writing

Tick! Tock!

‘It’s got to be here!’ Landel yanked the crumpled map from his coat pocket, the carefully copied parchment that had been so pristine when they first set out on this insane venture was creased, damp, and food spotted.

”Well, unless it’s invisible, or I’ve suddenly gone blind, then we’re lost. Again!’ Ferran swatted aside a low hanging leaf that was three times bigger than her head, and got a face full of humid water for her troubles.

Landel turned those dark eyes on her and tried a smile. ‘I don’t think lost is the right word, more like, temporarily waylaid. I’m sure I’ll figure this map out before anything bad happens…Well, anything worse…’

‘You’re a maniac,’ Ferran snapped, trying not to shout in case something out there was listening for prey. ‘We’ve lost everything. Our guide got eaten for the god’s sake! By a plant! It’s madness. We have to leave.’ She tightened her grip on the machete she was forced to carry along with the rest of her gear and weapons.

Reaching out, Landel rested a hand on her shoulder and gently squeezed. ‘It’s alright,’ he said softly, as if he didn’t want to spook a nervous animal, or a woman who might well be tempted to chop his damn head off.

Abruptly pulling away, Ferran gave him a glare he’d be stupid to ignore. ‘It won’t work, Lan. That smile of yours is what got me into this mess, I won’t let it get me killed. I won’t die out here, with no-one to care…’

‘I would.’ Landel frowned, smudging the ingrained dirt that had merely darkened his olive complexion and highlighted his rugged features.

Ferran’s mood took a nose dive into misery. ‘Look at you, for Ulyses’ sake! Doesn’t anything stick to you? We’ve been out here for over a month. I’m a mud monster. Your clothes are barely even creased…’

Raising his hand, Landel cut her off mid-tirade. Ferran’s mouth snapped shut and she gave him another hard stare that should have seared right through his skull, if he’d been paying attention. As it was, Landel was too busy staring through the gap in the foliage she’d made earlier, when there was still hope of getting out of this Hel hole. He stepped closer. ‘It can’t be…’ he muttered, pushing a way through…

Ferran’s fingers sought the blade at her side. Leather binding the hilt had darkened with sweat and blood, years of it, decades. If she believed any of the drivel her mother spoon-fed her as a child, the knife had been passed down through their family for over a century. She had to admit, the Spell Forged blade of polished jet had saved their lives several times. Through her skills as a fighter, combined with the blade’s own prowess, and the dull vibrations it sent through her gloves, or against her hip, warned them in enough time that they avoided the danger when they could, and Ferran killed it when they couldn’t.

‘I don’t believe it,’ Landel whispered. His back was facing her, so Ferran couldn’t really see clearly what had caught his attention.

‘Blood Hel,’ she muttered and shoved her way past him.

And stood there. Her mouth was probably hanging open, but Ferran didn’t care. All she could see, all she had eyes for, was the half exposed wall of pale, white stone, ingrained with a carved relief of amazing creatures. Scaled beasts, entwined tails coiling about each other. A few still had their emerald eyes, glinting green-blue jewels that winked as the light caught them just right.

Landel turned toward her. A massive grin was plastered to his face.  ‘We did it,’ he said softly. His dark eyes shone like a child who’d just been given free run of the sweet stall. ‘It’s actually here!’ He started forward.

‘No!’ Ferran winced as her voice reverberated through the dense rainforest.

Landel froze, but the look he gave her made her cringe. ‘What…?’

Ferran stepped closer. ‘We don’t know anything about this place, or what sort of traps there are.’ She tried caution, although she was just as eager to find out what treasure lay within the temple walls.

‘Hold on a minute.’ Landel crammed the map back in his pocket and slipped a hand inside his long coat, which he still wore despite the heat.

After a few moments that felt like a lifetime rather than a brief pause, he managed to drag free a piece of parchment, folded and sealed with a messy blob of black wax. It was also sealed with a mark Ferran felt she should recognise. Either way the intricate sixteen pointed star stole all the humid warmth and made her loath to get too near the crackling parchment Landel was carefully opening with all the care of a father with his first born child.

‘What is that?’ she croaked. ‘Landel what have you done?’

Jerking his head up, he gave her a vague smile. ‘I found it! Behind an old book.’ He averted his gaze then. ‘I didn’t have time to make a copy and I thought…Well, no-one knew it was there. I didn’t see the harm.’

