eternity of life like this, frozen to the bone, surrounded by the careless, screaming creatures with their blank eyes and drunken steps. He had to find a way out of this. He had to find a way home.

He took a step, hardly knowing where he went. At least he was going somewhere. Maybe, if we wandered long enough, he would stumble across the temple by accident.

He told himself that it was hope.

The sun slunk lower on the horizon, rebelling against the worldwide grey with a stripe of faded red.

Hamish’s limbs had stopped feeling the cold. He knew enough about cold to know that this was not a good thing, but all the same, he couldn’t help but be relieved at the lack of pain.

He could hear the words better now. When he listened to them, it made the screaming both easier and harder to bear. Parsing out the individual words distracted him from the fact that the cries made the very bones of his ears shake until they seemed about to shatter, but the words themselves were difficult to listen to.

The creatures, it seemed, were masters of truly terrible ideas. They screamed that the sun didn’t exist. They screamed about how unbearably hot the Plains were. They screamed that it was too quiet. They screamed so many inimitably stupid, false things that Hamish had to keep an iron vice on his tongue to keep from screaming back at them.

He clenched his teeth closed and stepped out of the way as one of the things spun past him, wailing that clouds were secretly made of bees.

“Curse the earth,” Someone said softly from right beside Hamish’s ear, and he jumped. He spun aside, turning to stare at the thing who had spoken.

No, not a thing. A girl.

She was small, fine-boned, with eyes set so wide apart that they seemed to be trying to make room for a third. Her flesh had not yet gone gray, and her fingers clutched at her arms, knuckles pale, as though trying vainly to keep warm. Her eyes flicked briefly over Hamish, seeming to take him in, before sliding away again.

“Curse the earth!” She said again. Not a scream. Not a wail, but a small-voiced, mourning plea. “There is blood in it. Curse me, for I have shed it!”

There were tears in her voice, and anger too. It was such a human voice that it caught at Hamish’s heart. He took a step towards her, and her eyes slipped towards him again. Instead of sliding past him, though, this time she fixed on him, her eyes suddenly intent. Hamish went very still.

“I have shed blood,” she told him. “Too much blood. It’s seeping from my feet. It fills my eyes. They sent me here to be whipped clean by the wind; but the wind is no cleaner than I am.”

Hamish could not tell if it was sorrow, or triumph, in her tone; whatever it was, it leaked out of her in the next moment. Her shoulders slumped, and her voice cracked with tears.

“Oh, curse the earth!”

“Why should I?” Hamish asked.

“Because it’s full of blood,” she said. “Can’t you feel it—surging beneath your feet? See, it’s starting to leak into the sky.”

Hamish looked at the sunset. It did look like blood, now that she mentioned it.

“That’s not—“ he began, turning back towards the girl, and his words caught in his throat. There was a living fire in her eyes, directed at the sunset; a wild, raging red; but the rest of her—

The rest of her was gray as a stone.

“I’m looking for the temple,” he said, mouth dry.

She looked back at him, unblinking. Her eyes had gone ghost-pale and watery.

“There is only the earth, and the earth is full of blood,” she said, unshakably certain. “Curse the earth!”

A strong gust of wind made her stumble backwards, almost falling. She wandered away, and as she walked, she began to wail. The wind caught at her words and tore them away, so that they reached Hamish’s ears as though it was the very air that screamed them.

“Curse the earth!” The earth itself reverberated, as Hamish looked down at his shaking hands and wondered when the color would leach out of them, when he himself would begin to wander, forgetting what he’d come here for. When he would stumble and scream his lungs raw at a sky that would never listen.

“Curse the earth!”

Day 5

It was early morning, the grey world made hazy by the new light, when his foot caught on something. There was a sharp pain, a sudden snag, and Hamish found himself splayed flat on the ground, taking panicked breaths through a faceful of snow.

After a night of sleepless wandering, every moment afraid of losing himself to the gray wailing plains, Hamish had to fight down the insane urge to start laughing. It was all so ridiculous. Sleepless and sore and starving, wandering to someplace that might not even exist, and he just had to trip. Fall flat on his face in a perfect farce, an excellent summation of his entire life up till now.

He wanted to lie where he’d fallen and just not bother to get up again. What would be the use?

Frightened by his own thoughts, he struggled to his feet and turned back to scowl vengefully at the thing that had probably left a throbbing bruise on his left big toe.

It was a stone. Low and square, half-hidden in the grasses. Hamish felt a jolt of rage for his still-throbbing foot and the snow that had been dumped down the front of his coat; who would set a stone like that out in the middle of nowhere, just for people to trip over?

Then, as sharp as the wind that cut into his skin: someone had set that stone there. It was too square, too clean-lined to be there by accident.

His head snapped up, and he studied the surrounding ground with renewed energy. There. Another stone, hidden by the grass, and another, just a bit farther from it.

It was a path. He set off, following it, and began to laugh. It was hysterical, his laughter; something that bubbled out of his lungs like vinegar fizz, sharp and sour, the product of sleeplessness and desperation and a wonderful, horrible relief that ran, soft and clean as soapy water, through his veins. He had a path. He’d had nothing, and now he had a path.

Just ahead , one of the screamers was stumbling under the force of the wind, a wild, unstrung dance. One of the pathway-stones caught at their feet, tipping them over in a sudden sprawl that looked like something out of a comedy play. Hamish hurried towards the fallen figure, laughing all the harder.

“It’s a path!” He shouted, even though the wind swept his voice away. The sprawled figure in the grass was still lying there, probably without the motivation to get up. “Follow it, don’t trip over it!” Hamish shouted, voice unsteady with the hilarity that bubbled up in his lungs. He knelt by the figure, tapping them on the shoulder, offering his hand to help them up.

They made no move to reach for it.

He touched their shoulder again, gingerly pulling, turning them over.

Their eyes were blank, mouth frozen open. On the grey skin of the heavy-boned face, a thin line of bright red marked where their skull had cracked against the frozen ground.

Hamish was still laughing, lungs seizing with it as though they had forgotten how to stop. His hand, where it rested on the human creature’s shoulder, was a cold and stony gray.

