by Ken Hoover
On the mesa’s flat expanse, the mine shaft was a crude hole, a soulless eye. As Vallen Doss peered into it, a dank sulfuric breath wafted from the opening. She waved the foul air away with her mechanical hand.
Her two companions drew closer. Moz, the family golem, peered over her shoulder. He was bone-thin, and nearly twice as tall as Vallen. His round face had no mouth, only two crude indentations where eyes should be.
Kasha, a metallurgist and Vallen’s mother, crouched beside the hole, sunlight glinting off the coppery spiral tattoos on her face and hands. She wore an Extractor’s robe and cap of woven silver and copper.
“You’re not required to return to where your father perished,” said Kasha. “You yourself barely escaped with your life.” The first spoken as Vallen’s mentor, the last as her mother.
“I’ve needed to do this for twelve years. Dad deserves a proper burial.”
With a relenting sigh, Kasha threw a handful of dust and iron shavings into the hole. After a moment, she swayed back and forth, moving her hands in graceful pushes. She was an Extractor, a specialist who removed metal from its ore once a Miner tunneled to it. With her astonishing sense of geoalchemy, she could probe the depths of the earth and separate a rock into its valuable feed, and its wasteful tailings.
Vallen paced along the rocky ground, staring at the mine shaft, her boots kicking up chalky dust. This wasn’t a foreboding place on the surface. Volcanic rock and ash had weathered into cone-shaped spires, flat mesas, and colorful windswept canyons, so remote that she could not see her mother’s metallurgist village, with its shining silver towers, nor could she see any of the sprawling metropolises that her father had referred to as a plague. In fact, the only sign of civilization out here was their modest airship, its aluminum gondola moored to the mesa and held aloft by the hydrogen-filled envelope. Currents rippled the batwing steering sails.
Impatiently, Vallen drew her incendiary pistol from her thigh holster and checked its two large bullet chambers for the fourth time. She didn’t know what kind of weapon she might need, if any, but fire seemed like a good solution. Satisfied, she holstered the pistol.
Kasha clapped dust from her hands. “It is sanctified,” she said. “There is a long shaft here, smooth, expertly carved, which leads directly into a small chamber. Just on the periphery of my senses is another shaft.”
“Let’s get you closer, then.”
Moz shrugged one of the ropes from his shoulder and offered it to Vallen with powerful twig-like fingers. She knotted one end to a self-anchoring spike and hammered it into the rocky ground with her mechanical fist. She still marveled at the Shaper’s technology. The nearly unbreakable casing of her arm fit together more like muscle than machine. And she never heard the interior mechanisms. My timepieces make more of a racket.
Vallen kicked the rope over the edge and watched the darkness devour the loops. From her belt pouch, she produced a saltwater vial, shook it vigorously, then removed a piece of bright blue coral. She dropped it into the hole. Down it went, a sparkling green star, until it finally winked out, leaving only blackness. At first, she thought it had failed, but then a glowing green blossom appeared.
“Impressive,” said Kasha.
Vallen clipped her spider harness to the rope and leapt into the shaft before she changed her mind. The rigging whined against the handbrake. At first, all was blackness, but her eyes quickly adjusted to reveal the smooth surface of the shaft wall. During that initial descent, long ago, she’d clung desperately to her father’s chest, face buried in his old-leather musk. I got you, Pumpkin, he’d told her, and she wished he had her now.
When she landed at the bottom, she unclipped her spider harness, stepped out of the way, and called up to Kasha. The coral had done its work, illuminating the crystalized wall in multi-faceted shades of emerald.
Above, she heard Kasha making her way down. She was using the handbrake too much, but she managed to land gracefully. Vallen ordered Moz down.
While they waited, Kasha examined the crystal walls. “Bioluminescence,” she said.
Vallen smiled at a memory. When she’d broken off a crystal shard the very first time, its light had faded, and she thought she’d killed a living thing. In a way, she had. “We discovered it by accident. Dad’s lantern made the chamber glow bright as a bonfire. That’s when we saw them.”