Ferran just sighed. ‘This is why I’ll never live a long life.’ She thrust out a gloved hand, careful to make sure it didn’t tremble and give her away. ‘Give it here. I’ll take a look at this death trap you’ve convinced me is a treasure horde.’

Landel handed it over without hesitation. ‘There’s a signature on the bottom.’ He jabbed a finger at the end of the page, nearly pulling it from her hand.

‘Sorry,’ he mumbled. ‘I thought it might be important that’s all.’

Ferran guessed he wasn’t just talking about the scrawl on the parchment. He knew how she felt about stealing. They had a permit for this madness, legal and above board.  If the authorities discovered the theft from one of their precious libraries…Well, some things were worse than a public execution.

Scanning the page Ferran noted several drawings that appeared to show the location of several nasty and potentially lethal wards. The edge of the parchment crunched in her clenched fist. ‘This is a bad idea.’

‘I thought if we entered here.’ Landel brushed a finger across what looked like a hidden door inset at the back of the building.

‘I don’t like it.’ Ferran chewed the inside of her lip and refused to look Landel in the eye. If she did, there would be that smile of his, the one that always got her into the sort of trouble she had to fight herself bloody to get of.

‘Please, Ran.’ He laid a hand on her arm, his fingers soft and cool against the sweat dampened cloth of her shirt. ‘I need you. Or else I will have failed…’

When she didn’t answer his hand slid from her arm and he stepped away. A cold tension enveloped them both. Ferran gazed at the vine choked temple.

She gripped the parchment in hand, while her other held onto the machete like it was her only lifeline in a raging storm. ‘We’ll need to avoid that central chamber. I don’t like what these drawings suggest we’ll find there.’

‘You’ll do it, then?’ Landel stared at her like she was a mirage.

‘Of course I will, you idiot! We’ve lost too much for me not to!’

Landel held up hands as if to fend off a physical blow. ‘Just asking. I thought for a minute you’d leave me here.’

‘I should.’ Ferran re-folded the parchment and slipped it into her top pocket.

‘Did you memorize the route?’ Landel asked.

Ferran noted his tightly drawn expression and wondered why the Hel he put up with her shit, but she was still pissed at him. ‘I did. Although, I don’t trust what I’ve read. Not completely. Convenient maps to the layout of a mysterious temple make me suspicious for some reason.’

Landel nodded. ‘Remember Karakas Rae.’ He shivered and hugged his coat tighter about his angular frame, even though it was probably hot enough to fry an egg on a rock. ‘That place was how I imagined Nheim. Cold, wet and lethal.’

‘All I recall is how you mistook that sheep for a demon,’ Ferran remarked.

Landel’s eyes widened. Then, he let out a soft laugh. ‘Oh, yeah, I forgot about that.’

Moving a little nearer to the temple, Ferran trod lightly, marking every footstep as she drew them both toward the side of the building. She kept her voice low. ‘I thought you’d been killed. Either that or been castrated. That scream made my ears bleed.’ She looked back and offered him one of her rare smiles.

He grinned back. ‘It got you there, didn’t it.’

‘And half the camp along with me.’

Landel sidled alongside. ‘We make a good team,’ he said, producing a small hook-nosed tool from his coat and proceeded to tangle with the wrought iron lock on the thick stone door. No wards here, apparently.

As he worked, Ferran couldn’t help but wrinkle her nose.The damn coat was an ugly thing. Old, worn, soft suede battered by time, but it had a few surprises hidden inside its musty folds, not to mention a Hel of a lot of pockets.

‘Nearly…There!’ Landel stepped back, treading on he end of her boot.

‘Idiot,’ she hissed and was about to slap him, when metal grated and the door swung open, crunching bits of plaster to fine powder beneath its weight.

Ducking under the lintel, Landel got out the way before she changed her mind about smacking him for crushing her toes with his clumsiness.

Pulling her satchel to the front of her body, Ferran drew out a small glass globe about the size of her fist. Bowing a soft breath onto the cold surface, she muttered the words she’d been told to recite and the glass flared into life.

The blue light of the globe lit up the entrance, exposing several ancient paintings. The colours were so bright, like they’d been painted only yesterday.

