And now it’s Friday. If you only read this blog for the Friday posts, you’ve missed a chapter. One note about Chapter 18 – remember again this was a million years ago, and I was falling for all the usual newbie mistakes, like inventing an alien language. Gah! Never try this at home, kids. It’s lame. But it’s a common new writer mistake, so I didn’t bother to edit it out or pretend I didn’t fall into that rut. I’ve been airing my dirty little newbie laundry here because 1) it’s not a bad story, if I do say so myself. 2) there’s some good stuff peppered in amongst the flubbers, and 3) it’s helpful, I think, so show growth. When the lot of you run out to Barnes & Noble and purchase Ether, or whichever of my novels ends up being the first to finally MAKE IT 😀 you’ll be amazed to see the difference in my writing. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll give some newbies insight.
If not, then blame Lori – she talked me in to posting this story! (I’m kidding, sort of. Not really. Kinda, in a way).
Oh, but if this chapter doesn’t wow you, head over to Primordial Ink and gaze at my latest keyboard. It’s in the Ice Age, called Frost Byte, and it’s kinda pretty.
It was a game. Or game board of some kind. Bryce knew deep down this had to be a dream. Everything was dark, inky black except for the image floating before him. A game board, shimmering blue and black, with a large multi-colored globe supported in its center. Bryce stared at the orb, fascinated by the look of it. Nothing was reflecting on its surface, yet it appeared to reflect everything. He wished Mac was here to see it. He’d know what it meant, or what it was trying to tell him. Only he wasn’t here. Wherever here was.
It was a nightmare.
Bryce looked around, straining to see beyond the darkness. He could hear breathing, feel a warmth nearby. But it wasn’t Mac. Everywhere he looked, the game board appeared before him. He was beginning to panic. The breathing grew louder, closer. His fear grew, but there was nowhere to hide, and nowhere to go.
Slowly, he looked up. Moving toward him through the blackness was a face. It was one of them!
“No!” Bryce’s shout brought him out of the darkness with a violent thrust of his arm. The hand touching his forehead was pushed aside, but another pressed over his chest.
“Bryce, lie still. You’re not well.”
“Get away from me!” Bryce lunged sideways, falling from the bed he’d been on with a thud. Pain stabbed through his temples, threatening to make him sick as he struggled to focus. “Where is he?!” What little he could see he recognized as Teacher’s room.
Mac wasn’t here.
“Bryce, you have to lie still! The effects of a stun at close range won’t wear off for another hour.”
Hands grabbed his arms and tried to pull him back up to the bed, but Bryce twisted out of their grip. He was on the floor, fighting back the urge to be sick as the pain throbbed through his entire skull. “Get away from me!” One quick burst of anger managed to get him flipped over and into a sitting position, backing away from Teacher as the man was reaching down for him again. “Where’s Mac? Where is he?”
Teacher finally seemed to take the hint and stopped trying to touch him. He stood a few feet away, looking worried. “He’s safe, don’t worry. Nothing is going to happen to him.”
Bryce clenched his jaw tightly, fighting through a wave of pain and nausea. He didn’t remember anything after that guard pushed him aside, but he remembered the strong sense of danger. It was the same thing he was feeling now.
“They have him locked up, you can’t get in there.” Teacher stepped forward again, then stopped when Bryce glared at him. “He’s perfectly safe right now, so are you. Really, you have to lie still.”
Teacher was coming at him again, so Bryce grabbed the wall beside him and pulled himself to his feet. A wave of dizziness came over him suddenly, and for an instant he was floating above everything, spots dancing in his vision. He regained control before falling back down to the dirt floor. Teacher stopped in his tracks, hands outstretched.
“You really must rest.”
“Why is this happening?” The question was more to himself than anything, a way to focus through the pain and keep on his feet.
“I don’t know. I think he knows you and the Captain were going to find the tunnel, and help us all leave. This is his way of stopping you.”
Bryce stared at the old man. He didn’t even try to hide his anger. Teacher was standing between him and the exit, and given Bryce’s condition could probably prevent any attempt to leave. But he had to try. He’d have to get back to their cave, get those shields and find Mac. Why JD had taken only him wasn’t clear. He probably figured he had nothing to fear.
He was wrong.
“Get out of my way.” Bryce took a deep breath and pushed himself away from the wall, praying it hadn’t been the only thing holding him up. The pain was almost blinding, but he used the momentum of his push to propel him toward the doorway.
“You have to rest.” Teacher stepped forward, arms reaching out to stop him.
“No!” Bryce spun around and brought a fist up, connecting with the man’s jaw through some strange providence. His follow-through nearly brought him back to the floor himself, but the wall was still close enough to stop him from going down. “Stay away from me.”
Bryce pushed off the rocks again and managed to stumble through the opening and out into the corridor. His head was throbbing badly, blurring his vision in waves as he felt his way down the walkway, both hands using the wall for guidance. There was no telling what time it was, or how long he’d been unconscious in Teacher’s rooms. No telling where Mac was, or what was happening to him. And no way of knowing how to save him.
By the time he stumbled his way back to the room he and his partner had been sharing, Bryce was sweating. The throbbing in his head altered into a stabbing pain every fifth step and it was getting harder to breathe. Several people he passed in the corridors seemed to want to help him, but he managed to send them away with a threatening glance.
It felt like an eternity when he got to the room. His first instinct was to shut the heavy curtain and put up the shield, giving him the time he’d need to locate Mac. That simple task wasn’t easy, with his vision coming and going, but he finally managed a secure seal after the third try. His metal-working glove was still where he’d left it, so he quickly forced the unit over his right hand and turned it on. Another stabbing pain doubled him over momentarily. When he recovered, he sat on one of the sleeping-pallets and waited for his eyesight to clear up again.
He had to find Mac. Wherever he was, he’d be doing what he could to get out. Unless he’d been injured. Bryce had no memory of anything after the blast, he had no way of knowing if Mac had been shot as well, or worse. Teacher said he was fine, for now. But that man had lied before. No, it was up to him. Mac would be depending on him.
