by Robert Currer

Part 1: Chapter 9

3,600 Words: 15 Minute Read

This story contains sexual content. Reader discretion is advised.

Eric eyed the dwindling shade as he readjusted his armor, trying to unstick the sweat soaked fabric beneath.  Light duty had sounded fantastic when he was lying on his back in bed and could think of nothing else but the ache in his leg.  No more hours of patrolling.  No more demon monsters from The Mist.  No more fly-bloated dead bodies.  Instead, he spent his days watching a team of scholars dig a meticulously crafted hole in the ground, and his entire responsibility was to stand next to that hole with a spear in case something nasty crawled out of it.  His entire existence had been reduced to standing by a hole with a pointy stick.  A heavy sigh puffed from his nostrils.  He never thought he’d say it, but he missed Corbin.  Annoying her helped pass the time.  He kicked a pebble, sending it skittering into the pit.

A shout came from below and he winced.  It would be just his luck if the pebble had struck someone.  Expecting to see upturned angry faces, he peered over the edge.  Instead, he saw academics and workers were congregating around a shock of bright pink hair.  A murmur of excitement rolled through them like a wave as the pink-haired scholar held something aloft.  Eric had to squint through the noonday sun to see.  It didn’t look like much, just a tube of dirt-caked metal.  Nothing worth this kind of excitement.  But scholars, he had learned, were an odd bunch who seemed to marvel over every scrap and trinket so long as it came out of the dirt. 

Pink Hair mounted the rough wooden ladder that reached from the bottom of the dig to the surface.  She was followed by the dig leader, Scholar Van Ustil.  He was a short man whose bald pate gleamed with sweat as he ordered the others back to work.  Belly jiggling, he trotted to catch up with Pink Hair.  “Bloody well done.  Takes an eye to spot one of these and a steady hand not to bugger it during extraction.”

“Thanks, Hem,” she said, adjusting her glasses.  Her eyes were locked on the cylinder.  “With luck, we’ll find something useful on it.”

He arrested her by a bony elbow, pulling her focus to him.  In a confidential tone, he said, “Be careful, Mel.  If you do find anything on there, I don’t have to tell you what someone might do to take that information for themselves.”  His face read of fatherly concern.

“You don’t think…”

“Discoveries like this are career makers.”

She held his gaze for a moment and then nodded.  “Good,” he said.  His eyes surveyed the site, finally settling on Eric.  “You!  Guardsmen.  You are to accompany Scholar Avery.  Do not leave her side until her work is finished.  Understand?”  He turned back to Mel and patted her on the shoulder.  Something passed wordlessly between them as watery smiles spread on both their faces.  Then they parted ways, leaving Eric to scramble after Mel wondering what the hell he had just been volunteered for.

A moment later, they arrived at the line of work tents.  Mel wandered into one at the far end.  The canvas sides had been rolled up, exposing the long examination table and several weather-stained chests of instruments.  Despite the oppressive heat, Mel set Eric to work unfurling the sides and fastening them in place.  As he worked, she lit several lamps.  The yellow light sent the unsettling shadows of occult instruments cavorting along the walls of the darkened room.  The change in atmosphere sent a prickling up his spine like stepping into a fortune-teller’s tent.  Mel for her part looked perfectly at home in the gloom among the inscrutable apparatuses of her profession.

On the examination table, she placed her soil-crusted treasure in a pool of clean light.  Pulling her neon locks back into a ponytail, she folded her gangling limbs onto a stool.  Hunched over the desk with eyes magnified by her thick lenses, she looked like a studious praying mantis.  Her spidery fingers set to arranging a variety of brushes, picks, and solution bottles in a semicircle where they could be easily reached. 

She worked first with her hands, peeling back loose bits of dirt and sand.  Here and there she would employ a brush, sweeping away what her fingers could not easily access.  Eric stifled a yawn.  Watching her work had all the excitement of watching weeds grow.  His feet ached from being on them all day.  There was no airflow through the tent, making him feel like he was standing in a stagnant slow cooker.  Well, if he was going to be roasted alive, he was at least going to sit down.  He pulled a stool over and settled in to wait.

The thin cuts of daylight that slid in through the seams in the tent had worn down to mere pinpoints of fiery orange by the time Mel had worried enough of the soil away that Eric could get a real sense of what the thing was.  He has been right.  It was a metal tube but paper thin and speckled with green oxidation.  A labyrinth of grooves was carved into the sides, each of varying thickness and depth.