What gave away their age was the images. Warriors in chainmail, wielding swords of fire and lightning. A man who appeared part wolf and part immortal.

Ferran stepped into the corridor. She held up the light. ‘Amazing.’

‘Look.’ Landel guided her toward another scene. This time a woman fought a demon. It looked like a Stymphal, from the stories her mother told. The female warrior was attacking it with what Ferran assumed was an elemental power, probably water magic if the ice spears in the picture were to be believed.

‘I think I was wrong,’ Landel murmured.

Turning, Ferran noticed he was looking intently at another part of the mural. She wandered over to join him. ‘What is it?’ she asked.

He glanced up at her. ‘This is a tomb,’ he replied.

‘What makes you…’ she started, but her the glow of the light caught another image of the wolf-man, he held the water elemental in his arms. Or her corpse at least. Ferran raised a hand and gently touched the painted plaster. Behind the couple was an overturned crib, the details blurred by water damage.

‘Strange.’ Landel moved away.

‘Wait for…’

A clang echoed through the corridor. Dust billowed. Followed by eerie silence.

Chocking on the cloud of smog, Ferran had enough common sense to clip the light globe onto her belt and free the jet blade from its sheath.

Clearing her throat, she waited for the dust to clear. All the while her pulse pounded in her temple, making her lightheaded and head feel full of cotton.

Landel was nowhere to be seen. There was just her and an empty corridor.

From the outside she probably looked calm as a still pool, but inside her mind raced like her heart. What if he was injured? Bleeding? What if he was dead?

Striding down the length of the corridor, Ferran paused about halfway from where she and Landel had been standing. There was a solid block of stone. It was blank. No paintings. Nothing but crudely carved rock. It didn’t even match the rest of the limestone. It was like it’d been placed there after construction.

Sheathing the machete in its holder that was belted to the opposite hip her jet blade usually rested against, Ferran ran her free hand over the coarse stone, noting every bump, every imperfection. She pressed her fingers into the recess.

‘Damn it,’ she hissed, thumping a fist against the rock, which did nothing other than hurt her hand. Trust Landel to get stuck behind an impenetrable door.

There was nothing she could do. Deep down she knew that. It was just…She didn’t like to just leave him there. Her only hope was that he was smart enough to know that and try and find a way out himself. It was the only thing she could cling to. The only thing that eased her conscience as she walked away.

‘This treasure had better be worth it,’ she muttered. Her palm was greased with sweat now and slid uncomfortably against the rough handle of her blade.

It was just another thing to add to her mounting irritation. She’d been forced to get a temporary fix for the blade when the original handle cracked after a nasty confrontation with a creature she’d sworn her mother had just made up to scare her. Apparently, she grimaced, Neamials were all too real.  Also capable of breaking a five hundred year old hilt of a supposedly indestructible knife. Now, the handle and the knife’s twin were in the shop being repaired.

Oh, the magic of the blade still worked. There was enough left to serve a purpose. It’d saved her life in this jungle more than once. It was just annoying. Not to have the smooth feel of the hilt against her palm. She swallowed, it was like never seeing Landel again. Or that damn smile of his.

At the end of the corridor, the path split into three. From what she’d memorized of the parchment, Ferran chose the one straight ahead. The left led to a nasty set of wards she had no hope of deciphering before she got killed, and the right, well, that led to the fatal main chamber she wanted to avoid at all costs.

While she walked, the jet blade in her hand vibrated slightly. Then, the wood grew warm. It very rarely changed from it’s cool ambience. Much like Landel.

The only time the blade did rise in temperature was when something dangerous was too close.

Stepping back into an open doorway, Ferran prayed a chunk of rock didn’t crush her and that whatever was stalking her was stupid enough to die quickly.

A faint scratching on the walls made the hairs on the back of her neck rise. She wrinkled her nose. A scrape against the gravel and mouldy plaster that had built up over the centuries warned her of something approaching. The blade went cold. A weight thumped to the floor. Ferran relaxed her grip and bent down to check the lump that had just dropped at her feet.

Turning it over, she gasped. His hair was charred, along with a part of his face, but it was definitely Landel. Mouldy coat and all. Well, Ferran winced, mostly.

He raised the stump of his right hand. ‘You…’ He gasped. ‘Were…right…’ Then, his head lolled against her arm and his eyes rolled shut.