He slapped a hand over his mouth, trying to force himself to be quiet. He felt sick inside.

Laughing at this forgotten someone, someone who had been wandering just as he wandered, tripped just as he’d tripped, but—had not been given the chance to get back up again.

Even though all hilarity had left him, even though he had no desire to laugh any more, his clutching lungs and shaking throat too far too long to settle, seeming to have gained a will of their own. He got up and stumbled away, hand still covering his mouth, ribs trembling with his efforts to keep them still.

Hamish hated the path. He followed it, clutching his hand to his chest as though whatever warmth still thrummed through his heart could return the color to the changed limb, but he hated it. The sharp, stubby ridges of rock. The way they hid in the grasses and the snow, almost malicious as they lay in wait for someone to trip on them, careless of their deadly power.

And yet—if the screamers would just stop shouting, and look—they could find their way, they could get free of this place.

Thinking that, he almost hated them.

In the end, hatred was useless. He let it slip through his fingers. He followed the line of rocks again, keeping an eye on the stumbling men and women. He ran ahead to pull the them back whenever they seemed likely to trip. They yowled at him in response, never listening when he tried to explain, but they also didn’t die.

He didn’t laugh at them, or himself, again.

Day 1

“Well then. I’ll alert the court of your decision, and you’ll be remanded into the custody of the priests by tomorrow, if all goes well.”

The scribe tucked his stylus into his sleeve, clapping the wax tablet closed. He looked up at Hamish, his eyes unclouded for the first time, and gave a single nod.

“I’ll offer a prayer for your well-being,” he said, with a sincerity that made Hamish stop fiddling with the shackle that was beginning to gall his wrist.

“What have you to gain from that?” He snapped.

The scribe shrugged.

“Peace of mind, I suppose.”

Hamish shook his head. “Silent god,” he said, scornful. “With all that silence, how are you supposed to know if he’s answered your prayers or not?”

“I won’t.” The scribe said, simply. “But I hope you will.”

Day 5

The doors of the temple were solid and smooth against Hamish’s back. The warmth was making a slow but determined foray into his ice-numbed bones, sparking stabbing pains that ran up his arms and sliced through his joints. It was excruciating, but good. A living pain instead of a dying one.

As the shivers began to subside, one deep breath caught in his throat, making a hitching, soft sound that sounded like blasphemy in the stillness. His face was wet. His hands were shaking.

How many wanderers were there, he wondered? How many lost?

He could go home now, if he wanted. The priests would take him back. He’d found the temple, completed his penance.

But how many had been left unfulfilled?

He could go home.

But he wouldn’t.

He would drag every last one of them here, by force if he had to. No one was going to be lost on those lonely plains again if he could help it.

So yes, he would get up. He would get up, and go out, and start bringing every last screaming human thing here until the only wailing on these plains was the lonely wind.

The silence, the stillness, was like a healing balm on his skin.

He would get up.

In just a moment.


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Last Chance and the Lonely Planet (Last Chance, #1)

Eliazer Bronn hated the color blue.

His hatred for the unfortunate color was as acute and all-encompassing as it was pointless, as deeply felt as any love he’d harbored in his life, and, at the moment, it had so overshadowed every other aspect of his soul’s convictions as to become the whole of his personality. He was not hating so much as he was hate, a small, weak and useless unit of that feeling, primed and loaded like the laser cannons of a warship, aimed against the color blue and all its compatriots.

The forest that surrounded him just so happened to be blue.

The broken limbs of the looming trees bled blue, a visceral shade of indigo that cut a deep swathe in the teal-tinted jungle. The ground was midnight blue, almost black where it was torn up in thick clawing ruts, still smoking from the recent screaming heat, and littered with torn metal plates and scraps of red-hot machinery.

And at the end of that long gash ripped into the careless blue forest, sat a heap of twisted metal that, only minutes past, had been Eliazer Bronn’s spaceship.

The Last Chance was making small settling noises as the heat of the planet’s atmosphere began to siphon off its sides, making the surrounding air wobble like a watery reflection. Eli, standing back on unsteady legs and clutching a dripping arm, watched the red-edged bits of his ship curl in upon themselves.

He would have screamed, but the blunt-edged impact and terror of the crash had driven all the air from his lungs. He wanted to kick the bits of broken engine at his feet, but his legs were trembling and distrustful of themselves. He wanted, very much, to fight something–anything–but the only things around were trees, and he felt foolish enough already without trying to punch a tree.

There was a deep groan as the Last Chance sank lower into the soft blue earth. Shards of shattered glass fell free, tinkling to the ground with unnecessary cheer.

Eli let out a rage-filled roar and kicked the nearest bit of machinery. The compression box flew satisfyingly far into the jungle, but the roar stuck in his throat, catching at something which had been sitting there ever since he’d felt the sickly jerk as his ship had been pulled out of his control.Bending over to retch on the blue dirt and choking on burning acid, he felt the idiocy of his little tantrum like a brand between his eyebrows.

The ship eased itself another centimeter into the dirt.

* * *

By the time the sky began to darken with evening, Eli felt as empty as an abandoned mine shaft.He’d run out of energy to feel sorry for himself. It was a strange feeling. He was no stranger to exhaustion; Colony 9 had worked its inmates to the bone, and it had been rare that he’d had sleep or food enough to truly shake the persistent tiredness. He’d been able to work through it, though; dreaming of the day he’d buy his ship and be free, never stuck with his feet in the dirt of an alien planet again.Pieces of that ship were now scattered over the ground, as trapped here as he was; and for once in his life, Eli could not stir himself to work through the apathetic laziness that made his limbs feel as though they’d been made of clay.

He kept moving as well as he could. He picked the shards of glass and rust out of his wounded arm and bandaged it. Ate one of the thin plastic-wrapped meal packs he was able to scrounge from the ship’s only partially-wrecked hold. Cramped as it was inside the ship, it was better than facing the disgusting blue of the jungle. He rolled a spare blanket onto the floor of the hold and fell asleep.