“What is it?” asked Eric, the weariness of his boredom giving way to a bud of interest.

“The ancients called it a Testimonial,” she said.  She didn’t look up.

“What’s it for?”

She huffed.  “It’s a method of preserving spoken messages.”

“What kind of messages?”

“Important ones.”

“What’d you think is on it?”

“You ask a lot of questions for a guard,” she said laying her instruments down.  Her eyes narrowed.  “Why so interested?”

“I didn’t mean to offend,” he said.

“No, you just meant to interrupt.”

“I was just curious.”

“You’re not paid to be curious.”  Her face twisted into a snarl.  “I’m paid to be curious.  You’re paid to sit there and shut the hells up until I tell you to do otherwise.  So how about we both get back to doing what we’re paid for?”

Eric leaned back on his stool and nodded, looking anywhere but at Mel or the Testimonial.  Grumbling, she returned to her work.

Hours passed in silence.  Most of the detritus had been removed from tube by now, though Mel still labored in its cleaning.  She pulled over a standing magnifying glass under which she examined each nook and groove with minute attention.  Her fingers danced between the picks and the solution jars as she teased out a speck of dirt with a pick or caressed away a bead of corrosion with one solution or another.  Soon, the Testimonial practically gleamed in the lamp light.  Mel’s own glow had begun to fade.  Her eyelids drifted closed and snapped back open.  She pulled off her glasses and rubbed her eyes.

“Go get me a coffee from the mess tent,” she said through a sonorous yawn.

Eric rose to his feet, his muscles practically moaning as they stretched.  At the tent flap, he hesitated.  He needed the walk.  His cramping legs craved the relief.  Still… “Scholar Van Ustil said I’m not to leave you.”

She gaped at him.  “What did you say?”

“It’s just that his orders were very clear.  I’m—”

“I don’t give a good godsdamn what he said!”  She was on her feet, her face an apoplectic pink that nearly matched her hair.  “Now go get me my godsdamned coffee, you inbred-goat-fucking-shit-stain, before I tear off your head and drink it out of your skull!”  One of the jars whizzed past his shoulder, shattering against a tent pole.  Eric darted from the tent, Mel still howling obscenities in his wake.

As he walked, he considered taking his time.  The coolness of the evening breeze was a balm to the trapped heat of the examination tent.  The moon had risen.  Its silver light sketched lanes among the pooling shadows.  He could already smell the soothing aroma of the strong, black coffee brewing in the mess tent.  Tonight would be a perfect night for a stroll.  He was tempted to find Zo.  They could take their coffee and walk around the edge of camp, do their best to forget their predicament, maybe even make an honest to god date of it.  Just the thought of her loosened the knot between his shoulder blades. 

Ahead the lantern light of the mess tent spilled out like fool’s gold, garish and tawdry when laid next to genuine lunar silver.  He looked in the direction of Zo’s tent knowing that it was too far away to see but savoring the gentle breeze that ran through his hair as if she had sent it just for him.  He sighed.  It was a beautiful fantasy, but that’s all it could be tonight.  Eric turned his feet back to the mess tent to retrieve two mugs of coffee.  He hoped Mel choked on it.

Snoring rattled out of the tent flap.  He rolled his eyes.  Of course, someone with her sense of superiority would sleep like a garbage disposal gagging on a bag of nickels.  He shouldered through the flap, bracing himself for another string of abuse. 

“Coffee’s he—”  The words cut off.  Inside, Mel was slumped over the examination table in blissful slumber, her arms wrapped protectively around the Testimonial.  Next to her a figure dressed in black fatigues leaned over her trying to ease the tube free from her grip.  The figure froze at Eric’s intrusion, lightless eyes peering out from behind the folds of a scarf that obscured their face and head.

There was a beat as Eric and the figure watched each other, neither moving, both tensing for the coming action.  The figure threw caution to the wind and yanked the Testimonial from Mel’s grasp.  As she pulled herself awake with a bleary snort, the thief turned to run toward one of the corners where a section of the canvas siding had been unfastened.  Eric hurled one of the hefty clay mugs.  It struck the fleeing intruder solidly on the back of the head, shattering on impact and drenching the figure in searing coffee.  With a grunt, the figure was knocked to the dirt floor as the Testimonial bounced from their grip.  Eric vaulted over the examination table and dove for the thief.  The intruder rolled to the side and Eric landed in the dirt.  A hard kick to the jaw knock Eric onto his back as he tried to climb to his feet.  A shriek from Mel split the air as the figure took a step closer to Eric.  They paused as shouts of alarm began to fill the night air.  They turned and fled into the night.

