Chapter Eleven: Danger in the Dark
Mercari Vintner looked into the dark hole, without any idea how deep it was, nor if his best friend was okay.
“Did you bring my gear?” he asked Nomi Paskani. “We need to get down there safely, and see if we can get him out.”
“I can get it. You look for an anchor point, and assess how steady you are. You’re still recovering from whatever they gave you.”
“I’m going down there, regardless of how I feel!”
“Fine, but remember I don’t want to figure out how to pull both of you up. Okay? You’re the strong one. So, let me go down and see how he’s doing first.”
“Well, we can only do that after you get back, so stop yacking, woman!”
He could see that Nomi wanted to take offense, but she was pale with concern. He touched his arm, a gesture more akin to something Arthis Dusane might do, but Arty was at the bottom of a hole. “I’ll try to see if he’ll at least respond, while you’re gone.”
She nodded. “I’ll bring a camp cot, in case we need to turn it into a litter, okay?”
“Good idea, now go.”
He turned to the hole, and called down. “Arty!”
No response. He turned and looked around. The need for a truly stable anchor point was vital. They could not trust the stone work, obviously, but he could come up with something else. He looked around, and suddenly he realized how Arty saw things. He could see what time had created, making a mountain out of a building. He looked at the cave room in some awe, and surprise. He felt weighted by the sheer age of the building, knowing he had no way to calculate it, but that thousands of years wouldn’t be far off the mark. There wouldn’t be natural rock formations to use. It would have to be something in the stone work.
“Just not that archway,” he muttered. He shook himself, took a deep breath, and reminded himself that he’d been climbing and rappelling most of his life. He knew what he was doing. He could find a good anchor point. It didn’t matter if it was rock, or stone work. He knew stability. Without examining his thoughts, the competitive side of him kicked in. He wanted to find it before Nomi got back. She was, clearly, more than competent. He’d just found an old pillar off the archway—but the part that had remained intact, despite the buffeting of large stone bricks. The ones that hadn’t gone down the hole with Arty were heavier than he could lift on his own, and he was fairly certain that he’d need leverage even if he had Nomi, and another man’s help.
Nomi came with his bag, another bag she’d stashed a couple of lanterns in, and a folded up cot.
“Any sound from Arty?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Don’t worry. We will assess when you get down there.”
To his surprise, they worked well together, and efficiently. Nomi was soon rappelling down with a lantern. The hole was deep.
“It’s opening up into a gallery. They liked to build build in the ages of the Kuenyinsen,” she called up. She stopped, and looked up at Mercari. “Don’t freak, I’m going to swing a bit when I get near the bottom. I don’t want to land on the pile of rocks. I can’t see well enough to decide what’s brickwork, or Arty.”
He nodded. He was glad the lighter person had done down first. He watched the light swing, and kept an eye on the rope. She landed lightly beside a dark pile of rocks. He knew enough to know that she’d need his help. She untied herself, and he pulled the rope up to lower the cot. And the rest of the supplies they’d need down there. She caught everything and put it to the side of the pile.
He came down with another lantern. She helped him land next to the rock pile.
“I don’t see Arty,” she said. He could see her trying not to cry.
He didn’t say anything, but looked as well. A soft moan reached his ears.
“Arty!” he called out.
The moan came again on the other side of the pile. They both ran to the other side, but didn’t see him under the pile.
“Arty!” Mercc and Nomi called out. The moan came again, behind them.
Some of the bricks and ruble had skittered across the floor, and apparently Arty with it. They dashed over to him. Merc looked up at Nomi after he’d looked over his friend, and it was clear that for both of them the situation was neither worse nor better than they’d expected. It was, however, more on the worse side than better.
“Hey, buddy, you’re at least conscious,” he said in a teasing tone.
Arty didn’t respond except to blink at Merc.
Nomi was examining him again.
“Looks like at least a broken leg, and at the very least bruised ribs, and a probable concussion,” she said. After a moment, where she carefully touched the injured leg, she added. “I don’t like where the break is.”
“Can we put a strap around his chest and pull him up?” he asked.
“I don’t think so. Those ribs don’t feel good,” she said, gently touching Arty’s chest. The shirt was torn, so they could see the slow purpling of bruising develop.
“We can’t pull him up that hole, if he has to be level. I didn’t think about that.”
“We’re going to have to find a way out. If this was a building, then there’s got to be a way out, right?” she asked.