* * *

He awoke to the sound of something banging against the side of the ship. He listened without emotion for a moment, dream-hazy and blinking until the sound brought him to attention with a start. Something was hurting his ship. The varied possibilities of robbers, aggressive wildlife, and automated wrecking crews sped through his mind. The hold was stupidly lacking in weapons–why had he never bought a gun, damn how expensive they were, he should have been able to guess he’d need one–and he tore through it, frantic for something he could use instead. After a brief search, he tore a loose board from one of the meal crates. It was short and broad and over-light, but there was a half-rusted nail sticking from the end of it, so it wasn’t utterly useless. Eli gripped it tight and hoped that whatever was attacking his ship was small and easily frightened.

From the hold, he made his way carefully through the twisted hallway into the cockpit, and crawled through the shattered windshield, landing softly on the moist forest floor. The action brought back unpleasant memories of being flung free of the ship as it tore through the trees, but Eli swallowed them back. There were worse things than memories afoot.

The sound had changed. It was more hissing than clanging now, and a screech of tearing metal whenever the hissing stopped.

Hiss. Bang. Screech. Hiss. Bang. Screech.

With growing apprehension, Eli slow-stepped toward the sound, raising his board as he did, until there was only one corner of ship between him and it. He paused for amoment, stomped a heavy boot over the pounding of his heart, and took a breath.

He swung around the corner with a wild leap and a war-cry, board readied to bash in some unknown monster’s head.

The monster leapt away from the side of the ship, recognizable at first only as a mass of blood-red hair and a body that was small enough to stop Eli in his tracks. The war-cry died in his throat, and he stared down at the thing which stared back at him.

It was a girl.

Her eyes flicked silently to the board in his hands, and he in turn frowned at the ion laser in hers. It was alive and buzzing, blue light-beam active and deadly, and the metal sides of the Last Chance bore a perfect square cut-out, still glowing with heat.

“You’re scrapping my ship?” He shouted.

The girl, evidently judging that he and his board were no great threat, shut off her laser and scowled at him.

“It’s not your ship. Crashes are fair game.”

Eli’s knuckles went white around his board. Not his ship. No, he had only sweat and bled and starved to earn it. He had only given up twenty years of his life working for it. Not his ship, indeed.

“Not while there’s someone still alive inside!” he shouted.

The girl’s scowl disappeared in a flash, and she stared at the Last Chance with an air of surprise.

“There’s someone inside?”

“Me!” Eli snapped, waving his board. “I was inside. And asleep. I thought you were some kind of forest monster.”

The girl snorted, putting her laser back into a pouch at her hip.

“Well. I’m not a forest monster. I thought this was an abandoned ship.” she gave the Last Chance a regretful look. “Sorry,” she added, and as insincere as the apology sounded, it cut the feet out from under Eli’s rage.

“That aside, then, hello!” she said brightly, extending a hand. “The name’s Ketzal. What’s yours?”

He found himself shaking her hand, drawn into an assumption of friendship that he’d never agreed to, with no notion of how to go back to wherever the mistake had been and correct it.

“Um. Bronn. Eliazer Bronn.”

“Eliazer, huh? There’s a name. Where are you from?”

“From? Oh, ah–”

He stopped, distracted, when Ketzal turned away from him and knitted her fingers into a tenuous grip on the ship’s seams. She hefted herself up by it, scrambling a little as she climbed, and for a moment, all thought was driven from Eli’s mind as he stepped forward, ready to catch her in case she fell. She didn’t, though; she made it on top of the ship, sitting cross-legged on the uneven surface and grinning down at him. Her ropy red hair looked like an illustration from the days when mankind had yet to map the galaxies, and still thought that there were creatures besides themselves out there, in the stars.

She was looking at him, expectant, and he stopped thinking about aliens and galaxies.

“Colony Nine,” he said, and cursed himself as soon as he did. He wasn’t from Colony 9, even if he’d spent more than half his life there. He was from Red 16, and had spent every hellish year in Colony 9’s mines trying to return there, though he barely remembered what Red 16 was like. He remembered that it was home, and that had been enough.

He’d been more than halfway there. If he hadn’t crashed into this damned planet–

“Colony 9…that’s a mining planet, isn’t it? That’s cool.”

Cool? Eli scowled up at her. No, it was not cool. It was the opposite of cool. Men and women alike had died there, crushed by collapsing tunnels or poisoned by bad air or trapped in shafts too narrow to turn around in and there was never enough to eat and the wages had been a pittance.

He was too tired to argue.

“What about you?” he asked.

“Oh. Everywhere, I guess. I was born on a floating intergalactic base and I’ve been traveling ever since I can remember. Kind of an adventure thing. Where were you headed, when you crashed?”

“Red 16,” Eli found himself saying automatically, and cursed himself again. He didn’t have to answer. It wasn’t an interrogation. He could hold as much of himself secret as he liked, if he could only keep his mouth shut. He asked a question of his own in a spirit of vengeance.

“Where are we now?”

Ketzal looked around, her expression taking on a mischievous glint that had him cringing in expectation of some inane answer like ‘in the middle of a forest, hadn’t you noticed,’ but she seemed to think better of it.

“Blue 12 is what it’s called now,” she said. “The original settlers called it P’Rau-Migal.”

Eli didn’t care what the original settlers called it. He just wanted to get off of it as soon as possible.

“Is there a city nearby? Some sort of settlement?”

If the girl was collecting scrap, there must be someone she was collecting it for, which meant there must be civilization of some kind nearby, and that would be better than nothing. He was tired of blue trees. But the girl shook her head.

“There aren’t any settlements on Blue 12.” she said, with such grave certainty that Eli snorted a laugh.

“Really?” he asked. “Searched the whole planet yourself, have you?”

Sheraised her eyebrows at him.

No. That’s just common knowledge. Popular knowledge, even. Every time humans try to settle here, they’re never heard from again. General consensus is that there’s a monster who eats them. The Beast of Blue Twelve. There’s even a film series about it.”

She was looking at him like he was stupid, and he resented it.

“Why are you here, then?” he asked sharply. “And why were you scrapping my ship? What are you going to do with scrap on a planet with no settlements–sell it to the monster?”

She grinned at him.