Eric groaned, still reeling from the kick.  He felt his jaw.  It was going to have one hell of a bruise, but it didn’t feel broken.  He gripped the edge of the table and hoisted himself to his feet.

“You fucking idiot!” Mel thundered.  She was kneeling on the ground where he had just been laid out, her face a violent red.  In her hand was the Testimonial.  One end had been pinched shut.  “You crushed it, you godsdamned orangutan!”

“At least you still have it,” said Eric, listening to his jaw pop as it moved.

“I’ll have to spend hours trying to restore it, all because of your fat ass,” she said, her lip curled into a snarl.  “Fuck!”  She slammed a fist on the table.  Turning it over in her hands, examining the deformed end.  The red rage began draining from her face and was replaced by gray fatigue.  Tears threatened to spring from her blood shot eyes.  “I’m going to need that cup of coffee.”

“Then go get it yourself.  I’m not letting that thing out of my sight again.”

The dawn came slowly.  When at last the golden rays shone through the tent flaps, Eric massaged his eyes with the heels of his hands.  A cramp had developed between his eyebrows from pushing away sleep all night.  Mel had been right.  Reforming the Testimonial to its original shape had been the sum of hours of painstaking work.  Other than a few reports made to the guardsmen coordinating the search for the would-be thief, he had been of little help.

“Make yourself useful,” said Mel, bent so close that her nose almost touched the Testimonial.  She waved at one of the wooden tool cabinets and said, “Bring me the gramophone.”

Eric slid off his stool, body creaking.  “Is it ready?”

“Near enough.” She sighed without catharsis like a runner resigning herself to the last quarter mile.  “It’s the thing with the brass horn and the—Yes, that’s it.”  She cocked her eyebrow at him.

He laid the gramophone on the table next to her.  With enough care to defuse a bomb, she lifted the Testimonial and slid it onto the mandrel.  She adjusted the sound box so that the needle fit into the first groove.  Her whole body rose and fell as she took a deep breath and then began to turn the crank.  A haunting static filled the air that even in the morning light lifted the hairs on Eric’s arms.  Through the unsettling noise, a voice, deep as the abyss, spoke in a language that sounded stretched.  He couldn’t understand the words, but Mel obviously did.  Here and there she would stop turning the crank and scrawl a sloppy note in one of her journals.  Exhaustion seemed to fall from her as the needle traversed the tube.  When it crossed over the crease where the tube had been crushed, the voice grew distorted, warbling its words in a way that made Eric wonder if they were even intelligible.  She kept turning the crank but took no notes.

At last, the recording reached its end, and Mel began scribbling again as she flipped between hand-drawn diagrams of the dig.  “Did we get what we needed?” asked Eric.

“What?  Oh, yes,” she said without looking up.

“What about the crushed end?  Could you make it out?”

“It doesn’t matter.”  She waved the question away.  “I heard enough to find what we’re looking for.”

Eric looked back to the tube.  The crease was set nearly a third of the way from the end.  A third of the message had been lost and she said didn’t matter.  The knot between his shoulders twisted.  He couldn’t shake the feeling that it would matter in the end.

The sun hung low and orange over the crenelated horizon when Eric finally stepped into his tent.  The twilight wind was beginning to pick up, tugging and snapping the canvas siding.  He eased himself down onto the edge of his cot, feeling every inch of himself sigh with relief.  The side of his face still throbbed where he had been kicked.  He sat head hung with arms braced on the wooden frame for a while before summoning the will to pull off his boots.  His toes stretched across the rough wooden floor with delight.  The cot against the other side of the tent sat made but empty.  Not for the first time, he thanked his lucky stars that his bunkmate had duty every night this week.

Eric rolled onto his back to watch the wind worry the canvas ceiling with a sigh.  It was his first moment of peace in nearly two days.  He should be sleeping.  But, instead, his mind wound its way to Zo.  He wondered what she was doing in a dreamy sort of way.  Behind his eyes, her face appeared to him with her eyes like the sea, the warm swell of her grinning cheeks, and her silken lips.  She had asked him to run away with her and, as he strolled the edge of sleep, he wondered if she was serious.  He kind of thought she was.  In the moment, drunk on the heat of her, he had agreed, but it was madness to run.  Paydrin’s fate made that horrifyingly clear.  She must have been just as caught up in the moment as he was.  Running off into the sunset together did make for a pretty good fantasy.