‘Great.’ Ferran dragged him into the side chamber. Pressing a finger to his neck she checked his pulse and his eyes snapped open, making her jump. ‘Bloody…’

He gripped her wrist with his remaining hand. ‘Get…out!’ He sighed out a breath and fell back into unconsciousness.

‘Like I wasn’t creeped out enough as it is,’ Ferran muttered. This time, Landel didn’t come to. ‘Good, because I don’t need another heart attack.’

Making him as comfortable as she could, given he was lying on a paved floor, Ferran used her own blanket as a pillow and wrapped Landel in his coat. hopefully that pitiful effort would prevent anymore problems, like pneumonia.

Lifting his amputated arm she gave it the once over, but whatever had severed the hand also cauterized the wound so perfectly the skin was even smooth.

Likely shock was what caused Landel’s current state. Least she hoped so for both their sakes. She needed him more than he needed her. Landel just didn’t know it. The only reason she didn’t say anything was because she didn’t want to be wrong or embarrassed by an awkward conversation that was all too familiar.

Standing, Ferran glanced around the room. It was empty, except for a rotting set of shelves that contained a neat row of metallic orbs. The ornate patterns o the dusty metal drew her closer. Before she realised what she’d done she had one in her hand. Rubbing away the grime she noticed they orb was made of gold. One good thing to come out of all this mess. She was about to pocket the thing and take another, when a ticking made her pause. A thin line cutting through the centre of the orb flashed, blinding her. However, training and experience made her drop the damn thing before she ended up like Landel.

The orb lay on the floor in bits. Its outer casing smashed against the paving slabs, exposing the guts of the machine. Bits of spring, a few small cogs and wheels lay scattered in the accumulated dirt, shimmering like minute treasure.

‘We need to get out,’ Landel’s voice was strained and harsh, but it was still him. The only thing different was his expression. Grim with no hint of a smile.

Ferran crouched next to him. He was sat up, ram-rod straight. His eyes staring at the shelf of orbs like he was reliving a nightmare. Hesitating through fear of rejection and that she didn’t really understand how to comfort others, Ferran eventually rested her gloved fingers against his shoulder. Landel flinched, but when he turned his head and saw who it was, he gave up a tentative smile.

It would have been reassuring, if his eyes weren’t so flat, and dead. ‘You were right, Ran. I’m always trying to get us killed. I never think…I’m so stupid…’

‘Don’t you dare!’ Ferran snapped. ‘Don’t you strip away all we’ve done just because you got hurt. You’ve got another hand. You’re alive!’

Landel gaped up at her like she just punched him in the gut or reached into his chest and ripped out his still beating heart just so he could watch her crush it.

Something flashed across his expression. His face twitched. For an instant Ferran thought he’d push her away, Storm off. Shout. Even scream. Anything to show her he was still alive in there. What she got was unexpected. Landel slumped and nodded weakly. ‘Right again.’ His mouth twisted slightly. ‘I got injured and all I could think of was myself. My only wish was to find you, so you could save me.’ He hugged his knees. ‘I was so…afraid.’

‘Well, now you’re here.’ Ferran rose to her feet and held out a hand.

She thought he might not take the offer, but Landel eventually reached up with his remaining hand and took hold of her gloved fingers. Ferran heaved him up off the floor. She didn’t maintain the contact for longer than necessary. Landel didn’t need to be molly coddled. He needed to feel useful.  Reaching into her satchel Ferran took out the map of traps and handed it to him. Hesitantly, he took it from her. Laying the parchment up against one of the walls, Landel silently read. The quiet stretched out and Ferran thought he might had given up again, but Landel turned. His dark eyes glittered with some emotion she couldn’t quite comprehend. She only hoped he hadn’t been driven mad.

‘I think I’ve found it.’ He passed her the map and poked a jumble of cyphers that were scrawled near the indecipherable signature. ‘This is the mark of Lyus, an Asarl magician from the time of Karakas. I think he was the one who baited the tomb.’

‘And just happened to leave a handy map lying around,’ Ferran remarked and then sighed. ‘Why is it I get the feeling you’ve decided to keep going?’

Landel shrugged. ‘We deserve to know what the Hel is so important it needs all this security.’