“I’m here because it’s dangerous, stranger Bronn. Not that it’s any of your business, but I was traveling here to find out about the Beast. The movies are awful, and I want to smash them with facts. My ship crashed the way in. It’s been a week, my rations are low, I haven’t seen a beast anywhere, and it’s boring here. I need to repair my ship, and I was hoping to do it with the parts from yours.” her tone was easy, but she cocked her head at him with an expression sharp enough to slice him in two, and added amiably, “Now, are you going to stop shouting at me any time soon?”

He had been shouting, he realized. And holding a board with a nail in it. He took a breath, trying to tamp down the anger that was still struggling to claw its way up his throat.

“Sorry,” he said. If not a completely sincere apology, it was as least as sincere as hers had been. Perhaps they were even.

“It’s all right.” Ketzal said. “I wouldn’t be cheerful either, if I woke up to someone taking an ion laser to my ship.”

There was a short silence, in which Eli stared out into the blue trees–still waving softly in an unsatisfying breeze. He still hated them. But there was no reason to hate anything else, however much his bitter heart felt like it.

Eli set down his board, sticking the protruding nail into the blue soil and looking back up at the girl on top of his ship.

“Hungry?” he asked.

* * *

“It doesn’t look so bad, up here,” Eli said, half an hour later. Ketzal had given him a hand up, and between that and some lucky scrambling, they were both sitting on top of the Last Chance. There was something about being even that short distance closer to the sky that made everything easier to bear, somehow. After spending years stuck in the innards of the earth, Eli had learned to love the sky.

Even when it happened to be orange.

“Yeah, I get depressed when the trees tower over me for too long,” Ketzal said, licking the remains of her second packaged meal off her fingers. She had been hungry.

Eli nodded. Belly full, his mind was a great deal calmer. Easier to manage.

“Why’d you hate them?” He asked, sudden-curious.

“Hate what?”

“The Beast movies,” he clarified. “Why’d you hate them?”

She looked at him oddly, opened her mouth, and then closed it again. With a slight frown on her face, she started again, seeming to think while she talked.

“I dunno. They were just…there’s this big old monster, right, that’s been around forever. And in the first movie, it just…kills people. No real reason, it just roars and rages and they die off one by one. And it’s so popular! I just…” she shrugged. In her sharp-edged, wire-thin body, the gesture looked like she was trying to stab the sky with her shoulders. “I don’t get it. It annoys me,” She finished, looking down to swipe some leftover mealresidue from the inside of the packet. Eli felt a smile tugging at his lips.

“Ah,” he said. “And clearly, the best way to respond to things that annoy you is to crash a spaceship on an abandoned planet to prove them wrong.”

Hey,” she protested. “I have theories. This is research that will benefit posterity!”

“What theories?”

“Oh! Where to start…okay, so. I looked for the original settlers of this place, and it turns out that the farthest back we can trace is to some race of mystery inhabitants–all they left behind were some outgoing radio signals in a language that no one speaks anymore. It sounds a little like old-style star pidgin, a mix of Russian and Hindi and English, but no linguist can really get heads or tails of it.”

Eli’s eyebrows flicked up. “Foreign species?” he asked.

“Eh,” Ketzal replied, screwing up her nose and waving a hand dismissively. “Doubtful. Probably just some of the old empire-builders and one of their lost societies. Anyway, they can’t send anything to the surface of Blue 12, but from the outer atmosphere, there’s no sign of any building projects, and there should be. If, that is,” she held up a finger, “The planet was ever occupied at all. I think that this entire planet is a conservation forest, or maybe private hunting grounds, for some person or society long dead. The garbled radio signals are probably ‘no trespassing’ signs, and the so-called Beast is probably just a security system of some kind, still operational.”

She sat back as thoughshe was anticipating applause; but Eli was staring over her shoulder.

Around Ketzal’s second mention of radio signals, something had rustled in the trees. He’d kept listening, even as he squinted to try and make out what it was; but when it stepped free of the trees, the whole of Eli’s interest had fallen away from trespassing signs and security systems to focus in its entirety on the creature at the edge of the forest.

It somehow managed to look like a cobbled-together mass of parts, even while it moved with a kind of easy grace that Eli had hitherto associated with snakes and dancing women. It had the legs and body of a deer, but a humanoid torso where the neck ought to have been. Its head was perfectly round; two dull, dead eyes and no mouth, and it was crowned with a set of perfectly curved, deadly-sharp antlers. He thought it was alive at first, until a step made it glint sharply in the sunlight. It was metal, though rusted and old. Moss and weeds were growing on it; some kind of floweringvine had wound itself through the antlers, drifting around the creature’s head like a veil.

Its head turned slowly towards them, camera-lens eyes staring blankly into Eli’s own. It seemed dangerous to look away.

“Ketzal,” he said softly. “I think you’ve got your Beast.”

Ketzal turned to look. The machine was a bright speck of red and silver at the edge of the blue forest, and though he couldn’t see Ketzal’s expression, he saw her back stiffen as she locked eyes with it. Then she relaxed.

“That doesn’t look like a security enforcement bot,” she said. “I don’t think he’ll bother with us.”

Eli, still haunted by the emptiness in those not-quite eyes, gave her a look that she missed.

“Are you sure?”

“Completely. Look at it. It’s built for agility and blending in with the wildlife, not terror and destruction. I bet he’s some kind of ancient mobile security camera.”

She turned around again, grinning at him as though he was child frightened by a warp-rat.

“We’re in no danger from that thing.”

“Um,” Eli said, eyes still fixed on the thing at the edge of the woods. It was studying the deep ruts in the earth, the broken and still-bleeding trees, following the path they cut to the Last Chance. Expressionless though its face might have been, something in the way it raised its head to watch them once again seemed anything but friendly.

“Are you really sure about–” he began. The machine tossed its head, a flash of knife-sharp prongs in the sun, and charged.

Eli only had time to yelp an incoherent warning before the beast collided with the ship’s side, rocking it out of its earthen grave and throwing Ketzal and Eli free. Eli had a brief impression of seeing the world perfectly upside-down, the branches or the trees reaching root-like to drink from the sky, before the ground knocked the air from his lungs. His head felt as loose as an unscrewed lug nut, and there was dirt in his mouth, but he was on his feet again before he was able to properly think.