It took a bit of fine tuning, but after he found the frequency Mac’s earring had been set to, the glove responded as ordered. The display on the back of his arm panel lit up, showing a small red dot, then a smaller green one that indicated where he was in relation to his subject.
“Yes!” It worked! Even the silver in the cavern walls couldn’t interrupt the signal of a worked piece of metal. The display showed Mac was higher up, probably the level of JD’s cave, but farther into the mountain. That was all he needed to know. Now it was just a matter of finding his way up there through the maze of tunnels and walkways and breaking Mac out of whatever restraint they had him in. Then they could get the hell out of here and go home!
Bryce turned off the glove and set it aside long enough to take off his shirt and toss it to the floor. He found the sweatshirt Mac had given him and pulled it over his head. The stabbing between his eyes hit just as he pulled the warm shirt down. He winced, pressing a hand into his forehead to push back at the pain, then stumbled forward. Some instinct he never had before sent him straight for Mac’s sleeping-pallet and the pile of furs there. The momentum allowed him to fall onto the bed just as he lost consciousness.
There was no nightmare this time. Just a slow crawling back to awareness. Bryce felt the pelts under his back, cushioning him where he’d fallen. In his head he could hear Mac’s voice, telling him not to move until the pain stopped. But the fact that Mac’s voice was in his head, and not right there gently speaking into his ear, made him force both eyes open. The stabbing between his temples was greatly reduced, and only throbbed from deep inside now. Gingerly, he rolled onto his side and got into a sitting position. No nausea threatened to make him sick, no black spots clouded his vision.
But how long had it been? Bryce fought back a sudden fear and dug into his pocket for Mac’s chronometer. Sunset was in three hours. Why was that important? He put the watch back and looked around the vacant room. There was still no way of knowing what time he’d woken up in Teacher’s room, or what JD had in mind for them both. He retrieved the glove and put it back on, then checked for Mac’s position again.
As the machine scanned the frequency, he saw another red blip appear on his display, larger than Mac’s earring and on another setting. Frustrated, he altered the output and found Mac again, right where he’d seen him before. Wherever he was, above the cave and deeper in the mountain, Bryce knew that earring was vibrating slightly from the signal. Mac would at least know he was all right, and looking for him.
Which he had to do now, before the sun set. Bryce found the other shield and examined it quickly. He had no idea how these new units were supposed to work, but he had seen Mac make some adjustments before the other one would shield their doorway. There was a belt clip, so he attached the small unit to his belt, display facing up, and flipped the switch.
Instantly a blue bubble appeared around him. Bryce froze in fear for a second, then looked around. He was inside a shimmering blue haze, covered from head to toe, and on all sides, with approximately two feet between him and the shield all around. Every part of him was protected, except his feet where they still touched the dirt floor. Slowly, he held a hand out toward the side and felt the solid energy wall. His hand wouldn’t push through, so touching or manipulating anything from inside was out of the question. But if this thing could stop another blast from those stun guns, he might be in business.
Bryce flipped the unit off and secured it more tightly to his belt. He needed a weapon, not just a defense, but there wasn’t time to fashion one. There wasn’t time for anything anymore. The maze of tunnels awaited, and the pain in his head was manageable now. He shut down the other shield and pushed back the curtain. The hallway was empty, so he stepped out and headed down to the first cross-section. Voices drifted up from the cavern below, and down from several caves to his left. Bryce felt his heart begin to pound in his chest. Mac wasn’t here to use as a barrier. He didn’t know how these people would react to him if they saw he was alone.
Quickly he continued down and to the right, then up a rise to another level. It was a maze indeed. All the time they’d spent in these caves so far, he’d paid little attention to anything but the way back to their cave from wherever they wandered to. Now he was having to make the choices, and find a route to a section he’d never seen. All he knew was up and in, where the signal was.
The trail he was on seemed to be heading in the proper direction, so he followed it. At the third cave he passed, a woman stepped out, reaching for him.
“Is it time?”
Bryce jumped to the other side of the tunnel, pressing his back into the rock wall. He stared at the woman but said nothing.
“Is it time?” She stopped where she was, looking puzzled. “We’re ready now.”
There were others in the cave, two small children and an older man. Bryce’s heart was racing. “Leave me alone.” He moved along the wall until he was away from the cave’s mouth, then hurried up the tunnel again, hearing nothing behind him. Several yards away the tunnel bent to the left and he was out of sight. He slowed his pace slightly and swallowed to moisten his fear-parched throat. God, let this be the way! Why couldn’t they all leave him alone, like they had for the past ten years?
The tunnel continued, narrowing in spots, then expanded out and bent into other cave rooms. Now and then the occupants would rush to their entrances and reach out for him, always asking if it was time. Bryce managed to avoid their outstretched hands and pleading glances, but he was shaking after twenty minutes of dodging strange faces. Twice he stopped to check the signal again, always finding it in the same place, but closer with each try. The trail had to be correct, it kept going up and back, and while it detoured into several room-filled dead ends, the main path continued on.
He was just about to consider himself safe when he rounded another section and found a large group, staring at him with expectant faces. Bryce froze, his hand darting to the shield on his hip.
“We’re ready. Will you take us back now?” One woman, a blonde about his age, stepped forward.
“No.” Bryce shook his head, then turned to run.
“They’re ready to leave, Bryce.” Teacher blocked his way, hands outstretched.
Bryce stopped in his tracks, staring at the old man. Behind him were another couple of dozen people, all pushing forward. He blinked, feeling a deep rooted terror well up inside. Each of the people surrounding him carried several rugs rolled up into bags, heavy with their contents. They were all dressed in several layers of the robes they wore, as if ready for a long journey.
“Leave me alone!” Bryce glared back at Teacher. “I’m not taking any of you anywhere, I need to find Mac!”
“It’s time, Bryce!” Teacher took a step forward. “JD is too distracted now, he won’t stop anyone. This is far too important for him, now’s the time to make our escape.”
Distracted by what? Mac’s murder? Damn, if only he had a weapon! “I’m not going anywhere. You know where your tunnel is. Leave.”
“We need you to open it.”