She didn’t answer straight away. Instead she concentrated on folding the parchment and putting it back in her satchel. ‘You’re sure?’ she finally asked.

‘I’m swearing. That alone should tell you I’m annoyed and my curiosity has been piqued so high it’s like an itch I can’t scratch.’

‘Alright,’ Ferran agreed. ‘This time stay close and don’t wander off.’

‘Don’t worry. I have no intention of losing any more limbs.’

If Ferran hadn’t been looking at his face she might have mistook his comment for a joke, as it was, his expression was anything but amused.

‘Right. The central tomb it is.’ Ferran led the way, Landel close enough behind she could feel his breath on the back of her neck. ‘Try not to step on the back of my boot,’ she muttered. Landel said nothing, but did give her bit more room.

They walked in silence. Avoided the inevitable cobwebs. Spiders always found a way. Maybe we should ask them for directions, Ferran thought. She didn’t say anything out loud. Her blade had reacted to something before Landel dropped in front of her. She didn’t want to make it easy for whatever roamed these halls looking for an easy meal. The jungle had been bad enough.

After what felt like an eternity, they rounded a slight bend, and stopped. Landel bumped into her shoulder and moved to look around her.

‘Bugger.’ Ferran glared at the gaping chasm where an earth tremor had opened up the floor. Either that or this Lyus had a very sick sense of humour.

‘Wait here. I saw something that might be useful.’ Landel made to move off.

‘Stop right there,’ Ferran ordered. ‘What did I tell you?’

‘I’ll be fine,’ he replied. ‘Besides, I need to stop hindering this mission.’ With that he turned and left her standing there.

‘Men,’ she mumbled, but took no action to stop him. Although, after a while she tasted copper in her mouth and realised she was chewing her lip again.

She was just about to go after him when he trotted back up the corridor holding a lump of wood under one arm. Casting it across the chasm, he waited for the makeshift bridge to thunk against the other side before he practically ran across it, leaving her to glare after him, once again.

Holding her arms out for balance, Ferran crossed the wobbly plank of wood as quickly as possible before another accident sent her tumbling to her death.

Clipping Landel across the back of the head, she marched past him and didn’t wait. Landel was forced to jog after her in order to catch up or get left behind.

‘What was that for?’ he asked, frowning and rubbing the base of his skull.

‘I shouldn’t have to tell you.’ Ferran refused point blank to even look at him.

They didn’t speak again until the came face to face with a massive slab of solid granite that made all previous doors look like pathetic fakes in comparison.

‘No lock.’ Landel scanned the exterior with an expert eye. All the while he fiddled with the wooden toggles of his coat.

Within the light of the globe attached to her belt, Ferran made out row after row of golden orbs. Limned with dust like the others, but despite their age, she knew from recent experience just how dangerous the little bastards could be.

‘I think we have a problem,’ she commented.

‘I know,’ Landel replied without looking. ‘I saw them too.’

‘Can they activate by themselves?’

‘Not sure. I picked up the one that…took my hand. You touched the other. Let’s hope these one’s are the same and require physical contact to wake them up.’

He said all that while still staring at the huge door which, by the look of it, they weren’t getting past anytime this century.

Ferran left him to it. She avoided getting too close to the shelves and their very dangerous ornaments. The chamber they stood in was a lot like the other one. Except here the walls had more murals like the ones in the corridor. This time they showed a story running across the top of the walls like a decorative border. There were figures in black, fighting alongside warriors all in white, even their hair and skin was pale like the mist depicted around them. Again, the wolf-man appeared, his image blurred by the animalistic shape of a spectral hound. Feran shuddered, something about him was familiar and damn scary at the same time. Like the parchment. She felt like she knew what they meant and yet her mind shied away from the answers.

‘Found it! Landel exclaimed.

‘Will you stop doing that!

‘What?’ Landel turned, noted her expression and added. ‘Sorry. It’s just, I think I’ve found the lock. At least, I’m fifty/fifty.’

‘Better than nothing, I suppose.’ Ferran moved in.

Landel made space for her and gestured to an irregularly shaped stone that jutted out sync with the others.

‘Could be a building flaw.’ Ferran shifted uneasily.

‘We have to take the chance. Either that or go back empty handed.’