She pointed to the opposite wall of sheer volcanic rock, covered with ancient writing, carved figures, and leering faces. Her breath caught at the sight of a creature with long, sharp teeth and wide eyes. In a lower level chamber, her father had been yanked into the darkness by something large. She’d only seen it in a flash, but she remembered huge disc-like eyes.
“Petroglyphs,” said Kasha.
Her mother’s voice pushed the flashing images into the darkness of her mind, and Vallen took a deep, calming breath. “Can you read them? Dad couldn’t.”
Kasha scowled at that. “For an explorer, he was always ill-prepared for my liking. But he liked surprises.”
Just then, Moz crawled down the rope, headfirst and spiderlike. When he reached the ground, he pivoted into a standing position and swiveled his head to look at the crystal walls and the petroglyphs. Vallen wondered what he thought of all this—after all, it had been Moz who’d rescued her, thanks to her mother’s worry and preparedness—but the golem never spoke. No matter how many secrets, frustrations, and triumphs she shared, he could only stare back with his gentle round face.
Kasha traced her fingers along the drawings, mouth open. Her eyes darted from one image to the next. She was interpreting the symbols, and they frightened her.
“What is it?” asked Vallen.
“Alchemists. I think they…I cannot be sure—”
The air was stale. Fine dust filled Vallen’s nostrils. She drew in a deep breath, let it out. “Tell me, Mom.”
Kasha touched one of the figures. “I believe this is a prison.”
Vallen dared herself to look more closely at the creature—the mane of jagged wires, the disc-like eyes. “We need to keep moving,” she said, perhaps too quickly. “The next shaft is here.”
Kasha held out her hands, swaying gently, turning in a slow circle. “The shaft slopes downward into large chamber below, but there is a significant blind spot, as if my senses are severed. I’ve never felt anything like it. I urge you to reconsider.”
“You know me better than that.”
Moz let the second coil of rope thump to the ground, kicking up dust. After anchoring a spike into the tunnel floor, Vallen removed another piece of coral from a saltwater vial and placed it inside a bronze-and-glass sphere that magnified the light. She clipped the lightsphere to her spider harness, and rappelled down the steep slope. There was enough room to stand, but the slow backwards descent into darkness reminded her that she was beneath a mountain of crushing rock. Instinct screamed at her to flee.
Vallen had gone night-diving in the deep lakes in Cochi as part of her trauma therapy and rehabilitation after her father’s death and her own near-death. For weeks she pushed her body to dive deeper into the dark water. Each day, she surpassed her last depth, imagining every conceivable horror lurking inches away, slithering past, reaching out to grab her, bite her, consume her.
For twenty heartbeats, she meditated. When she opened her eyes, her fears were gone.
“I’ve returned,” she said, as she touched down on the chamber floor.
Nothing answered her, not even her own echo.
She was just about to yell up to her companions when she heard a metallic hiss, like two voices sewn together with wind.
“I have waited,” it said.
Cold, damp air crept along her neck. She held up the lightsphere with a trembling hand. The light shivered. When the saltwater evaporated, the light would fade, which was the last thing she wanted. Several paces away, boulders and rubble created an impassable wall. While the cave-in had saved her life, it had taken her arm. In this very spot. At her feet, she saw a ragged piece of cloth, brown on brown. She knelt. My own shirt, she thought, her throat tightening, stained with my blood. A small stick protruded from the cloth. Gods, my own bones!
A skittering sound from behind her made her jump. Moz emerged.
“Where is my mom?” she asked, trying to hide the panic in her voice.
Moz gestured to the shaft, then pointed to the ground with an elongated finger. It could mean Kasha was coming, or not. It was better to ask him questions that could be answered with a yes or a no.
But the sound of Kasha’s descent came quickly thereafter, and soon she was unhooking her harness and taking in the confined space.
“This is where I was trapped,” explained Vallen, nudging her dusty arm bones with the toe of her boot.
“It is not too late to turn back,” said Kasha. “There is no shame in fear.”