Teacher stepped closer again and Bryce backed up, but the crowd behind him began to close in. Desperate, he moved to the side and found a short passageway in the hard rock wall. He ducked through, then into a large open chamber with an imposing slab of silver pressed up against one wall. A dead end!
Bryce spun around, his hand on the shield again. He didn’t know if he could run with the unit active or not. He cursed himself for having passed out in the cave, losing that much precious time. If he’d stayed awake, he might have taken the time to build himself a weapon out of the metal in the walls.
They were rushing in now, into the chamber. “Open it!”
“The door, Bryce! Open the door!” Teacher pointed to the silver slab. “Hurry, he’ll be too busy with them after sunset, we’ll be safe!”
“Get away from me!” Bryce ripped the shield from his belt and held it in front of him. If he pointed it right, it might act like the one that had sealed their door. Then he’d be able to move.
“They aren’t going to.” Teacher stepped closer, waving one arm behind him to indicate the people massing outside the chamber. “They’ve waited too long. Open the door, Bryce. Let them go home.”
Unbelievable! For ten years they’d left him alone. LEFT him! Now they wanted him to let them go home? Anger took hold where fear had him paralyzed moments before. An anger like none he had ever known. Pure hatred.
It was almost calming.
“Let you go home?!” He glared at Teacher, then let his gaze cover the people he could see from where he was standing. Two people visibly flinched. “The home you left ten years ago? The home you left me alone in?” He returned his stare to Teacher. “There is no home for you. This is your home!” He knew these people wouldn’t let him leave, probably wouldn’t let him live, if he didn’t somehow open that door and let them out. Fine, let them go. Let them run like the cattle they were. They didn’t matter. None of them mattered! He had to find Mac.
With an angry shake of his head, Bryce spun around to face the silver “door”. There were hinges worked into the other side, but no handle facing out. He stepped up to it and flipped on the miner’s glove still secured to his right hand. With the unit on maximum spread, he thrust his entire hand through the softening metal on the far left. As soon as he felt his hand break through the other side, he felt around till he found the mechanism holding the door closed. Wherever he moved his arm, the silver yielded softly and hardened again where his hand no longer searched. Within seconds he’d found a handle and pulled it. Gears hummed from somewhere behind the metal and he pulled his hand back out in time to see the huge door begin to open.
Bryce turned back to the crowd and pointed behind him at the opening. “There! There’s your damn door! Run!” He glared at Teacher while people began to rush by, through the open tunnel. “Now get away from me.” The stillness in his voice was a surprise, and the older man reacted with several rapid blinks.
“I– You’ll have to hurry. JD is taking them both outside.” Teacher swallowed several times. “He– That is we all– They’re just scientists, Bryce. Colonists. They haven’t done any of this on purpose.”
Bryce narrowed his eyes in contempt. “Take them and go. I’ve never needed any of you.” He dismissed them all with a wave of one hand, then forced his way through the group trying to push their way to the door. It was almost more than he could handle.
He wanted to scream by the time he burst out of the crowd, back in the tunnel. Finally free from the pressing mass of people, Bryce ran quickly up the trail, away from the pilgrimage. He was running blind now, but his need to be as far from those people was too strong. Thoughts were spinning around in his head too quickly for any of them to make sense, so he ran and kept on running, higher and deeper into the mountainside. Searching for Mac.
Until he reached the dead end.
“NO!” Bryce slammed both fists into the rock wall, so hard he broke the skin on every knuckle of his left hand. He turned on the glove again, undamaged by his action, and found the red blip. It couldn’t have been more than ten yards away, but unbelievably it was on the other side of the dead end. He’d traveled the wrong path! “Mac!” His shout echoed off the uncaring rock. “Dammit!”
“It’s an easy mistake.”
Bryce spun around, pressing his back into the wall. “Where is he?!” He glared at JD and the three guards facing him, but stayed as far away from them physically as the rock wall would allow.
“This place is full of winding dead ends and misdirection.” Duffield smiled benignly. “It took us months to figure them all out.”
“Your people are leaving.” Bryce’s gaze darted from JD to each guard and back again. They outnumbered him, that was obvious. But if he really could move with this shield active, he might stand a chance.
“It’s no matter.” JD dismissed the concern with a wave of one hand. “I’ll have them all back soon enough. After you’ve helped me.”
“Helped you?” Bryce nearly laughed, but was glad he didn’t. His voice was beginning to betray his nervousness. “I’m not helping you do anything. What have you done with my friend?”
JD sighed and shook his head. “I knew you’d feel that way. That’s why I’ve enlisted the help of Captain Brennan.”
Bryce’s heart skipped a beat with a surge of apprehension.
“You’ll help me, for his sake.”
The glove was still turned on, and still tracking. Bryce shot a quick glance down at the display. The blip that was Mac’s earring had moved. It appeared to be outside the caverns now, heading east. Oh God, what time was it? “What are you doing? Where are you taking him?”
“Outside.” JD’s smile vanished and his guards drew their stun weapons. “I didn’t have time to wait for the full moon, so they’re being taken to the temple. Humans aren’t allowed there after sunset, no matter what night it is.”
Bryce tensed, ready to make his break. If the shield didn’t move with him, those guns would take him down quickly. He was either going to make it or die trying. “You’re going to kill him.”
“No, you are.”
It was faster than he thought. No more than a split second passed between flipping the switch and the shield coming on all around him. There was no time to waste for effect. Bryce just started running as fast as he could, hoping the shield would at least let him barrel into the guards if it didn’t follow along. But it did. Two of JD’s men were caught off guard, then knocked to the ground by the force field surrounding Bryce as he ran. Three shots from a stun gun slammed into the back of the blue shield and bounced off harmlessly.
Bryce ran as fast as he could, trying hard not to think about how the protective energy wall moved with him. As he rounded a large bend, he came upon more of the colonists rushing into the tunnel chamber, making their escape. He used the shield as a battering ram, and quickly found a clear path through the crowd. Behind him, he heard screaming, and more shots as JD’s men encountered the fleeing masses. Ahead, a path immediately formed for Bryce to run through unimpeded, so he took full advantage.