Landel was staring at her, again. She knew without looking what he was doing. He wanted to prove that even without a hand he was still a man.

‘Fine. Just don’t come complaining to me if you lose something else today.’

This time, she got a genuine smile that reached his eyes, which had lost some of their dead-eyed glaze. ‘I think you should step back, though, just to be safe.’

‘Oh, great. Just when I was regaining some of my confidence in your shaky abilities.’ Despite that, Ferran did as she was asked.

Placing a foot on the stone, Landel pressed down his booted heel. There was a grinding, followed by the squeal of internal workings and tortured metal that hadn’t been moved since it had been put in place. Slowly, the stone began to swing back on a hidden hinge, screaming it’s reluctance like a rabid banshee.

Eventually, it stopped, leaving just enough of a gap for them to squeeze through into another chamber. This one larger than the other and crammed with three basalt coffins laid side by side like old friends.

‘Shit.’ Ferran still had her jet knife in hand, but it did no good, the damn blade flew from her hand and struck the far wall.

The bastard who disarmed her smiled faintly, barely even creasing the lined around his cold pale blue eyes. ‘Not as smart as I’d hoped,’ he remarked.

At first, Ferran bristled, thinking the insult was directed at her, but the man’s gaze was fixed on Landel, who dropped his head in shame. ‘I’m sorry, Father.’

Ferran’s mouth went dry. Her skin cold. ‘Who the Hel are you?’ she demanded.

Landel lifted his head and then quickly dropped it again, fixing his eyes to the floor. ‘Despite what you may be thinking right now, I’m still your friend.’

‘Like Hel you are,’ she snarled.

The stranger made a sound she assumed was a snigger. ‘And now you see why I disarmed her.’ He shifted slightly, rustling the robe he wore that made him look like one of those comical renditions of a magician she’d seen an old picture book.

‘You may have taken my knife, but I’m not afraid of a stupid carnival trick.’

At the harsh tone of her voice Landel flinched, but the man only nodded. ‘You think I’m some sort of fake. Understandable, given your lack of education.

‘I should never  have trusted that harlot with your upbringing, but I thought she was trustworthy. I must have mistaken her greed for maternal enthusiasm.’

Ferran stepped back. ‘My mother…’ she stammered.

The man barked a laugh. ‘That drunken whore was never your mother, girl,’ he rasped sharply. ‘Merely a tool I used to endure your survival. And that you’d get here at the designated time.’

Turning his icy gaze toward Landel the man’s voice grew hard. ‘I had hoped you would arrive sooner. You have no idea how boring it’s been waiting.’

Cowering like a whipped dog Landel made no move to defend himself. Ferran had no such qualms about telling this bastard to go…

‘Now. Now,’ the man rebuked. ‘Don’t take everything so personally, my dear…’

‘Shut your mouth,’ Ferran snapped. ‘We’ve lost everything on this insane venture! And now you tell me my mother was just some whore you picked randomly off the street…and then have the audacity to claim I’m being too emotional!’

‘Ferran!’ the man barked, cutting her off mid-tirade. ‘That woman who raised you wasn’t a whore when I selected her, but she was weak. Drink was her curse. She came to resent you, I know that. I’m…Well, I’m sorry.’

‘Go screw yourself!’

‘Charming,’ a feminine voice intoned from the shadows.  ‘You adopted out our god-daughter and all she’s learnt is how to curse like a sailor.’

The man sighed. ‘I don’t think now is the time-‘

‘Wheh would it be appropriate for me to chastise you for stupidity, husband?’ The woman remarked again, this time moving further into the light.

Ferran got a good luck at her god-mother. She was nothing like all the fairytales she’d picked up as a child. This woman was or had been a warrior.

Clad from head-to-toe in leather with a just a linen shirt to soften the harsh contours of her figure. The woman’s dark hair matched Landel’s, but was drawn back from her face in a long braid, while her striking jade eyes glittered like green glass, complimenting her olive skin, typical of any Lyzandrian.

‘Your his mother,’ Ferran managed to mumble.

The woman smiled. ‘Yes, despite my husband’s lofty expectations, I’m proud of what my son had accomplished here.’

Finally, as of a great weight had been lifted, Landel raised his head and gave a weak smile. ‘Mother,’ he acknowledged.