Ketzal was struggling to get herself upright, looking as dazed as he felt, and he took a few stumbling steps towards her to help her up.

“What the…” she whispered, staring.

The beast was attacking the ship. There was a terrible, grinding screaming as its antlers tore the metal like paper; delicate hooves trampled the remains flat. There was a fury in the way the thing worked, as though the existence of the Last Chance was a personal insult.

Every blow to the ship was a blow to Eli’s heart, and he watched with shaking limbs.

“We have to run,” Ketzal was saying. “If that’s the beast, we’re gonna be next.”

She had a hand on his arm, oddly warm against his skin, trying to pull him away; but the impact of being thrown from the ship had taken all the strength from her, and all the mobility out of him.

“Come on,” she said. “We have to get out of here, come on–”

Eli read the panic in her voice, but it meant nothing to him. The dark-eyed, soulless thing was methodically ripping apart his ship. His ship. The ship he had worked for, twenty years wearing away the skin of his fingers and the bones of his back in the stone-shafted mines. The ship that had seemed like freedom when he stepped into it for the first time. The ship that had been taking him home. All being shredded and stamped into the blue unworthy earth of an abandoned planet.

He felt like doing a great many things with that creature. Running away from it was not one of them.

Ketzal was still tugging on his arm, and Eli wondered briefly why she hadn’t just left him behind yet. She could have run whenever she wanted, if she hadn’t been so hell-bent on dragging him with her.

Something was glinting in the torn-up earth, catching his eye, and he bent to pick it up.

“Leave the stupid ion laser!” Ketzal shouted at him. “We have to go!”

A laser, Eli thought. He switched it on, and it have him two and a half inches of deadly blue light.

Maybe, he didn’t hate the color blue so much, after all.

And without a thought beyond how dare that thing rip up my ship, he shrugged free of Ketzal’s hold on his arm and strode forward.

“Hey, you!” he roared, as the beast tore another swathe into the ship’s engine. It stopped, looking up at him with dead eyes. The flowering vines were bruised and torn, dripping with thick yellow fuel, but they still swung lazily from its antlers as the beast cocked its head. It turned to focus on him, its deerlike legs high-stepping through the wreckage, and Eli tightened his grip on the ion laser.

“Get away from my ship,” he growled. “Now.”

His heart was pounding. The beast looked a great deal bigger now than it had a moment ago, but the rushing in Eli’s ears had drowned out fear and common sense alike.

When it charged him, Eli was anything but ready.

He’d planned the initial slash of the laser from the moment he’d switched it on. As the beast charged, Eli made a desperate slash at its face, across the twin lenses of its eyes. If it was blind, it was helpless, he remembers thinking.

After that, the great sharp-edged weight of the metal monster was on top of him, and Eli had no plans whatsoever. He stabbed and slashed the laser at whatever he could reach. Hot fuel splashed over his face and arms, burning his skin, and for a moment he was utterly certain he’d just done something monumentally stupid. He was going to die.

Then the metal limbs stopped struggling, and the heavy torso fell still. Eli choked on his own breath. As the pounding of his heart faded, the only sounds to greet it was the dull clicking of a recently disabled machine, and the sharp fizzle of temperamental electricity. Filled with a sudden panic at being trapped under the weight of the dead thing, he struggled, trying to shove it away. Hands were helping him, tugging the corpse away as he pushed it, and he was finally able to breathe. Bruised, certainly, but very much alive.

Ketzal was also alive. Eli stood on shaking legs. Between them lay the shell of the beast, clicking out its last.

“That,” Ketzal panted at him, “Was incredibly idiotic.”

The laser in his hand was still buzzing. Eli clicked it off, still staring at the corpse. He felt a sickly bruise forming on his stomach where one of the beast’s hooves had nearly punctured the skin, and remembered the moment of blinding terror when the thing’s antlers were coming at him and he almost forgot how to duck. A few seconds of forgetfulness more, and it would have been his body on the ground, reduced to meat.

‘idiotic’ seemed like a perfect description.

“Should we have run off and let it kill us both later?” he asked, instead of voicing his thoughts. “It was gonna come for us, either way. Might as well…” He wasn’t sure how to finish that sentence. Words were jumbled, half meaningless, in his brain.

“This is yours,” he said instead, handing the laser back.

The forest was towering again, feeling heavy as the ceiling of a mine shaft above him. Half of his ship had been torn and trampled into the dirt, and the gaping hole left in its side was trailing fuel lines and gears like innards. He was alive, and the thing at his feet was not, but he felt anything but victorious.

“Well then,” Ketzal said beside him. “Looks like we’ve got two broken ships and one ancient, dead…machine thing.” she kicked at it, then looked up at him with a grin. “Between ‘em all, think we can cobble together a working way off this place?”

Eli blinked. The dull hopelessness that had been sneaking up on him stopped in its tracks. He looked at the ground again, trying to see past what was unsalvageable to what was. He saw…parts. A lot of parts.

On the ship’s side, the scrolling script of the painted-on Last had been torn away; it now read, in bold, unaplogetic letters: Chance.

Eli found himself almost grinning back.

“You know,” he said, “I think we can.”

This work is part of a series. The next installment can be read here.


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Bazar-Tek and the Lonely Knight

Death Wish

Brevian and the Star Dragon, Part I: Stowaway

Death Wish

 

Jax had never intended to end up as a live-action wish-granting genie. It wasn’t a career choice many made–none, in fact, which was the main reason the Star Foundation didn’t make it a matter of choices. Unless, of course, you wanted to get technical and point out that ‘do this or die’ is a valid choice, if a rather unpleasant one–but Jax didn’t care for technicalities.

Technicalities seemed to be rapidly taking over this train of thought, and he gave it up for lost, absently checking his wrist. He frowned, tapped it, and the string of numbers that had replaced his iDent patch flickered to life, glowing green through his skin and shifting as they ticked off a countdown.

“Four hours left.” he said, to no one in particular.

