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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.
* * *
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.”
“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,” 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.
* * *
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 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.
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.
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.
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…
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