Moz tilted his head sadly at her.
Vallen ignored them both. “Help me clear this rubble without bringing down the mountain.”
From a pouch, Kasha tossed a handful of iron shavings and dust at the rocks and closed her eyes. She stepped back and forth, swaying, dancing. Her connection to the earth was mysterious and powerful. She had been teaching Vallen the metallurgist arts for years, but Vallen lacked the patience.
A few moments later, Kasha opened her eyes and gestured to a wide expanse where the ceiling was at its lowest.
“There is a large fissure, stitched together by roots,” she said, “but it should hold.”
“We must proceed with absolute caution. My senses end just beyond the collapse. The negative space is a flawless sphere.”
“Let’s get to work,” she said. “Moz?”
The golem stood ready, waiting for an order.
Kasha pointed to a rock at the top of the pile. “Begin with that one, the one shaped like a kidney with white striations.”
Moz took a spindly step onto the rubble, stretched his long arms up, and grabbed the stone. It should have been impossible for someone of his bony stature to lift from that awkward angle, without leverage, but he effortlessly hefted the stone and carried it to the corner of the chamber where Kasha directed.
Vallen kept out of their way, moving smaller stones to one side. Her mechanical hand was strong, but her spine and muscles were limited.
Soon, the uppermost part of the rubble was cleared, without even a minor rockslide. They had created a dark expanse near the ceiling. Soon, they would clear a path to the floor.
Vallen lifted a stone with both hands, yelped, and dropped it, backing away. The stone cracked like wood. It was not a stone, but a human skull. She wiped her hands on her trousers, embarrassed for her outburst. They don’t bite, she told herself, squatting down to examine the skeleton. It was smashed to pieces, held only together by ragged clothing. There were seventeen skeletons all together. She had counted them over and over while she’d been trapped.
“It’s wearing a soldier’s uniform,” said Vallen. “Our side, if I’m not mistaken.”
Kasha fingered the insignia on the shoulder. “Indeed.”
“That places him here about fifteen years ago, then.”
“Not this one,” said Kasha, crouched beside a skeleton in what appeared to be desert clothing. “These robes are ancient Jemetian.”
“But they thrived nearly, what, a thousand years ago?”
Moz lifted a stone from the ground, and Vallen saw the glint of gold beneath. “Be careful!” she hissed. “Don’t touch that golden line!”
Moz shrugged his bony shoulders and shuffled away with the stone.
“I remember Dad had seen a platinum vein in the ceiling. He thought you’d like it, so he jumped to reach it, grabbing hold of a root. When he landed, his boot heel touched the line.” Her throat choked with panic. Her eyes welled, and she wiped them away with her sleeve. “He was pulled into the darkness.”
“Pulled?” asked Kasha. “By what?”
“By whatever is in there.”
Kasha knelt beside the inlaid gold and held out her tattooed palm, as if feeling a draft against her skin. “A powerful barrier. Just as the petroglyphs foretold. Note the ancient alchemical symbols etched in the alloy. This is not a trivial pentagram, but ancient Alchemist magic. The barrier is an invisible sphere that extends through the rock.”
When her father had been yanked away, Vallen had desperately shot her arm out, trying to reach him. As soon as her arm had passed through the barrier, she’d felt something cold and hard grasp her wrist. And then the ceiling collapsed, severing her arm on this side of the barrier, but saving her life.
Moz moved the last large stone, revealing the expanse of the chamber. The golden barrier arced across the chamber floor until it disappeared in the darkness. On the other side, all was black.
“There are no living creatures in this place,” said Kasha. “Have you noticed? No spiders, no deathstalkers. Not even a single ranscer.”
Vallen rolled the lightsphere across the barrier into the empty space beyond. As it rolled and bounced across the ground, the darkness shifted. Something vast slipped away from the light with the sound of metal scraping against stone. It moved too quickly to track. The lightsphere was crunched, and the chamber blinked into darkness.
In the silence that followed, the creature made a demonic sound of grinding gears and hissing steam.