Tig hummed to life at the sound of his voice.

“Four hours to mission complete.” the hoverbot agreed in a mechanically toneless voice, whirring up by Jax’s shoulder. “Return to Star 42 in four hours on pain of immediate execution.”

Jax fixed it with a glare, the expression wasted on the sightless robot.

“Very helpful, Tig.”

The machine bleeped inarticulately, spinning on its axis, and Jax sighed. A year ago, he’d tried to cheer himself up by painting a bright yellow smiley face on the robot’s surface, and had spent the next twelve months violently wishing he hadn’t. Given Tig’s usual mode of conversation, the smile was often more ironic than cheerful.

He looked out at the planet they’d landed on, surprising himself by wishing he was back aboard his star again. The tiny ship seemed like a prison–was a prison, really–but it was a great deal more pleasant than a Ciloan city. The barren planet that had somehow managed to be the capitol of the entire Firusian Federation wasn’t known for its pleasant climate in the best of times, but in the midst of the city with the energy of a thousand generators, airboats, street lamps and restaurant-ovens radiating through the air, it was a hellish nightmare.

It wasn’t even midday yet. Barely past morning, in fact; the moons were still fading away in the north. But he had to wait.

“Do you require a countdown?” Tig buzzed helpfully, startling Jax out of his thoughts.

“I’m not dawdling.” Jax retorted. “I can’t do a thing until he arrives, anyway.” he gestured to the open square in front of them, where a small crowd was beginning to filter in before the famed Platform One, ready to hear the Emperor’s blessing. From the anticipation that buzzed through the growing group of people, you’d think this was a bicentennial event, and not a daily one.

“Your tone indicates a reply in the negative. Confirm?”

“Confirm.” Jax wondered if the robot could always pick up the emotions behind his voice, or if it simply picked up on the ones it needed to.

He wondered, perhaps a little pointlessly, if Tig knew that he was afraid.

He shouldn’t have been. The Star Foundation had gotten him on thousands of missions before this. Any prayer, any hope, any half-spoken dream that through chance or design reached the sensors of Star 42, Jax was commissioned with granting. Usually, it was children with simple requests (though on one occasion, a little girl asked him to remove the teeth from all the bears on her home planet. That mission had been a bit of a nightmare).

Today was something very different. Something illegal, possibly even wrong. Something that made Jax’s heart beat a sickening tune of worry in chest no matter how hard he tried to calm it.

Today, someone had asked him to kill the Emperor.

Jax had intended to be a smuggler. Good pay, low risks, new city every few weeks. Barely a month on the job before he’d been arrested and given the choice that was not a choice–death, or life-long employment with the Star Foundation.

Of the two options, the second had seemed infinitely more appealing. Magical wish-granting powers, his own private star. Not dying.

Well, not dying on the condition that his missions were completed on time. The Star Foundation prided itself on dedicated employees, and since their only employees were those already sentenced to death… the words ‘immediate execution’ were tossed around more than Jax would have liked.

Tig, apparently, had forgotten his request not to give a countdown.

“Return to Star 42 in three hours forty-five minutes on pain of immediate execution.” the robot whirred helpfully.

“I know. I can’t exactly shoot the emperor while he isn’t here, now can I?” Jax argued, attempting to reason with the bot, and succeeding only in reminding himself of the ridiculousness of his situation.

The Star Foundation didn’t endorse the killing of emperors. But, with the thoughtless innocence of bureaucratic administration, neither had they anticipated that their services could be used as someone’s personal assassination squad. Perhaps, if Jax mailed in a complaint, it would be read in a week or two.

But by then, Jax would have been forcefully decommissioned and left as a forgotten pile of smoldering ash until Star 42 was cleaned out in preparation for a new occupant.

Granted, going through with this assignment was high treason and would probably end with him dead as well as the emperor. But going through with it gave him time, and he was riding on the hope that once again, the law would let him slip quietly through the cracks and keep up some kind of existence.

After all, it was his only option.

Official-sounding trumpets blared, tinnily amplified through a complex myriad of speakers set into the four corners of the courtyard–a system to ensure that every citizen could hear every word of the Emperor’s Morning Blessing.

There were an awful lot of citizens, Jax realized suddenly. He’d chosen at first to take up residence in a small alcove, from which he could see the tiny podium atop Platform One without being within sight of anyone standing there. A crowdful of heads milled about now, occasionally obscuring the podium from view. And while Jax had hardened himself to the idea of killing an old and powerful man to ensure his own survival, the idea of accidentally killing some innocent commoner in the process made him sick to his stomach.

Taking an ennobling breath, he plunged into the crowd, fighting his way towards the front. It would be hard to run away out of the melee once the deed was done, he realized; but there was no time.

The Emperor was arriving.

The base of Platform One rose up and opened itself, the various sections chuffing mechanically, unfolding like the petals of some reluctant flower. The crowd pressed Jax even harder. He saw, without exactly looking, a thin, pale-looking figure rising out of Platform One and waving listlessly at the people; but by then Jax was at the front, ignoring as best he could the bodies shoving themselves against his back. Tig had stopped the countdown; in truth Jax didn’t need it. He knew how much time he had–just enough to finish this and perhaps get away. Forgetting would take longer, he suspected; but he was on his own time for that.

“We greet and bless this morning, that dawns on our great city–” A reedy voice began, catapulted through the speakers to deafening effect.

Jax pulled the hand-pistol from his coat, checking for the fourth time that there was a bullet in the chamber. A glass shrapnel bullet, filled with an oozy green substance. It would shatter on impact, spreading the poison everywhere, filling the vital organs with tiny cutting shards, assuring death–a nasty weapon. A nasty job.

Jax drew another breath. Someone would see the second he aimed the weapon; he would have to fire as soon as he could, and retreat into the crowd again. Perhaps the shot would panic them enough so everyone would flee; in that case, he should be able to escape fairly easily.

He still hesitated, holding the pistol half-drawn from his coat and trying to still his shaking hands.

Perhaps he was looking for a distraction. In any case, a tiny movement, far off to his left, caught his attention.