“You’re the expert.”
“No, he is, and he’s a bit out of commission,” Nomi said, rummaging through her own satchel. “Okay, Arty, I’m going to need you to swallow this. It will help with the pain. None of the next few hours are going to be comfortable.”
He tried to nod, and it was clear even that action made him dizzy.
Arty seemed comfortable after he drank some of whatever it was in the bottle Nomi put to his lips. When his breathing was better, the two stepped back to the pile of supplies.
“What did you give him?”
“Something I keep on me. Emergency supplies. This is a narcotic from the south. I don’t tell anyone I have it, actually. Ridiculously high street value.”
“Never mind. I don’t use it.”
“Well, I’m glad you have it. How bad do you think it is?”
“Well, I think I’m going to have to get you to shimmy back up and go out with a saw and get us two strong, long branches to brace his legs. If you don’t, we could move him, and pierce his femoral artery, and bury him about four minutes later.”
He was amazed at her ‘emergency supplies’ bag. She pulled out a small saw from her pack, and some bandages, and skein of yarn.”
“While you’re out, I’ll start to see if I can find a way out,” she said, picking up the yarn after handing him the saw.
She stood up, and headed towards a dark archway. “Go on. We can’t even get him onto the cot till you get the wood. If I’m not back, tug on the string and I’ll come and get him set up. Okay?”
He nodded, and went to where the rope still hung, ready for him.
“Hey, don’t get a pile of rubble dumped on you, okay?” he said.
“Okay,” she said with a grin. “We’ll get him out, Merc. We have to.”
He felt encouraged.
The situation was grim, they both knew it. Still he was glad she was there, and glad that she had the strength of mind to be optimistic. Practical, which was the real boon, but optimism was an important ingredient. He’d never admit it, but without Nomi he might be brought to tears. His friend would die without both of them present. He might still.
He shimmied up the rope with the saw in his teeth, and scurried out to the woods.
Chapter Twelve: Even Tough Women Cry
Nomi Paskani was as close to crying as she’d ever been in her life. The first years of her life had been gentle and pastoral enough. It was after that, when a series of misfortunes brought the family to the city, and a neighborhood that was less than opulent. Her father did not adjust well to both loss of his wife, nor the city. Nomi learned to fight in more ways than one, especially for the brilliancy of her mind if she could not always completely protect her body.
She realized that Arthis Dusane had somehow come to mean more to her than she’d ever expected. There was no chance, at this point, she could ever have children. She’d not ever really wept about this. That it came up now was a surprise. She knew herself well enough to know that it wasn’t even the impossibility of children, but that somehow the idea of a legacy came up.
Arty would never be the father of her children. But somehow he could help her—they could, with Merc as well!—create something beyond just looting archeological dig sites. They could build something together.
Unless he died.
This was still a distinct possibility.
She had backtracked at least once while Merc was gone, checking on Arty, ensuring that his breathing was good, and that he hadn’t moved enough to have broken shards of bone pierce his femoral artery.
Another corridor, surprisingly intact, seemed to lead further down, which felt discouraging. But it was clear. She went down it long enough to run out of yarn. She knew it was insane to continue on without a clear means of getting back.
She went just as far as she could knowing the corridor wouldn’t shift on her, regardless.
Dry stone, and dirt gave way to a smell of water. The corridor also felt cooler, as if there was a catchment of water somewhere nearby. “We’ll need water, before long, if nothing else.”
She made her way back, winding the yarn as she went, and felt the string tugged halfway back.
Merc was there, clearly worried still.
“You’ve been crying,” he said.
She looked at him, seeing the dirt on his face with tracks down them. “So have you.”
“Okay, let’s do this,” he said.
He’d chosen well, and possibly gone a bit overboard. He had four branches to choose from. All longer than possibly necessary.
“I didn’t know how long they needed to be.”
“Well, we can always cut them, but this is good. We can carefully move his leg and tie it so that he can’t move his leg at all, from the hip down.”
It was, still, a hideous process. She was glad she wasn’t the one who vomited. She knew that had Arty not been dosed with narcotics, he’d have thrown up and been screaming. But the leg was in place, finally, and bound. She didn’t allow herself to react till after he was secured in the cot. It was braced well enough that they could carry it together.
Merc loaded up all his remaining rappelling and climbing gear, and Nomi made sure she still had everything essential.