Vallen fumbled blindly for another coral, panting, as the panic of being buried alive made her feel like a child again, trapped and terribly injured, with only the skulls to keep her company, grinning in the dim lantern light. Her fingers shook. She dropped the vial and it cracked, spilling the water and the coral. As soon as oxygen made contact, the coral’s light bloomed green.
When she looked up, the immense creature stood at the edge of the barrier, towering above them. Green light played across its features—a crest of wiry spines, large dish-shaped eyes glinting with veins of circuitry. Its elongated teeth reminded her of a whale’s baleen. Behind the head, the body seemed to fill the entire chamber, a black seething mass.
Vallen took a step back, breathless. She drew her pistol, but did not pull the trigger.
The creature shifted its head in Kasha’s direction. The spines frilled, then settled with another rattle. “I have faced your kind before, sorcerer. Your predecessors imprisoned me.”
“I imagine for good reason.”
“They lacked vision. Imagine your abilities fused with my own. We would be as powerful as a god.”
“It’s trying to tempt you across,” said Vallen firmly.
“I know,” said Kasha. “Many have fallen for its trickery. I will not add to the casualties.”
Vallen considered this. At least seventeen people had died outside of the golden circle. All of them face-down, as if fleeing. Yet nothing indicated the creature had ever crossed the barrier. So what killed them?
The creature faced Moz now. “And you, golem. I could give you a proper face that could be molded into any shape you desired. Combined, we could become a living organism, not spellbound clay.”
“A demon, you mean,” said Vallen. She’d been holding her breath, paralyzed, but now her emotions poured confidence into her, a gift from her mother.
The creature slapped a hand against the barrier, an immense thing of claws and wires. Electrical currents crackled across the invisible plane. With a groan, the creature pulled its hand away.
“What are you exactly?” Vallen demanded, taking one step closer. She holstered her pistol. It couldn’t hurt them. Not if they were on this side of the barrier.
Moz put his slender arm across her abdomen, barring her way. She wondered what the mechanical creature could truly offer her golem besides a face. Speech?
The creature tilted its enormous head to look down at Vallen with its huge dish-like eyes. “You are me,” it said.
“No. I’m Vallen Doss.”
“Vallen Doss.” The timbre of its voice changed, sounding confused. “Pumpkin?”
She was unprepared for the power of that single word.
“Dad?” she said. She couldn’t help it. Her jaw quaked.
It was her father’s voice, as if filtered through a bad speaker. But it was his voice. From the seething bulk of its body, a face pressed forward. It was made of black plates and sinews, but it was roughly in the shape of her father.
“Pumpkin,” it said.
She felt herself reaching out to him.
Kasha stepped between her and the barrier. Her mother’s coppery tattoos shimmered in the green light.
“This is a trick most cruel,” said Kasha.
“Your arm,” said the creature. “I feel it within me. It is a shard, a splinter.”
“Mom?” asked Vallen, not understanding.
Concern furrowed Kasha’s face. “You should have bled out. You were down here too long and the collapse had severed your arm. Don’t you see? A fine layer of metal cauterized the wound. We did not question where it came from, only what we could do with it.”
Vallen hated surprises. She turned her arm in the green light, trying to draw logic from the chaos of her thoughts.
“The Shapers tried to replace your arm, but you assimilated the new parts and turned them into something else, something more organic. I assumed you were a natural Shaper. I had no idea. Truly.”
The creature had been trying to escape for centuries. It lured living creatures, infected them, and then tried to ride across the barrier in its hosts. But the hosts had all died. It had failed. Until I came along. She looked at her arm, dark and misshapen in the dim light. They were connected. Symbiotic.
She glared at the creature. All this time, it had been watching them. Waiting.
Well, I’ve been waiting, too.
Kasha must have seen the determination in her eyes because she splayed her hands. “Stop. What are you doing?”
“I have an idea.”
With that, she moved Moz’s arm aside and stepped across the golden line.