Someone stepping out of the crowd–a girl, her dark brows determined, glaring up at the still-speaking Emperor with undisguised scorn. A blue satchel hung over her shoulder; still staring at the emperor, she tossed it at the base of the platform, mouthing words Jax couldn’t hear before she turned on her heel and disappeared.

Something about the oddity of this tugged at Jax’s mind, speaking of danger; he struggled to comprehend it.

Before he could, an explosion rocked the ground.

Jax knew only bits and pieces of what followed. Rubble flying, shocking the air with its very bulk; dust–he himself being knocked flat on his back–but other than that initial flash of panic and light, he could never recall anything but a dull, open blank of time.

Some seconds–or perhaps it was some minutes–later, he found himself unexpectedly alive. Half-buried in dust and scattered rock, adrenaline flooding and muscles quivering–but alive all the same.

He blinked, trying to clear blurred vision. A great dust-grey panel of metal–one of Platform One’s many petals–hung above him, suspended.

No, not suspended, he realized–broken. The rubble was supporting it, keeping it from crushing him–and trapping him in  a veritable cave of debris.

Where was the light coming from? Jax pushed himself up, ignoring his jarred and aching body, and saw Tig. The little bot had gone into its Night settings, glowing a yellowish-white. The painted face showed in ghoulish backlight; Tig had sustained no damages that Jax could see, but the bot was rolling on the ground in an uncharacteristically insipid manner. Jax picked him up, worried, and the bot’s light flickered.

“–M–iss-i-on–” Tig stuttered, trying to say something.

“Workaholic,” Jax muttered at him. “Can’t you worry about something else as you’re dying?”

“Ret–urn to stARr F-f-f-” the audio began to jabber and finally fizzled out, before adding clear as a bell– “On pain of death.”

And with that, the bot left Jax in the midst of a deadening silence. He stared at the darkly smiling face, resolving not to give in to panic. He couldn’t panic now–not yet.

Someone groaned. A thin, reedy kind of groan, followed by a faint cough.

Jax spun around, shining Tig in the general direction of the voice.

It was a man.

He was half-buried under a pile of rubble, blinking at Jax with watery eyes. Wisps of white hair clung to a scalp dotted with age spots.

“Help.”

“I’m coming.”

Setting Tig down, Jax knelt to examine the rocks that seemed to be crushing the man to nothing. The sight made him realize just how lucky he’d been.

“Get–get it off.” the man pleaded, apparently in reference to the several hundred pounds of rubble that had settled on his chest and legs.

“I will.” Jax promised, hesitating. What damage would removing them cause? Some foggy idea of misplaced organs and blood welling unwelcome in lungs gave him pause. The man groaned again, and Jax decided that whatever happened, it surely couldn’t be worse than slowly being squished to death.

“Alright,” he said, steeling himself to haul the stones away. “Alright. You’ll be–” he hefted the first hunk of rock off the man’s chest, almost dropping it again at the man’s scream. Instead he managed to stagger several feet away with it, dropping it on the ground beside Tig. The little bot rolled listlessly, making the oddly strewn shadows of the cave dance.

The man was lying still, making small sounds of pain. When Jax returned to his side, he shook his head wildly.

“No. Leave them. Didn’t–think.”

If there was a way to help, Jax didn’t know it. The sense of despair he felt at that surprised him.

“Not to worry.” the old man said, almost lightly past his pain. “I’m sure they’ll all come rushing to save me.”

Jax wondered at the assurance in the man’s voice.

“No doubt. You’ll be second after the Emperor, I’m sure.” he said, half in imitation of the man’s lightness, half in an idiotic bitterness that sprung from the knowledge that however it may be with this man or the Emperor, no one would be coming to save Jax–rushing or otherwise. The old man looked at him sharply, making Jax realize just how stupid his feelings were.

“The Emperor.” the old man managed. “Would he really be the first on everyone’s minds? Is he really that beloved?”

Beloved, Jax thought. Odd choice of words.

“He’s… important.”

The old man nodded. “Important.” he repeated dully, staring up at the unwelcome roof. The silence that followed was deathlike, and Jax checked the numbers across his forearm in discomfort. The green figures were ticking away softly, rhythmically, but the time they represented sent a wave of panic. Forty-two minutes left?

No rescue crew, rushing or not, would be getting here in a mere forty-two minutes.

Jumping up, Jax searched the walls of rubble for a weak point. Finding none, the panic began to take over and he scrabbled at the piles of rock, prying stones free with his fingers. He could feel the old man’s eyes boring into his back as his attack on the wall grew ever fiercer, to ever-diminishing effect. A layer of rubble, displaced by his efforts, tumbled to the ground in a bruising cascade–only to reveal another wall of rock, tighter-packed than the first. Heart pounding furiously in preparation for a flight he could not take, Jax sagged against the stone and tried to ignore the useless chorus singing in his head–trapped, trapped, trapped.

He forced breath into unwilling lungs, trying to think. What was the worst that could happen? Tig was in no condition to decommission him. He would just have to not return to his star. Go on the run. He could do that. He could survive…

Until the Star Foundation caught up with him. There would be no explaining, after that, no consideration of his case.

“Seeing as we’re both going to be stuck in here until someone comes to rescue us, you might as well introduce yourself.”

Jax  let his eyes glaze over as he stared at the wall separating him from his star, processing the old man’s words in tandem with the realization that he was going to die, very soon, and there was nothing he could do about it. The revelation did not make him feel conversational.

The cycle of his panicked thoughts was thrown off course by a new idea.

Why shouldn’t he feel conversational? He had less than forty minutes to live. And for the first time in his life, he had no secrets to keep. No consequences to fear. He could be utterly and freely truthful for a whole–he checked the numbers on his arm again–thirty minutes, starting with his name.

He turned on the man and tried to smile.

“Jax Cortas,” he said flamboyantly, as though he was announcing the name of a saint or a brigand. The old man blinked up at him, unimpressed.

“Ereb,” he offered simply.

