I followed them down the hole. When I had proposed the plan to Orion, he had smirked. He was almost immediately all in, and that made me incredibly nervous.
“But if this fails…”
He had grabbed me by the cheeks, feeling my jaw through the skin. His fingers were uncharacteristically soft, seeing as he was essentially a bandit leader.
“I actually hope you fail, then I can just have you become an offering to Dezallldwinn.”
I didn’t need my teeth, so I didn’t really care. I just wished he would let go of my face soon.
If I could save my mother before… Before she got any worse, this will have been worth it, teeth or no teeth.
“Don’t worry, I’ve mapped it all out.”
He just smiled. It was a disgusting and sinister smile, as if he expected that my plan would fail no matter how much I planned or hard I tried. He was hoping that my hole wouldn’t lead anywhere so that he could send me of to be punished.
“It won’t fail, alight?”
That’s what I had said, but now I wasn’t so sure. This could either bring me to third or even second command, but if something went wrong, well, I’d be in the same position as Laila. Tortured and at the bottom of the ladder.
I was at the back, even Laila was ahead of me. I was fit, but I was still far behind all the mercenaries. Contrary to what people think, it’s not that hard for a woman to build muscle. Even more important, in my opinion, is technique. Once weapons enter the equation, strength becomes less important and I hadn’t seen anyone who was a better thrust fencer than I was. Or a better fighter in general. They had all had some skill, yes, but no polish.
The only person I wasn’t sure of was Orion. I had never seen him even touch a sword. He didn’t have to.
We reached the ruins.
I took out the map I’d made of the ruins and checked the distance. I squared my distance in my head; I had the squares memorized up to sixteen. Then I added. Forty six. That’s between six and seven. Okay.
“Okay, just Northwest for about seven kilocubits. Maybe longer. I didn’t have time to map out a straight path. No one comes down here.”
“Can you please state that in leagues, genius? Not all of us are scientists.” It was a woman named Ferrule. She had never liked me, as if she thought I was competing with her for something, but I never figured out what.
“It’s about three leagues.” That meant about three hours, less since we were marching.
We had had to dig our way in. That was the gamble, that’s why I would have to pay for it with my teeth. We spent five days digging. You can imagine my relief when the hole bottomed out and opened. It was a relief.
We followed my plan and headed northwest. I tried to keep ahead, to lead, but these people, this gang wasn’t going to follow me. There were a lot of us, maybe fourteen. That’s half the gang. I always ended up in the middle, where my rank suggested I should be. If I didn’t try to keep up, I would get sucked into the back of the crowd.
As we walked, I stared around the ruins. It was a high-ceilinged cave. There were no stalagmites here, because everything was dry. The sea, cubits above, washed into a desert, the shores of the desert city of the Djeb. This place had a lot of dusty stone buildings, most of them were three or four stories high, and it seemed that the buildings were still in good condition. As if only a year or two had passed since the place was vacated, instead of two or three thousand.
My goal was to tunnel back up under the Imperial treasury. It would be the greatest jackpot that the crew had ever hit, ever. And so, once we hit the place, we stopped. I told them to stop, but most people ignored me. I was alone in the building for a long time.
It didn’t have stairs, it didn’t even have ladders. I really wished that the crowd following me would stop talking. I wanted to take it all in. Did the Djeb people live here once, before it sank into the sands? What happened?
Eventually everyone else realized that I had gone into one of the dusty buildings and one by one, two by two I could hear them searching for me. I was, after all, the only person who knew where they were supposed to be going. They were shouting and minutes passed. I secretly hoped that they would give up and abandon me. They had abandoned people for less before.
And then, they seemed to quiet down in an unnatural way, as if someone had pulled them far away. They were still shouting, some at the top of their voice, but it had become so quiet that I couldn’t hear the individual words they used. Everything began to blend together.
There was suddenly a white tree with orange leaves in this stone building, planted in the ground. I knew it had not been there before. Had it grown in the short seconds that I had turned away? Anything was possible when it came to plants, I knew that from experience. I wondered, had this building been constructed around the tree, or was the tree planted here to be used instead of stairs?
I I noticed someone had begun climbing down the tree from a hole in the ceiling. It was amazing, seeing this humanoid form move so naturally. Stairs now seemed like some sort of abomination in comparison. The person was a beautiful denizen of the ancient city, a woman around my age, no older then twenty-two. She dropped to the ground and stared passed me. She seemed happy to see whatever was behind me. I turned to follow her gaze. Outside, I could here the gang milling about, but they were faded and ghost-like, as if the universe had decided that for this small moment in time, they didn’t matter as much as I did. I turned to see that the denizen was looking at a man, just as beautiful as she was. They certainly were not Djeben, not as the people of the Djeb are now anyway.
The two people had silvery-blonde hair that reached to their breast. They wore nothing above the hips, likely due to the heat. They didn’t seem to be biologically capable of tanning, instead their skin had become chaulky, like it was covered in a thick protective powder. I could tell that it worked fine against the sun, but it deadened the senses. I realized that it was dead, these powder outer layers. You can’t really burn dead skin, and I suspected that that’s what it was. It was all their dead skin, stuck on somehow. That’s why they were so careful to cover their genital region, to make sure the sun never touched it. I covered my mouth with my hands.
I figured I must be seeing some sort of vision of the past. That meant that the woman couldn’t actually see me since I was still in the present. I expected her to walk right through me to greet the man. But, she didn’t. She stopped, and looked up to me. She could not have been more than three and a half cubits high, half a cubit shorter than me. She smiled and blushed at me, pink hues quietly escaping the powder white husks of her cheeks.