The change in pressure was like walking through a waterfall. On the other side, she breathed stale air. Metal filings crunched beneath her boots. Black seams filled in the cracks and crevices of the ground, and oily, black filaments ran up the walls and ceiling like spider webs. In the middle of it all stood the creature, its bulk vanishing in the darkness.
Kasha straightened, a look of astonishment on her face. “What have you done?”
Vallen understood. If the creature fused with her, she couldn’t cross back. If she tried to leave, she would die like the skeletons before her. She was trapped like her father, unless…
Black wires looped around her arm, her real arm, biting into the flesh, burrowing. Gods, not that arm! She turned to face the creature, which towered over her, surrounded her. Filaments swarmed like black lace, crawling up her spine and neck. Down her throat. Into her nostrils and ears.
And then she wasn’t her anymore, but it. And it was her.
She knew its history, anguish, needs, and weaknesses, just as it knew hers, and she saw the ancient alchemists mining it from the earth, saw how they fell to it one by one, were digested, transformed into mass, until the survivors had no choice but to quarantine it deep in the earth, or else it would spread like a virus just as it had done to civilizations before it.
But just as she knew its memories, it knew hers.
And she felt the creature respond to her purpose here, felt its tremor of fear as it realized her father’s failure to protect her on that fateful day had shaped her into a person who had, in fact, planned for this very moment.
No, it thought.
Yes. “Mom. Extract me!” she shouted, wires stretching around her mouth. Her voice broke into two octaves.
Understanding brightened Kasha’s face. She took a martial stance, and hummed low and deep. Her hands pushed, pulled, probed.
The creature recoiled from Vallen, shrieking like brakes on iron rails as its body writhed. Fissures split the creature’s body, and pieces crumbled like ash. The ground rumbled so violently that Vallen staggered. Debris fell from the ceiling, raining dust. A stalactite crashed nearby.
“It’s not going to hold!” Kasha shouted.
Her mother was right. Under the strain of Kasha’s power, another cave-in was inevitable. She would have to stop, or risk crushing them all.
Vallen gave her a sorrowful nod. “It’s okay, Mom. Stop.”
Slowly, Kasha’s tattooed hands fell to her sides, and the vibrations in the ground murmured and gradually ceased.
“I’m sorry, child,” said Kasha, panting.
“There’s nothing to be done,” said Vallen. “It’s over. I’ve failed.”
For a long moment, there was no sound in the chamber, just a silent vastness. All around her, the wounded creature gathered itself. Soon it would rise again. It would consume, ingest, transform, and spread, like it had done before.
A small portion of the creature rose beside her, taking a roughly humanoid form. When it spoke, it was a close imitation of her father’s voice. “We can exist together. You are me.”
“Mom,” she said. “I want you to leave. When you’re safe, collapse the chamber. Collapse everything.”
“No. There has to be another way.”
Moz took a long stride close to the barrier and tilted his head at Vallen. He seemed to scold her, even though he had no mouth. And she could almost hear her mother’s voice, reproving her, and her father’s voice, encouraging her. Moz stretched his arms to touch the ceiling with his long fingers. He snapped to attention, and she understood what he was doing.
Moz stood straight as a support beam.
Excitement buzzed through her. She nodded to Kasha, who resumed with more fury. The creature faltered. One leg shattered, forcing it to one knee. The wires around Vallen’s face and arms disintegrated. She vomited metal out of her throat. Through tears, she saw her father’s face in the black metal, and when she touched his stern chin, the metal sloughed off to reveal pale bone beneath. She screamed as she was assaulted by agony on a molecular level. Her mechanical arm slowly broke into particles, floating away as Kasha used her magic to separate the feed from the tailings. I am the feed. She felt every piece of metal as it detached, as painful as being flayed. The worst was at her elbow, where the metal had been embedded for a dozen years, the sharpness of a million splinters.
She screamed until she collapsed, as the creature turned to dust, and her father’s bones fell around her.
And then her mother was there, cradling her head, stroking her hair, the same fair hair as hers.
“I am the feed,” whimpered Vallen. “I am the feed.”
“Yes, my love. Yes, you are.”