“I’m an assassin,” Jax said, high on the recklessness of honesty. Ereb’s eyebrows shot up, and Jax grinned at him, walking to sit with his back against the wall so they could speak face-to-face. “Sent to kill an emperor. Not my usual line of work, but–”

Jax had grown used to spilling his thoughts and feelings in their unadulterated entirety on the unresponsive Tig. In the throes of habit and revelation both,  he poured his whole story out, beginning with the impossible choice and ending with the girl and her backpack.

“Come to think of it, she was probably the one doing the wishing,” Jax said, as he finished. “Didn’t even know she’d hired me.”

Aside from a few initial expressions of surprise, Ereb had been as unresponsive as Tig–though his immobile expression was much less cheerful. As the story ended, the old man frowned.

“Surely you could have refused,” he said, rather stiffly. “They can’t penalize you for not breaking the law.”

“Not knowingly,” Jax agreed. “But their systems are automated. By the time it was realized what happened–” he shrugged. “I’d already be dead.”

With that cheery reflection, he looked at his clock. Nineteen minutes. He wondered if Tig would repair himself in time for the execution, or if some other hoverbot would take his old friend’s place. Not that it mattered. He forced his wrist down, forced himself to look away. Ereb wasn’t doing too well either, he realized. The man was breathing weakly, face wrenched into an expression of pain.

“Are you certain I can’t–” Jax began, moving to try and shift the rubble again, but Ereb cut him off.

“Don’t be an idiot,” he snapped. “I’m gone, whether you move them or not.” his voice, strong at first, became a choked whisper by the end of the sentence. This helpless fading pricked Jax to something like anger.

“Help’s coming, and you’re alive yet. Don’t give up so easy,” he said, not gently.

Ereb looked at him, eyes bright and suddenly clear.

“Fine advice. You should follow it yourself.”

Unable to reply to this, Jax looked down and found himself staring at the numbers in his wrist again. Fifteen minutes. He wasn’t giving up; he was facing the facts.

“Stop looking at that!” Ereb blustered, wheezing and struggling under the rubble. Jax tried to get him to stop, then realized Ereb was peeling something off his arm.

“Cover it with this,” he said, sounding very petulant and old. “No point staring at how little time you’ve got.”

It was an iDent patch–the man’s entire identity.

“I won’t be needing that anymore, anyway. Make good use of it, hey, in– the–” he coughed, the sound reverberating deep in his lungs– “In the time you have left.”

Precious little time that was. Still, Jax didn’t have the heart to refuse.

“More time than–I have,” Ereb said,  as if answering his thoughts.

Jax darted forward as the old man coughed again, sputtering blood this time. Unsure what to do, Jax held up his head, and in the idiocy of fear alternately demanding that he not try to speak and that he say something–anything.

There was no one shining or horrible moment of death. There was only the fright, the struggle for life–and then the realization that, quite suddenly, the thing he was holding was a man no longer, but only the empty shell of one.

Not long after, a drill broke through the ceiling, opening a portal into the cave. Light streamed in, and Jax blinked. A pair of hoverbots were the first to enter, whizzing curiously about the room.

Jax’s time had run out long ago, and he steeled himself against the inevitable–but the bots seemed uninterested in him. Waiting out of respect for the dead, perhaps.

Emergency responders were the next on the scene. They had none of the hoverbot’s dawdling complacency, racing forward the second they hit the ground. Jax, still cradling the old man’s head in his lap, shook his head at them.

“He’s dead.”

The first responder scowled at him and knelt beside Ereb anyway, scanning him, opening his eyes, feeling for a pulse–as if somehow, one of the tests would show a different result from the rest. Jax edged away from her efforts, slowly standing up. When she finally gave up and sat back, it was with an expression of complete and utter tiredness.

“How long has he been gone?”

Jax checked his wrist. The iDent patch Ereb had loaned him had blurred the lines to the point of unreadability, but there was no green glow visible beneath it now. His time had run out, he wasn’t sure how long ago.

“He’s been dead at least fifteen minutes,” he said, taking a safe guess as he wondered again why the hoverbots waited. The second responder stepped forward, kneeling over the body, and Jax stared at the open hole in the rubble. He could clamber through it, leave… and spend his last minutes running, shot in the back instead of the front.

The difference wasn’t worth the effort.

“We’ll have to be the ones to carry the news, won’t we?” the second responder said dully, removing his mask. “He’s really dead.”

Jax stopped staring at the listless hoverbots to look at the responders again.

“He had a family?” he asked, wondering who they would be reporting to. The second responder looked vaguely surprised to hear him speak, as though he’d forgotten Jax existed.

“Sadly, no,” he said, matter-of-factly. “The Council will be hard pressed to find an heir.”

“Hard pressed! More like overjoyed and at each other’s throats,” the woman replied, scowling at her scanner and tapping it on the concrete floor. “Damned thing won’t work,” she muttered.

“What? Let me see.”

“It keeps telling me he’s not in the system–and that can’t be, the Emperor of all people is sure to be in there.”

“Surely,” the man said, fiddling with the scanner in complete oblivion to the fact that Jax was struggling under the weight of an impossible revelation.

Ereb. Emperor Ereb-Claren, ruler of all Cilos–and he had died in Jax’s arms.

The second realization was almost upon him when the responder put it into words.

“His iDent patch is gone!” she exclaimed. “How can it be gone? Only he could have removed it, and where–”

Jax was staring at the thing on his arm–a gift given so flippantly he’d never realized the import of it. An identity–a new identity, free from the Wishing Star Foundation and all its penalties. Not just something to distract him from his own inevitable death–life.

The responders had fallen silent as well, and Jax looked up from the patch on his arm to their incredulous looks as they all realized the same thing. Suddenly he felt the weight of the dust, the dirt, the blood that covered him; the cheap tattoos that marred his arms seemed to be burning on his skin as for a second, he saw himself as they must be seeing him. A criminal. A commoner. A dirty stranger.

The woman, still with a dazed expression, pointed the scanner at him. It whirred, clicked–and announced, in automated tones–

“Identity confirm>Ereb-Claren the Twenty-Fifth, Emperor of Firusian Federation.”

“Well then,” the second responder said, shaking his head. “Long live the emperor.”

And, in spite of every doubt, he did.