“You really shouldn’t sleep until you’ve been checked out.  You could have a concussion,” said Zofia.  Eric bolted upright.  She was standing just inside the tent smiling that self-conscious smile that melted him, her medicine bag held in both hands.

His heart leaped in his chest.  Words stumbled over his tongue until he managed a very eloquent “Hi.”

She put her bag down on his footlocker and strode over to him.  Her slight fingers lifted him by the chin so that she could see the dark purple bruise in the light.  As she examined his pupils, she said, “You know you don’t have to keep getting hurt just to see me.  Don’t think I’m not flattered but asking me out might be easier.”  Her fingers crawled along his skull searching for bumps and breaks.  At some point they stopped searching and started running through his hair.  Her eyes gazed into his.

“How am I looking?” he asked, his voice low and breathy.

“Perfect.”  She was so close that he could feel the heat of her.  Then she blinked and pulled back, blushing.  “That is to say perfectly healthy.  Which reminds me…” She turned back to her bag.  The familiar chime of glass against glass rang out as she reached inside.  When she turned back to him, she held a bottle of wine and two glasses.  “A little something for the pain.”  She jiggled the bottle with mischievous flair.

“Where did you get that?” Eric asked with a laugh.

“That’s a secret,” she said with a wink before passing him the glasses.  Gripping the base of the bottle’s neck with one hand, she twisted and pulled with the other, releasing the cork with a pop.  Wine sloshed into both glasses.  “Cheers.”  Their glasses clinked and Eric touched his to the cot frame before bringing it to his lips.

She took a luxurious drink, running the tip of her tongue along the wet pillow of her bottom lip.  Eric’s brain stalled.  “You’re not the kind of guy who had ‘not superstitious but a little stitious’ in their Tinder profile are you?” she asked.

He snorted, nearly shooting wine out his noise.  “No,” he said.  “I was one of those ‘loves to travel’ guys.  Had a picture of myself in front of Machu Picchu and everything.”  A little flush slid into his cheeks.

“I can’t judge.  Mine said ‘let’s go on an adventure’,” she said, chuckling.

“Careful what you wish for.”

“Yeah.”  The laughter petered out.

They sat in silence for a long while studying their drinks.

“Still game to run away together?” she asked without look at him.

“You’re serious?”

“I need to be free of this place, of the ODF, of this pointless war against existence.”  She slumped down to her elbows, cradling her drink.

“You saw what they did to Paydrin.”  He swallowed.  Even the memory made his throat feel tight.

“If you don’t want to be with me, I understand,” she said with a quiver in her voice.

Eric brushed a teak lock behind her ear.  “I don’t want to see that happen to you.”

Her eyes were rippling ponds gone red around the edges.  Through a weak smile, she said, “At least you wouldn’t have me bugging you all the time.”

He looked into her eyes.  Tears flowed over their banks and dripped off the curve of her chin like rain.  “That’s the best part of my day,” he said.

She held his gaze, searching perhaps for the lie or jest.  He leaned in.  Her rose petal lips parted and met his.

Later, she was nestled against the sweat damp flesh of his chest.  Eric could feel the firm give of her breasts as they swelled into him with each breath.  He pushed a strand of golden hair off her forehead and kissed the spot where it had been.  His heart felt full to bursting, and he hoped she could feel its radiance.

“Be mine,” she said.  The smoked cream of her voice was a delicacy.

“Always.”  The word bubbled out through the dreamy cotton that filled his head.

She pulled herself on top of him, legs on either side of his hips.  Her tender hands found his cheeks and gently tilted his eyes to hers.  They were the same endless rolling turquoise as the hypnotic splendor of the ocean seen from a boat far at sea.  “Really be mine.”  He could feel the gravity of her, the pull of wanting nothing more than to fall into her.

“Always,” he said again.

Arching down, she drank deeply of his lips.  Her hips rocked, grinding herself against him.  She slid along his length, her slickness setting off fireworks inside him.  A tightness gripped his groin as blood surged to her touch.  There was nothing in the world for him but her.  The rest had all fallen away leaving only an unquenchable thirst for her.  When he was ready, she lifted herself to slide him inside.  She bit her bottom lip with a devilish grin, toying with him for a moment.  As she sat, swallowing him entirely, she moaned, “Run with me.  Let’s be free together.”

“Always,” he said.  And he meant it.

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