Racing back the way he’d come was a simple matter of running upstream from the fear-stricken colonists running for their freedom. Bryce reached the center of the cavern with a good five turns on JD and his guards. He flipped off the shield, afraid of draining it too quickly, then ran down the trails he did know to the bottom level. Something in him demanded he pause near the door and he obeyed, not knowing why at first. The huge curtain was drawn closed, and the caverns were a confused jumble of humans rushing about, some screaming in panic, some demanding everyone stay calm. Apparently not all the colonists wanted to leave, or they were too afraid to try. Bryce glanced around, wondering what it was that had brought him to a stand still.
Then he saw it. On the wall beside the smaller exit, a section of rock had been rubbed clear, probably where people passed each other on the narrow trail. There was a shimmering section of silver glinting at him from under a thin layer of dust. Bryce turned on the glove and quickly scooped out a small handful of the metal, then let it harden in his palm as he pushed the curtain aside and rushed out. He could make a blade pretty easily, something sharp to use as a weapon.
But nothing he could build would stop the sun from dipping below the horizon. “No!” It wasn’t due to set for another two hours! Madly he pulled Mac’s watch from his pocket. It was stuck on the same hour as the last time he’d checked. Broken! He’d wasted all this time, followed a blind trail, let the colonists delay him for so long, and now he was going to be too late!
“There he is! Follow him!”
Bryce shot a glance over his shoulder. JD was in his window, high above the cavern entrance, pointing down at him. Nothing mattered anymore. Time, the sun, the moon, the colonists still rushing about in complete confusion. Nothing. All that mattered now was how close to Mac he could get before they both died.
So he ran.
He ran with a single-mindedness that blocked out all thoughts of followers, the darkening sky, or what shadows might come. He ran through the open field, stumbling over rocks and clumps of earth. He ran till he reached the ridge, then climbed it at a steeper point than they had the other day. Once at the top, a cramp in his side forced him to pause, panting heavily. Sweat was soaking his hair, making it cling uncomfortably to the back of his neck. The shirt he wore was trying to compensate for the temperature changes, but had a hard time keeping his body cooled. His back and chest were dripping wet, and the silver medallion around his neck had come out from under the shirt to slap him on the chin with every other step. The metal at least felt cool on his skin.
When the cramp subsided enough to allow him to move, he started running again, headlong down the opposite side of the ridge. Ahead lay the river, then the steeper climb beyond that, and the plateau further on.
Bryce’s lungs were burning. It was twilight now, and harder to see where he was putting his feet. They spent such a brief moment on the ground during his mad flight, it hardly seemed important. Until he drew closer to the river. The ground there had more rocks in hidden clumps of taller grass. He fell hard on his knees twice before trying to look more carefully. It slowed his pace a bit, but staying upright took less time than recovering from the falls, so he continued to scan the ground ahead for stones, barely visible in the bright moon light.
He reached the river’s edge and collapsed, cursing his cramping muscles. Each breath had to be dragged into lungs screaming for a rest. The water was deep where he’d fallen, but the current was mild enough for an easy swim, if he could just get up! It took three tries, but Bryce finally got back to his feet. Just then he heard splashing to his left. Four figures, human, crossed the river several yards away, heading back in the opposite direction.
Bryce knew without being able to see them clearly that Mac wasn’t among them. A renewed sense of urgency fueled him forward, into the river. The cold water cooled the sweat and soaked his hair flat against his face and neck. It was a short swim, but exhausting in his already spent condition. He had to drag himself up the opposite bank with the help of a few well placed boulders, then used them to push off and stumble forward.
The second ridge ahead was steeper and composed of loose rock and dirt that made the climb complete torture. One misplaced foot nearly sent him crashing to the bottom, but he found his footing again and reached the top, nearly collapsing again. Now the plateau was visible.
He was going to make it!
Just in time to die, no doubt. But he was going to make it. Bryce leaned forward and let himself fall to his knees for a quick rest. The silver he’d scooped out of the rock had solidified around his right hand, staying there with no effort. Quickly, he turned the glove back on and shaped the glob into a crude but very sharp blade, then turned the unit off with a section of the handle still unformed. That allowed the silver to harden while still attached to his right hand. He could go down fighting, and never lose the weapon. Not that it would do him any good, unless he had some more of JD’s men to fight off before the end.
“Please, Mac, be alive.” No sooner had he panted out his whispered prayer, he saw movement from the corner of his eye. He froze, rasping breath caught in his throat. Slowly, Bryce turned his head.
Behind him, at the bottom of the ridge he’d just climbed, sat two of them. Large, black winged bodies squatted on the grass while curious eyes watched him. It was a nightmare. If he played his cards right, at least the nightmare would end quickly this time.
Quickly and forever.
Bryce turned back and got to his feet. There was nothing he could do but press on and wait. Death would come from behind, above, or in front, but it would come tonight. God willing he’d reach Mac in time to give him a fighting chance. Years of terror-filled nightmares made movement hard, but he finally managed to get in motion again. All he had to do was climb the plateau, find Mac, and if he was still alive, get him freed. The blade in his hand felt strong and cold, deceptively useful. Bryce focused all the concentration he could muster on his only task, pushing away thoughts, and sounds, of the animals all around him. It was dark now. The night sky filled with twinkling stars and a nearly full moon. Bright, white light bathed the landscape around him and caused the giant silver structure ahead to glow softly. As he drew closer, he heard a voice.
“He betrayed me! It was only supposed to be you out here!”
Eckland. Bryce hadn’t even thought of him. At least he would die, too. He looked ahead and saw heavy ropes wrapped around the huge silver arm nearest him. Mac must be tied to that rope, inside the meeting place.
“It’s all his fault, I’m telling you! He’s a madman!”
Shut up, you fool! Didn’t he know better than to make so much noise? But was Mac still alive? No, he had to be. Who else would Eckland be ranting on to?
“Oh my God, they’re all around us!”
Bryce reached the platform and dashed around the arm. The silver around him glowed brightly, but his eyes saw only his friend, tied by both hands to the rope wrapped around the base of the metal arm.
“Bryce!” Mac’s urgent whisper accompanied a quick shake of his head. “No, there’s no time! The shield, Bryce! Protect yourself!”