The woman reached out to touch me. I flinched. She remained steady. I looked away, and saw that the man was near me now as well. They both touched my face, each put the back of their fingers on a separate cheek. Their chaulky fingers were surprisingly soft. I had no idea what was happening. Was this some kind of ritual?
“Illa non est ex hoc tempore,” the man stated.
The woman tilted her head back and forth a couple times. I was not familiar with this motion. Was it a nod?
The man had spoken the ancient and dead Latin. I didn’t know how to speak it myself, but I knew that it was the root of the language the Metch spoke centuries ago, before everything got replaced by the Solune Standard.
The woman said, “Et erit opus nostrum auxilium. Monitus.”
The man nodded. If he nodded, then what had that that head shake meant?
They moved their hands to my shoulders, and pulled, putting weight on me. They leaned forward, swinging on me. It was an odd feeling, but they countered each others weight quite well. Their other hands touched, fingers interlocking, and they kissed, letting go of my shoulder. I was certain that this was another ritual, like a three person handshake, but I’m not expert on ancient civilization, so I wasn’t sure.
They finished their display and turned to me, mirroring each other.
“Adria,” The woman stared at me, and pointed her thumb to her chest.
That was her name, I was certain.
“Agusto,” The man pointed his thumb to his chest as well.
I made the exact same motion and said, “Aleksandre.”
They moved, hands becoming a blur, and then both of their thumbs were on my forehead. In unison, they shouted, “Almeda!”
Then they shoved their thumbs into my cranium. The digits became white powder, and suddenly my mind went hot and numb, as if I had drunken syrups.
I knew that they had sacrificed something mental in addition to the physical loss. They each kissed a cheek of mine, and then they pranced to the tree. I watched, and I knew that they wanted me to follow. I knew that I was now connected to them. Entirely mystified, I followed.
They grabbed the tree and climbed, as if they were lemurs. I could not, my fingers simply passed through the branches.
“Vaha non!” I said, truly disappointed. I could no longer see the couple at this point, and I was beginning to feel abandoned.
They peeked down the hole, and beckoned.
I heard the man say gently, “noli commoveri, adolescentula.”
He was telling me not to worry. I knew I still had to follow him, but I couldn’t jump the necessary six cubits.
“I need a rope!” I said. I had the vague feeling that I had spoken a different language.
One of the faded gang members had wondered in by now, and was staring at me. He obliged, and I threw it up the hole. The woman caught it and disappeared.
Agusto assured me that she would return saying, “noli commoveri, ego reddam primum.”
I was surprised that he had refereed to her as “I.” They must be very close if they considered themselves to be one person.
The rope tugged, and I started to climb. I truly wished that the tree had not died. The numb parts of my brain had become very sad about the entire ordeal.
At the top, I realized that the rope had been tied around what appeared to be a bench, carved out of the stone floor. I realized- No, I didn’t realize. I knew. I knew that this entire building was once a large stone hill. These people carved into a part of the landscape and turned it into homes, planted trees. It was beautiful.
They climbed the tree a floor higher, I threw up the rope, they tied it, and I followed. It was as if, or rather, I knew that I was in two time periods at once and that, to a lesser extent, so was this pair. I wondered where the rest of their people were. Had they left? Maybe this was just their personal home, and no one else was around because no one else resided here.
We continued this process over many floors. No one from the faded, ghostly gang followed me up. On the fourth and final floor, I stopped and gasped. There was an old man and a child. The old man nodded at the pair and then turned. He lifted a small wooden box out of a stone crate, also carved out of the ground. He handed it to me.
The old man’s skin was hard, like dried white clay. He said, “Hanc inimicum.”
I nodded. I didn’t know why he had referred to the gang as my enemies, but I obliged. I didn’t open the box. The small group in front of me started fading, and the crew began to get loud gradually, inorganically.
I desperately called out to Adria and Agusto. I pointed to myself with my ring finger, for I knew that this was the correct finger. I said, “Riley!”
They again mirrored each other, pointing and saying, “Methos,” and then they faded away.
“Seriously Alexandre, how did you do that? And what the hell are you saying?”
It was Laila. He was shouting up the hole from four floors down.
Someone else shouted, “Yeah, are you possessed? Talking in tongues?”
“Quid? I mean, what?” I had been talking Latin out loud, and they had heard my voice echoing through the structure.
I sighed. Then I thought, or rather, I knew that I was now partially possessed. The hot, chaulky parts of my brain were filled with little pieces of information. Information that I couldn’t yet understand, but would as it attached to other nodes in my brain. I would decipher the chaulky brain matter slowly, possibly faster in my sleep.
I was suddenly very happy about this odd form of possession. I was greatful for the new resource. I knew it was a gift, not a threat. I looked down at the small wooden box. It had not faded away. Neither had the chest, which was full of ancient golden coins.
I brought everything down. The rope was long enough that I could simply climb to the bottom. I left it there, hoping that I might return in the future, although I had an odd suspicion that I would not.
“Is that it?” Ferrule asked.
“What do you mean?” I had a lot of gold in my money pouch now, “Look at all this!”
“Those are worthless Methos coins. They’re made of stone and bits of metal. They’re worth is about the same as a rock.”
I had an uncomfortable feeling. From the expression on Laila’s face I could tell that Ferrule was right. I could only hope that the box I had hidden in my bag would be enough to save my poor face.