“We can’t do the string thing,” Merc said.
“No, we’re going to use the marks I started to put down,” she said nodding to a clear grease pencil mark on the wall as they passed. “I figure we can only carry him so far at a time. I’ll make fresh marks each time.
It was a tough journey to the limit of where Nomi had been. She struggled to carry both the lantern in either hand, and the cot. They finally looped the handle onto the cot, and so she had to cope with shadows in front of her. It was slow going, so she didn’t trip, which would have been disastrous. She knew that both she and Merc would try to not give out before the other. Competitive much? She thought to herself. Yes. Always. It was part of how she’d come so far.
She knew that this building, probably a former palace, considering some of the art that she saw on the walls, and in one of the rooms they had tried, and looked at without much hope of an exit. But they’d made so many turns, still always downward, with stairs and otherwise. One place the corridor had opened up to a ceiling fall, opening up a cavernous space above to more rooms. Nomi sighed, and hoped they wouldn’t have to try to get up there to find a way out. The move down the rubble into yet another corridor was awful, but Arty didn’t seem to notice that both his friends had sweated that path. At that point, neither Merc nor Nomi wanted to explore alone.
Suddenly, the corridor opened up into a wide rock cut cavern. She stopped, feeling Merc, push her a bit.
“Sorry,” she said. “Let’s put him down.”
They carefully put him down, keeping the lantern secure.
She and Merc then went to look at the cavern.
Light from the lantern lit the pool of water like a mirror.
“Wow!” said Merc. And then he pointed. “What’s that?”
“Oh my giddy gods! It’s real.”
“The cup. It’s what Arty and I were looking for. But why is it here, and not some treasure room?”
“How do you know it’s the cup you’re looking for?”
“Well, you’ve got a point. I’ll have to go get it.”
“Better you than me,” he said.
In the end Merc had the experience to do the climbing to get it. It wasn’t up, but it was across the reservoir of clean water, along a narrow ledge of rock, set in a hollow on its own.
Nomi sat beside Arty and fed him sips of water, carefully.
“I hear heart beats,” he said.
“I hear heart beats,” he said again. His eyes got wide, and he breathed out a gasped name. It was nearly too soft for her to have heard it. “Kuenyinsen!”
Chapter Thirteen: The Red Queen’s Cup.
Arty had been aware of being in a cot, and that there was some pain in his body. He knew that his thinking wasn’t sound.
The cool air off what looked like a pool of water was bliss to his heated, feverish body. He kept hearing heartbeats. His own, Merc’s, Nomi’s… and someone else’s. There were also echoes of others somewhere about.
Merc was bringing the cup back. He knew it was the relic he’d been looking for. It glowed to his eyes.
That’s probably my concussion, he thought.
But he looked up and kept seeing the woman with the tattooed head. “Kuenyinsen,” he said again.
“Call me Kuen-tai. That’s my name now, and the queens are long gone,” the woman said. “That is my cup. The question is, what are you going to do with it?”
“I don’t know. Thought about selling it.”
“What?” said Nomi.
“If you do, you will die,” said Kuen-tai.
“I’m stoned,” Arty said, trying not to believe in what he was seeing.
“I’ll say you are,” Merc said. He handed Nomi the cup.
“Wow,” she said. “The pottery they made those many years ago is finer than anything I’ve seen except in a museum. And nothing older than this!” It was a fine tea cup, with the gilding worn, and one chip.
“Don’t worry, Arty, she can’t make me feel old,” Kuen-tai said. “And I never drank out of it. Only my mother.”
He started to cry. He couldn’t help himself. He was too confused, and he was beginning to feel the pain.
“I’m sorry, Arty. You’re going to have to promise to protect this piece,” Kuen-tai said.
He watched as his two friends suddenly saw Kuen-tai. Nomi nearly dropped the priceless artifact, but the goddess caught it. “We are about to have company. This cup can save your friends life, right now, or give him time to get aid in the city. None of you are currently my first choice to protect this one relic, mind you. You are only marginally better than the chief’s son, who is still interested only in profit. He would sacrifice many lives to sell the value of this cup.”
“Who are you?” said Merc, pale.
“Kuen-tai. You don’t know about me. I was once one of the queens that ruled this land.”
“I know you,” said Nomi, and she rummaged for something in her pocket. It was a bit of string. She tied up her hair, so that Kuen-tai could see the tattooing under her hair line. Kuen-tai smiled.