He couldn’t speak. All the running and the fear had left him completely breathless. Bryce fell to his knees beside Mac and reached around for the ropes, blocking out all knowledge of the black, shadowy figures assembling on the silver floor behind him. The knife was sharp, but the ropes too thick to make a quick cut.
“Get me out of here!” Eckland’s voice cracked with fear. He leaned toward Mac but couldn’t quite touch shoulders. “Hurry, they’re here!”
It took an eternity to get one of his friend’s hands free. When he did, Mac reached immediately for the shield strapped to Bryce’s waist.
“No!” Bryce pushed his hand away and the shield fell from his belt.
“Bryce, put it on!”
“No!” He’d rather die first, than be protected under that energy field with a full, clear view of his friend’s death.
He reached for the rope binding Mac’s other wrist, praying the creatures would wait a few seconds more. Their eyes met in that instant and Bryce paused.
Mac opened his mouth to speak, but before he could say a word, the silver arm he was tied to started to change color.
Even Eckland stopped his ranting. Bryce stared up at the metal, his task forgotten. Behind him a low hum echoed, deep and animal. As the sound changed pitch, the silver arm changed color. Blues, teals, purples and greens flowed up the arm to the top, then began again in the same pattern from the base, moving slowly upward. It was mesmerizing, and eerily familiar. Then all too quickly, it was gone.
“Get behind me!” Mac shouted this time, loud enough to snap Bryce out of his daze.
But it was too late.
Bryce managed one more swipe at the rope with his blade before he felt the heavy, clawed hand dig into his right shoulder. Mac reached out with his one free hand but only managed to grab the side of the miner’s glove as Bryce was pulled backward, off his feet.
He hadn’t even been able to drop the knife. Mac’s failed grab had switched on the glove, softening the metal in his hand, but Bryce hadn’t let go in time. Death began in slow motion, and all sound seemed to stop as he was spun around to face his attacker. The creature dropped him on his ass in front of Mac, then stared down at him from a terrifying height. It was the biggest one Bryce had ever seen. He suddenly found it odd that he’d so rarely looked at these animals before. Odder still that he’d be filled with such a strange, calm detachment at the moment of his death. Behind him, he could hear Mac straining against the rope still holding one wrist to the pillar. He was glad to be the first, but he wished the older man wasn’t there to watch.
The animal before him stood, stretching to its full height on solid rear legs. With wings extended, it drew back its massive head and prepared to make the kill. Bryce vaguely registered the cluster of creatures gathered behind this big one, watching with quiet interest. The slight vibration of the glove on his right hand itched, and the silver he was holding had lost all shape.
The black gargoyle roared.
Suddenly Bryce brought his right hand up, palm facing outward. “Urqwoyah!”
A silence followed his outburst. A silence nearly as deafening as the creature’s roaring had been. Bryce opened eyes he hadn’t realized he’d shut and found himself staring into the ghoulish face just inches from his own.
“Don’t move.” Mac’s hushed command was the only sound on the plateau.
“Urqwoyah.” He tried the word again at a more modest volume. The word was unfamiliar to his ears, but felt natural on his tongue. His right arm was shaking, so he lowered it slowly, keeping his palm faced out. “Urqwoyah.” Bryce glanced at the silver glob in his hand. As he spoke, the silver changed color, rippling a pattern of green and brown over the surface of the metal. He swallowed hard, staring at the colors until a loud, multi-voiced clamor scared him spitless.
Every creature gathered around them lifted their heads and chimed in, wings extended.
“My God, look at that.”
Mac’s exclamation caught Bryce’s attention and he looked up. The silver all around them was swimming in color. Various patterns ran from the floor up each arm to the top, then began again at the floor. Everything around them was brightly lit, shimmering in brilliant hues of every color imaginable.
It was too much! Bryce fought a wave of weakness brought on by extreme sensory overload and physical exhaustion. Just as he feared he might pass out, the voices stopped. He blinked, staring at the large beast in front of him. Was it over? What the hell had he just done?
Before he could react, the animal reached a massive hand toward his chest, touching the medallion there. Bryce’s heart skipped a beat as he waited for the claws to tear into his flesh. But after a close examination, the creature let go of the medal.
“What’s happening here?”
Bryce told himself to start breathing again before trying to answer Mac. He started to turn his head when suddenly the creature loomed over him again. There was no time to cry out. There never seemed to be time for anything anymore. Bryce couldn’t even move his head before the animal lurched downward and scooped him into a massive embrace.
Heavily muscled arms pulled him to his feet while both wings wrapped around his body, pulling him firmly but gently against the animal’s warm figure. Bryce’s heart had stopped. At least he was pretty sure it had. He knew for a fact his mind had frozen, blank with fear. The beating he heard in his right ear was the heart of the creature holding him, but soon it was joined by a pounding in his own chest. A strange sensation washed over him then, pushing out the fear. The body holding him was soft like worked leather and covered in very fine, short hair. Bryce could hear a low humming, like a purr, emanating from deep within the animal. It was comforting, and seemed to be settling Bryce’s shock and fear, smoothing it out into a gentle calm.
Just as he wanted to pull out of the warm embrace, Bryce felt the wings around him open up, then the arms holding him close allowed him room to move. Dazed and still shaking, he backed away one step and looked at the creature, swallowing hard to moisten a dried throat.
“He–he remembers me.” His voice cracked from the exhaustion and Bryce turned to look at Mac. “He remembers me.” Before his friend could answer, he turned back toward the animal, then pointed to Mac and held out his silver-filled hand again. What was the word? Strangely sounding syllables were running rampantly through his mind. Words that hadn’t been there years–or even minutes–ago. “Um . . . Shavid.” He glanced at the silver and saw the pattern of purple and gold swirl together, created by the vibration of both glove and voice. “Shavid.” Bryce swallowed again, nervously watching both the colors and the animal. He turned toward Mac again and pointed. “Shavid.”
“What is that?” Mac met his gaze, then glanced at the creature moving toward him with curious eyes.
