Chapter 5: Ancient Ruins
“We’re entangled and can’t break free,” cried Vesula, as the stench of noxious vapors tainted the air, warning her of yet another deadly danger.
Desperately, she jerked a lever releasing the forward section of their craft, which fell away, tumbling to the hard earth far below. Parachutes burst from the nosecone halting their headlong plunge, slamming them into their padded seats with crushing force.
Taxa fought off the encroaching darkness threatening to devour his senses. He was deathly ill from the gas that filled his lungs with burning vapors, felt strength and life being swept away by the deadly poison tide coursing through his veins. Fingers trembling with fear and weakness, he fumbled for the antidote, wrenched free the vial’s stopper and, with shaking hands, poured its contents down his throat.
Suddenly, his fading mind realized the girl was insensible and could not save herself. Like a drowning man, he clung to the shreds of consciousness, grasped another vial, forced the dose between Vesula’s pale lips, and then collapsed into oblivion’s night dark realm.
With a groan Vesula opened her eyes. Light filtered through the portholes illuminating the interior of the gently swaying cabin. Their seats were now horizontal, and the bulkhead had become the floor. She turned to Taxa, and uttered a heartfelt prayer of thanks that he still lived. He stirred feebly, and she shook him awake.
“We’re down. Time to go, if you’re up to it. I’ve no doubt that was Torquimis who attacked us. He has studied the map, as have we, and he’s no fool. We’ll have to find him, kill him, or be forever fearful of knives lurking in the dark.”
A cold chill went up Taxa’s spine. Not because of her words, but at the feral gleam in her eyes as she uttered them.
She’s a contrast of many facets, that’s for sure, he thought. A strange study of dark depths and gleaming heights. Then aloud:
“I’m battered and bruised, but have suffered nothing worse than that. I’ll grab those dart-throwers clamped to the wall, you gather some supplies, and we’ll be off.”
As Vesula assembled the supplies and opened the hatch, Taxa removed the dart-throwers and their ammunition from the racks. These weapons were tubular in form, and at the end of each was a lever that also served as a stock. Pumping the lever actuated the mechanism that compressed a powerful spring within the barrel until it engaged a catch, which was released by the firing stud when pressed.
The ammunition consisted of poison filled darts, whose tips were capped for safety. These were muzzle loaded and, when fired, were accurate to about fifty yards.
Their preparations completed, both stepped from the cabin and looked warily about. The forward section of the ship hung a few feet above the ground, its parachutes of non-conductive material having become caught in the tall dedosa trees of the island’s forest.
These strange growths, whose knobby gray trunks rose about them like woody pillars, were surmounted by fan-shaped leaves of vermilion hue that crackled with electric discharges, their unique defense against those creatures that sought to feed upon them.
Vesula consulted her pathfinder – a small lucid sphere in which floated a triangle of green metal whose tip pointed at markings about the globe’s equator.
“This way,” she said, heading off into the forest. “The ancient ruins are not far.”
“If so, and the Jewel is there, why has it not been found before?”
The girl uttered a bitter laugh. “The peasants of this remote region eke out their incurious lives, noses buried in the dirt like the digging sticks they use. The ruins are held in superstitious awe, and therefore avoided. I should know for I was born among them.” And then, with a touch of bitterness: “Oh, what a strange homecoming this is.”
Her eyes grew distant as memories, like phantom players, conjured visions of lost innocence upon the theater of her mind; all the while Taxa wondering at what deep wounds still lay unhealed.
Suddenly, something charged from the underbrush in a blur of motion. Taxa fired, missed, knocked Vesula from the path of the hurtling beast, both tumbling to the ground as it rushed madly passed, missing them by a hair’s breadth.
The thing skidded to a halt, turned, charged again bellowing furiously. Taxa leapt to one side, pulled the axe from its harness on his back, waved madly to attract the beast's attention.
“Don’t move,” he cried. “I’ll draw its ire.”
Vesula watched in horror as the thing bore down upon him, praying that whatever he planned to do would work. At the last possible moment Taxa leapt aside, twisted, brought the axe down aiming for the creature’s neck.
Disaster struck – he slipped and missed, fell heavily, the axe spinning from his hand. The beast turned upon him, trident-shaped horn lowered, preparing to gore. Vesula fired; the dart struck its rump. It spun about, collapsed, expired in frightful shudders, the toxin knifing through its shaggy russet body.
She rushed to his side. “That was a very brave and very foolish thing to do. I had forgotten this is the mating season of the azu, when those in the male stage of their cycle are most dangerous.”
He took her hand, kissed it. “One protects those one loves.”
Vesula’s heart quickened at his words, and she smiled. It was a simple truth, but when uttered by Taxa seemed more profound than deep philosophy.
“No more distractions for now,” she said, hoping her practicality would not hurt his feelings. “This place is full of danger. We had best move on.”
The ruins stood before them shrouded in the verdure of a thousand ages, slumbering quietly in the muted light. Flowering lanais wrapped stately columns of violet crystal in their clinging embrace, while shrubs clothed the fallen stones with fragrant leaves. It was like a beautiful woman, grown old and worn, but whose youthful grace was still discernable beneath the weight of time.
“This is the central building,” said Vesula. “If the Jewel is here, then this is the most likely place where it would be housed.”
Mounting the cracked and broken stairs, they climbed carefully to the entrance and cautiously passed between the graceful pillars that still supported the timeworn golden dome, hearts beating with excitement at the expectation of what they hoped to find. Eyes piercing the gloom, they beheld a podium in the rotunda’s center, above which floated a man high translucent cube of tawny crystal.
“The Jewel of Besminur,” breathed Taxa, as he gazed in wonder upon its glinting form.
“Indeed it is,” said a harsh voice
from the shadows.
This story is copyright by Kirk Straughen. It may not be copied without permission of the author except for purposes of reviews. (Though you can print it out to read it, natch.)