‘All of this is beside the point,’ the man exclaimed. ‘Why must you always intrude on my most important achievements?’

The woman rolled her eyes. ‘Why must you insist on being a pompous ass?’

‘I don’t,’ the man spluttered.

‘But you do, dear,’ the woman continued, absently kicking one of the orbs across the floor. ‘For the same reason you tried to dismember our only son.’

The man was smart enough to pick up on the woman’s tone of voice and respond quickly. ‘There’s was nothing I could do about those, monstrosities.’

‘Of course not,’ the woman murmured.

‘Look, are we going to do this or just stand around arguing all day?’

‘No, we’ll go by the rules, as always, dear,’ the woman emphasised the last bit.

The man’s reaction was very similar to Landel’ when he’d come across his father waiting inside the tomb.

‘I believe this is yours.’ The woman had moved so swiftly Ferran hadn’t realised until she was there and holding out the jet knife hilt first.

‘Thank-you.’ Ferran accepted the gesture and sheathed her blade.

‘I know you don’t trust us, but Landel is still your friend, believe in that and you’ll do fine.’ The woman smiled.

Ferran abruptly turned away from the woman’s kind expression and stuffed the memories to the back of her mind, locking them in the darkest corner.

He didn’t say much as they followed the robed man to the back of the chamber, but Ferran could tell, just by his expression, Landel was guilty.

‘Here.’ The man stopped and pointed at a giant wheel moulded into the stone of the wall. It glimmered faintly by the light of the globe attached to her belt, revealing the precious gold of the giant mechanical monstrosity.

The design was made of many concentric circles that wound around each other like the tails of those serpents she’d glimpsed in the corridor.

Right before all Hel broke loose. Before Landel lost his hand. And his hope.

‘What do you need me for?’ she asked, unable to stop herself from saying the words, or from preventing her feet from carrying her toward the aperture set into the base of the wheel. It was a hole large enough for a hand to fit inside.

‘Prove you’re who you should be,’ the man replied and stepped aside.

Glancing back at Landel, she looked into his eyes and caught the imperceptible nod of his head. She’d known him all her life. They’d gotten into trouble together. They’d gotten each other out. She had to trust him. Right?

Somehow she knew what she had to do. Removing the glove from her left hand, she gradually slid her fingers into the hole, catching her skin against the sides. It was oddly smooth. Pushing her hand in further, she only stopped when her elbow was covered by stone and her fingertips touched the cold end of the tube. She waited. Nothing happened. She turned to Landel once more.

‘I’m not sure what…’ Ferran screamed as needles pushed through her shirt into the flesh of her arm. She tried to pull back out, but clamps gripped her so tight, she couldn’t get away without ripping off her own hand.

Then, quick as they went in, the needles retracted. Ferran dragged out her arm, barely registering the blood spots staining her shirt. She launched herself at Landel, intent on tearing out his throat with her teeth. ‘You bastard! I trust-

Something cracked hard against the back of her skull. Ferran slumped. Her knees hit stone, jarring her teeth like loose marbles. Her head flopped. Her sight went dark and she hit the floor.

‘I told you,’ the woman rebuked, her voice a faint echo. ‘Stop hitting people on the head. It could cause permanent damage.’

‘I know what I’m doing,’ the man replied. ‘Besides she passed. What more do you want? A firework display, perhaps? A fanfare? Drumroll?’

There was a sharp crack, which Ferran assumed was the woman slapping the man she claimed was her husband, and Landel’s father.

‘What do we do now?’ Landel’s voice was faint.

‘Take her home, of course,’ the woman replied, and then more softly added. ‘It’s alright. I know exactly what your feeling. Just wait a while. Be patient.’

‘She hates me,’ Landel sounded miserable and Ferran wanted to tell him to stop being such a baby, but she could feel herself slipping away, no matter how hard she tried to hold on.

‘She’s just confused right now. But, she’ll get better.’

Landel didn’t answer his mother. It was odd to think of him having parents, she always assumed from the way he spoke that he was orphan just trying to survive. That he was like her. Only, he had a family. Ferran wanted to cry, but the tears wouldn’t come, and the world was disappearing into darkness…

‘The portals ready,’ the man’s voice reverberated oddly in Ferran’s head.

‘It’s time to go home,’ the woman whispered in her ear like a secret promise…

 

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