“Ah . . . Either “friend” or “a fish.” I’m not sure which.” Bryce shrugged apologetically, then held his breath as the animal approached Mac. The other creatures had gathered closer and now watched every move with intense interest. “Don’t move.”
“Don’t worry.” Mac shot him a look that proved moving was the last thing on his agenda. Very slowly, the large creature reached out and touched the medallion secured around Mac’s neck. Bryce breathed a sigh of relief for whatever small providence had caused his friend to steal the metal when he found it, but an underlying fear kept him on edge, waiting for any bizarre twist that would turn this nightmare into chaos.
The old voice in his head that kept screaming at him to run grew more faint with each passing second. After a thorough examination of the necklace, the large one stood and turned its head to the others, then called out a series of grunts and purrs that lit up the area in color waves.
It wasn’t fish! The relief was overwhelming, but Bryce was still too afraid to give in to it. Every move the creatures made startled him.
“I take it I’m not a fish, then?” Mac glanced up, eyes still wide with wonder. “Will they let you get this rope off?”
It took a second for Mac’s words to register. “Oh, right.” Bryce knelt again and reached for the knot holding his friend’s wrist. Before he could being to untie it, several clawed hands pushed his away, and the rope was pulled apart in seconds, freeing Mac to stand.
Bryce clutched Mac’s arm with his left hand and let out the breath he felt he’d been holding for days. “I thought I’d lost you.”
“I thought you lost both of us for a minute there, kid.” Mac put both hands on Bryce’s shoulders, glancing first at the largest of the animals, still standing close. He turned and met his friend’s gaze. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” Bryce nodded, glancing at the animals all around them. “It’s coming back, believe it or not.” A soft grunting interrupted them and Bryce turned to face the creature, now sitting on its haunches. “These are the ones who taught me the language.” He held out the silver still soft in his right hand. “I can’t believe I ever forgot this.”
“So . . . they recognize you now?”
“Yes.” He nodded toward the other animals gathered around. “Under that shield, they couldn’t see the medallion. And I wasn’t communicating.”
“Will someone communicate with me, here?” Eckland called out nervously from where he was still bound.
Both men ignored him.
Bryce held his hand out to the group surrounding them and struggled through his rusty memory for the proper terms. “Um . . . Eeu naqua. I . . . damn, it’s there, but–”
“They’re listening.” Mac spoke softly and gave Bryce’s shoulder a gentle squeeze of encouragement.
“Eeu naqua, sayah dromm.” The patterns swirled and skittered over the silver, holding everyone’s attention. Bryce added body language to his words, patting his forehead, then his chest, before pointing to his audience. “I told them I missed them, in my head.” He glanced at Mac. “I hope.”
His partner’s grin was quickly followed by a movement behind the large animal. Immediately it stepped aside, and motioned for the smaller creature behind it to come forward. Bryce stared in disbelief at the smaller animal stepping forward, wings folded tightly to its side. This one was obviously old, with heavy gray lines around the muzzle and head. It approached, staring back at Bryce, until it was close enough to reach out and touch his forehead. With a surprisingly gentle finger, the hair covering his face was pushed aside, and a claw slowly traced the scar.
Bryce had to remember to breathe again when the hand moved away.
When it finished the examination, the animal turned and faced the others, who quickly gathered around. Each of them placed a hand on the silver floor, and a series of grunts, hums, purrs and calls caused multifaceted color patterns to dance and swirl all around them.
“What’s going on?” Mac leaned toward Bryce but kept his eyes on the spectacle before them.
“I–I’m not sure.” He stared at the colors, trying to follow the patterns as sections became familiar. “They . . . They’re talking about what happened. The complex, and . . . me.” There were so many different sections of bright, fluorescent colors streaming about, he was getting confused. “They always talk too fast.”
“But you understand what they’re saying?” Mac watched the colors with equal interest.
“Some of it, yes.” Bryce shook his head in wonder at the information pounding inside his skull. Information that had eluded him for so many years. “They thought I was dead. I think . . .” Bryce followed one pattern as it ran up a silver arm. “I think they thought the animals killed me.”
“Animals?” Mac shot a glance at Eckland. “You mean Duffield?”
Bryce nodded. “Anything that doesn’t communicate is an animal. Food.” He swallowed hard, pushing away those thoughts for the moment. “They never understood the species idea.”
“So, for them, everyone is an individual? Interesting.” Mac pointed to the largest one in the group. “He recognized you from the medallion, then?”
“He read it, so he knows who I am. I don’t remember him, though. I remember the biggest one as being the first, the one who made these.” Bryce touched his necklace, then pointed at Mac’s. “But if you found that, then he’s dead.”
“What do we do now?”
Before Bryce could think of an answer, the meeting broke up. Several black bodies lunged into the air and flew off in many different directions, while others stayed close and continued to confer together. The large one turned and walked back to Mac, glancing for a moment at Bryce.
He sat on massive haunches, then touched his head with one clawed hand, purring loudly. Bryce looked up at the pattern of color on the silver arm. The creature then moved his hand and touched his own chest, purring again. The colors changed pattern slightly, running up the structure. Then, it leaned forward. With a gentle touch, the heavy hand rested on Mac’s head, then moved with uncommon grace to his chest.
Mac remained motionless, and apparently quite calm. When the hand pulled back, he looked at Bryce. “I think I passed.”
“He said, if I saw that right . . .” Bryce glanced again at the silver, then looked at the animal watching Mac. “He remembered you from that night. That night under the shield.” He looked at his friend, suppressing a shudder at the memory. “He finds you brave and honorable.”
A smile tugged at the corner of Mac’s mouth and he glanced back at the animal in front of him.
“So do I.” Bryce added.
“If this love fest is over, would one of you get me loose?”
Even the gargoyles ignored Eckland.
“How do I thank him?” Mac turned to Bryce. “Does body language play enough of a part with them?”
Bryce could only nod and smile. He watched as his friend returned the hand gestures, touching the huge black creature on his head, then his chest. When he finished, the large one roared at the sky, startling both men, then wrapped Mac up in a huge, warm embrace. Bryce would have laughed if he’d had any strength left in him. The sight of his friend’s strong body, completely enveloped in a massive, black-winged hug was almost as comical as it was heart-warming.