“Yes, I’m that Kuenyinsen,” Kuen-tai said with a smile. “Now, do you want to save your friend?”
“But how? And will you protect his relic ever after?”
“Yes,” they said. Nomi took Arty’s one hand, and Merc the other.
“He’s my best friend,” Merc said.
“I love him,” Nomi said.
“Water is life, so is blood,” Kuen-tai said.
“Blood is sacrifice, water is life,” Arty said.
“One of you dies to give him life, or…”
Arty pointed to the water. “Time. I just want time.”
Kuen-tai leaned over and kissed his forehead. “And that is what you can have,” she said.
She handed the cup to Nomi. “Give him water from this cup, and he will make it to the city. You both will have to carry him.”
“Trust me, and you will get your friend the help he needs in the city. If you do not, then he will not make it. You will not like it, though. You may very well wish you’d sacrificed your life to help him.”
Arty watched Nomi get water from the reservoir, and then gave him some.
And time stopped.
Chapter Fourteen: Time for the village.
Tiag Chiefson made it to the reservoir. It was more incredible than he’d expected.
A woman was waiting for him.
“Who are you?”
She shook her head. “You live with ancient temples and buildings and don’t recognize me?”
“You can’t be her. She’s dead.”
“Tiag, you’re not going to be the chief of the village. You don’t really want to be there, do you?”
“No. I want to live in the city.”
“I know. Don’t worry. You don’t have to protect this reservoir. The foreigners are already on the trail back. You will be on that same track in a few days. You are going to be facing some challenges in the next few months. How you respond to them will either make or break you.”
She moved up to him, and took his hands in hers.
“It won’t be easy,” she said.
“Then you are what they say? Balance in challenge?”
He felt her look at him, deep into his soul.
“Don’t worry about your family or the village. They were true to their task. They will have time to adjust to all the changes. This place will become alive again with wealth abounding for all as the old buildings are uncovered.” She looked at him a bit longer. Whatever she saw there didn’t make her smile. She sighed deeply. “Oh well, it was worth a try. Only time will tell,” she said. … and then disappeared.
Chapter Fifteen: The last chapter.
Arthis Dusane looked up at the ceiling of the room. He wasn’t sure where he was, but the smell told him it was probably a hospital. A uniformed nurse came in, with her starched cap snapping in her brisk walk.
“There you are, my dear! Your friends are going to be glad to see you’ve woken!”
He didn’t feel like moving. His leg was in a cast, and his torso wrapped up. His head hurt like hell.
Mercari Vintner and Nomi Paskani came into the room in a bit of a rush.
“My god, it worked,” said Merc.
“We were so worried!”
“What happened?” Arty asked.
“You were…” Merc started, but looked up and waited till the nurse smiled and left them.
“The best I can believe,” began Nomi, “is that you were in a state of suspended animation.”
“Is that true? Like in the legend?” Arty asked.
“Near as I can tell,” she said.
“What legend?” Merc asked.
“Kuen, the second to the last Kuenyinsen, saved her people from a state of near death,” said Nomi.
Arty shook his head. “Don’t you ever tell my Great-Aunt Dunny, Merc, but it’s not quite that, I think. It’s the last breath and heartbeat. I was there. I saw it. The ghosts, and would be ghosts, the dead and those that might live. It was… very strange.”
Arty watched his friend work out this information. “You were given time to get here. You looked dead, but you stayed warm. It was terrible to carry you all that way to boats, and down the river. You stayed that way till they could take care of you in hospital.”
“Do you still have the cup?” he asked.
“Yes,” Nomi said. “We had to keep it safe, for Kuen-tai. We’ll make a plan to ensure it stays safe.”
Arty nodded. “I think we can work on that.”
Merc sat down, heavily into the chair behind him, almost missing it. “You mean, these things are real? That some of the relics you’ve been talking about really work. Wow. They really work.”
“Yes,” said Arty. “And we’re going to keep them safe.”
“If a normal museum doesn’t work, what will we do?”
“Whatever we have to!” said Arty.
(This concludes the story written for my Charity: Water campaign. I will be revising the whole into a Kindle book, that I’ll post when I can find out how to have the sales go to Charity:Water directly, or via another campaign. Thank you so much for your indulgence with this story. Feel free to comment on my FB page for ideas to make the story better!)