When the animal released Mac, it stepped back and sat on his haunches again. Deadly teeth glistened white as a smile formed on the frightening face.
“This is a bit . . . overwhelming.” Mac glanced at Bryce, then smiled with almost child-like delight. “Will they talk with us?”
“If I can remember the words, yes. They want to.” Bryce swallowed and looked down at the silver in his hand. His head felt as if it had been suddenly over-filled with information. Sifting through it all wasn’t easy.
The smaller of the two creatures purred a series of tones and patted the floor. Both men took the hint and sat down, side by side. Her face was much smaller than the large male’s, and her smile a little less grotesque. A soft blue/lavender mix of circles flowed over the silver floor and up one arm, and she pointed a delicate, clawed finger at the pattern.
Bryce stared at the colors, concentrating on the shift as they moved up. “Told animals killed . . . you.” He glanced at Mac. “She was told the animals killed me.”
“Who told her?”
“Um . . . Let me see.” Bryce looked at the silver in his hand, trying to remember the proper set of sounds. “Aka neeyou?” I hope. He watched the colors shift and move over the glob, noticing both animals’ and his partner’s close scrutiny.
The large male answered with a deep rumble that sent a flash of red with two smaller sections of pink in the center up one silver arm.
“That’s Five! That’s the pattern for Five.” Recognizing the pattern so easily gave Bryce an immense sigh of relief. Then the answer hit home. “But . . .”
“That means Five was speaking with them after Duffield left.” Mac caught the implication as well. He sighed deeply, then shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. We’ll find out from him later.”
“Excuse me! Have we all forgotten something here?”
No one even spared Eckland a glance.
“Okay, so how are you doing this?” Mac pointed at the glove. “You’re using words, but they only purr and grunt. And I’ve seen you work metal before while talking, nothing ever showed up then.”
Bryce held his hand out in front of him. “You’ve never seen me work this frequency, and talk at the same time.”
Mac blinked at the silver, watching the colors course over its surface. They both glanced at their audience and found them nodding slowly, watching them.
“They understand I’m teaching you something, but my words don’t make sense to them.” The colors changed and swirled with each word. “I can’t explain how I figured this out. Maybe I never really did, maybe it was Five, or an accident.” Bryce shook his head. “All I know is, when the tuner is set to this frequency, and only this frequency, and you speak, the vibrations of your voice reflect through the metal.”
“And you’ve never used this frequency, in all that time you were teaching Carl how to do this?”
Bryce shrugged. “I keep this one for myself. I didn’t remember why until now, but it’s the same one I used when I made your earring.” He pointed to the small hoop of silver hanging from Mac’s ear. “So I can find you, and not every other bit of metal people have made. It’s kinda like my private number.”
Mac’s face broke out in a wide grin. “Damn, you’re a clever one.”
He wanted to laugh, but he was too tired.
“What about the words you’re using? They don’t even attempt any kind of pronunciation.” Mac nodded at the animals watching them.
“No, they don’t form words. I just watched them, the colors, when they’d show me a word. Then it took a while, but I figured out what combination of sounds I had to make in order to mimic the colors and pattern. It took forever sometimes, but I made them into words I could say.” He looked at the smaller one again and smiled slightly. “They were thrilled that night. I remember it now. She was there, and they were thrilled to have finally discovered intelligent life.”
Mac laughed and put a hand on Bryce’s shoulder. “So was I.” He pointed to the glove on Bryce’s hand. “Can you teach me how?”
“Oh, right! Yes.” Bryce flipped off the unit and slipped it off his hand, then put it over Mac’s right hand and turned it back on. He looked into his partner’s eyes. “Her name is Naya.”
The silver softened again in Mac’s hand instantly. He held it out and looked at the small female, meeting her curious gaze. “Naya.” The teal and gray spiral pattern flowed gently over the metal. Mac pointed to his chest. “Mac.” Another collection of color appeared, deep blue and bright aqua in bold, striking lines.
Bryce felt a warmth inside, watching the color pattern that was Mac’s name repeated by every creature there. The entire structure lit up with deep blue and bright aqua shimmering up each arm as every animal tried out the name, then repeated it twice for memory. When the color faded back to silver, the big male pointed to his chest and hummed, sending another wave of brown and deep wine up each arm.
“How do I figure that out?” Mac glanced at Bryce, eyebrows raised.
“I think he might be her son. Try something like her name, backwards.”
Mac cleared his throat softly and held out his right hand. “Yan . . . Na.”
With each syllable, colors appeared. Mac’s first try was almost perfect.
“Yes! That’s it!” Bryce pointed at the pattern, matching the brown and wine perfectly.
Again the room exploded in purrs and high-pitched calling as the excitement echoed through the metal. Yanai reached out and touched Mac’s shoulder, his huge grin exposing bone crushing teeth.
“I think I’ve made a friend.”
“I know you have.” Bryce sighed tiredly, then nodded at Naya. “She’s impressed.”
Mac turned to him. “What are they called? As a group, I mean. Do they have a name?”
“Shavid-eye. As near as I can tell it means family of friends.” Bryce felt the exhaustion creeping back, tugging at his mind and body. “They live for thousands of years. I remember him telling me once how old he was. The one that made the medallion. He was two thousand and something years old.” He shook his head in wonder at the information so readily available now. “Mac, I think that graveyard is the only one on this planet.”
“Are you serious?”
“I think every animal alive today, and every one in that cave, that’s all of them. From the beginning of time.” His vision blurred for a moment and he blinked rapidly to clear it.
“Okay, how do we tell them you’re exhausted?” Mac started to reach out with his right hand to touch Bryce’s face, then remembered the glove and stopped, staring him in the eyes.
“No, I don’t want to lose this yet.” Bryce shook his head. After all this time, all this loneliness and blind terror. To finally have some answers–real ones– He wasn’t ready to walk away yet. “It’s been too long. I need to understand all of this.”
Mac didn’t look convinced, but nodded anyway. “Okay.”
The big one hummed, and an actual question mark, in red, flowed over the floor.
Bryce pointed to the color, grinning despite his exhaustion. “Look! I taught them that! God, I can’t believe they remembered.”
Mac switched off the glove and let the silver drop into his left hand so he could rest his right one on Bryce’s head. A look of deep concern crossed his face and he turned to the smaller female. With two fingers of his left hand, he touched his temple, then one eye.
Bryce didn’t have to ask what Mac was trying to get across, but he did wonder how his friend figured out the body language to do it.
She nodded her understanding, then pointed at Mac and the silver in his hand.
“I think she wants to talk to you.” Bryce shifted his weight and pulled his legs out from under him. “They can teach you some words, and I’ll just watch. Okay?” Before Mac could answer, he scooted back until he could lean up against the silver arm Eckland was still tied to, ignoring the frustrated sounds coming from the man.
“I guess we’re safe enough now, huh?”
Bryce nodded, fighting a heaviness in his legs and arms.
After a moment’s hesitation, Mac stood and turned the glove back on. With silver glob in hand, he followed Naya to the first of the other Shavid-eye grouped around them and began the naming lesson.
“No–no hard feelings, right, kid?”
Bryce ignored Eckland. He leaned back, resting his head against the pillar, and watched his friend. Naya introduced each of the others, then waited with great patience while Mac tried out sounds and syllables until he was able to reproduce the colors and patterns of each. He followed the names as they coursed up the arms of the structure, enjoying the strange feeling of familiarity he’d never known before.
With each name, Mac found the matching sounds more and more quickly. Bryce realized with some surprise that he was feeling pride, watching his friend pick up so easily on something no one else seemed to understand. No one but him. Watching the colors was bringing it all back. The simple logic of a language so beautifully expressed, spoken by animals who understood intelligence in such a different way.
“You can’t leave me here, you know!”
Eckland’s shout started Bryce awake. Mac was kneeling beside him, reaching out to touch his shoulder. Something looked different.
“It’s almost sunrise. I think they want to say goodnight.” Mac moved to the side and Yanai approached.
Bryce forced his eyes open wide to wake himself up and sat forward, swallowing. Mac handed him the glove and he slipped it on easily, feeling the warmth from such long use.
Yanai purred and looked over his massive shoulder toward Eckland, still tied to the pillar.
Eckland stared at the beast, wide eyed. “What did it say? What did it say!?”
Bryce looked at Mac. “He asked if he was the one.” He glanced down at Eckland. “I said no.”
Yanai turned back to Bryce and rested a hand on his head, then purred again. As soon as the colors reached the top of the silver arm, he backed up.
“They’ll meet us again tomorrow.” Bryce flipped off the glove.
They watched the Shavid-eye, one by one, launch into the air and fly swiftly and soundlessly away.
“I can’t get over how beautiful their language is.” Mac shook his head, watching the last of them vanish into the rapidly lightening night sky.
“You understand, then? You saw it, just as clearly as I did?” Bryce scrambled to his feet, excitement quickly replacing his need for sleep.
Mac smiled, nodding. He put both hands on Bryce’s shoulders and looked him in the eyes. “Yes, I did. You’re not dreaming.”
“Thank God,” he breathed. The memories were real now. “What do we do now? About JD, I mean? Why did he bring you out here?”
“Don’t tell me it’s not obvious!” Eckland laughed shortly and both men turned to look at him. “Oh, forgive me, I forgot. Your mind doesn’t work that way. Well, let me help you out there.”
“Shut up, Eckland.” Mac ran a hand over his short hair and sighed.
“He needed you to remember how it was done.”
“JD?” Bryce looked at Mac. “He used you to force me to remember, didn’t he? So I could teach him. Is that it?”
“Bryce . . .”
“He used me.” Bryce’s eyebrows creased as he struggled to put things together. “He used me and I let him! I let him! You would have died if I hadn’t remembered!”
“But I didn’t! I didn’t remember until it was almost too late!”
Mac grabbed Bryce’s arms. “No, you did remember! Listen to me. The only thing you did tonight was save my life.” He paused, emphasizing his words with a firm grip on the shorter man’s arms. “That’s all that happened tonight. You saved my life. None of the rest matters.”
Bryce swallowed, staring up into bright blue eyes that never wavered. Slowly, he nodded. He wanted to believe that.
“There’s only one way out of this valley. You’ll still have to go back there.”
Mac inhaled slowly, reached out and gently pulled the glove from Bryce’s hand, then took the ball of silver and began to soften it, then mold it back into the shape of a blade. As soon as he had something sharp enough, he walked to Eckland and severed the ropes holding the man in place.
“This isn’t over.” Eckland shook free of his bonds then struggled to get to his feet, glaring at both of them.
Mac removed the glove and handed it back to Bryce. “Run away, Eckland.”
Nervously, the man backed up, stumbling several times. His gaze darted from Mac to Bryce and back again as he licked his lips. “It isn’t over. You have to go through him to get out of here.”
“Run away, Eckland!” Mac’s voice echoed off the silver pillars and set Eckland into motion. He dashed off the platform and ran, tripping and sliding, down the path toward the caverns. As soon as he was out of sight, Mac sighed deeply and stretched both arms high above his head.
“I’m sorry.” Bryce breathed. “This is all my fault. If only I–”
“No. It’s not your fault. This was all out of your hands, and mine. Duffield had this planned from the moment we stepped into that tunnel. I think, in fact, if we hadn’t come when we did, he would have come out looking for you.”
“I wouldn’t have helped him. I couldn’t.” Bryce shook his head and several long strands of hair fell in front of his right eye. “Until right now, I didn’t know how. I swear, it’s still coming back but I didn’t have it eight hours ago. It was you. I never could have gotten it back on my own.”
Mac laughed. “I hope fame and fortune never swell this head of yours, kid.”
He didn’t know what that meant, but he knew how he felt. “It won’t.” He turned to retrieve the glove. Sunlight on silver blinded him as the morning orb cleared the mountains.
They started off the platform, toward the path leading down to the valley.
“But, what about JD? Eckland was right, the only way out is through that tunnel.”
“Don’t worry about Duffield.” Mac secured the miner’s glove to his belt. “I think we’ve got friends in high places now.”