"With all your smarts, why didn't you just make a concerted effort to wipe them out? Be done with them."

Advertisement

Mo'amba shook his head. "We must not. Just as they need us to survive, we need them. Their spoor contains a substance that we need to grow our food. Without it, the plants would die. And then we would die. We actually herd our aging milk animals, those no longer producing well, into the crak'an's territory to feed them."

"You feed those monsters? No wonder there are so many of them."

"We must maintain their numbers to produce enough spoor. It is the main goal of our hunters to collect the spoor and bring it back here."

"Shit collectors," Ben said. "So much for the noble hunter image."

-- Advertisement --

"They are noble. They risk much to venture into the realm of the crak'an. Especially now without the aid of a heri'huti's sight." The old one looked meaningfully at him.

"Let's not bring up that argument again," Ben said, fearful that Mo'amba would again demand that he stay and help this village, a village that right now wanted him dead. "So you still haven't told me why this bloody death sentence hangs over our heads."

"I was getting to that. You see, we have for generations honed our tools to keep the crak'an in check, away from the center of our lives. One of our main defenses is the tin'ai'fori. It-"

Ben waved a hand. "Hold on a sec. What's that?"

Mo'amba pressed his lips together thoughtfully, his eyes narrowing. "You don't have a word for it." He reached behind him and scraped a sample of the glowing fungus from the wall. "It is a special type of this. But it kills. We have surrounded this central cavern with a thick perimeter of tin'ai'fori. It protects our village."

"So how come these monsters-um, crak'an-are now able to get through and attack you all of a sudden?"

"The answer is a secret known only to the warrior sect and the leaders." Mo'amba cleared his throat, his voice lowered slightly as if someone might be eavesdropping. "The tin'ai'fori is dying. Slowly now the edges of our defenses have blackened and fallen away, thinning the barrier between the crak'an and us. Eventually this barrier will crumble."

Ben imagined flocks of the beasts sweeping into the sheltered valley. Even though he had been given a death sentence by these people, he still shivered at the thought of the carnage. "So what has all this to do with us?"

"The tin'ai'fori began dying soon after the arrival of your people."

"What! How?"

"I don't know. A few of the warriors and I believe it is a sign. A portent that it is time for us to move back to the upper world. But many others believe you are demons meant to destroy us."

"And I suppose your chief is one of these believers?"

Mo'amba nodded. "As are most others."

"So how're we going to persuade him otherwise? I don't expect the word of a demon will mean much to him."

"No, it won't. So tomorrow you must follow my lead. Your companion, Harry, will help. Unknown to him, I have been teaching him the rudiments of our language during his dreamtime. Helping him learn our tongue. Listen to him."

"But what are you planning?"

Mo'amba's figure faded away as contact was broken, raising a hand in farewell. "Tomorrow."

TWENTY-SEVEN

THE NEXT MORNING, ASHLEY PACED THE FLOOR OF THE room, still struggling with the information Ben had received from Mo'amba, their only ally among these people. How could they fight superstition? Like so many missionaries who had been killed by superstitious natives in hidden corners of the world, she found herself wondering how this could be happening.

Ben stepped close to her and hugged her from behind, nuzzling his chin next to hers. "You're gonna wear a track in the floor if you keep pacing like that," he said.

She sighed. He was right; there was nothing she could do now but wait. Her mind switched to another concern. "Listen, about last night."

"Hmmm?" He squeezed her closer to him.

"I was… well, I mean… just because we… I don't expect that you should… you know… it was just a moment."

"Listen, lady, don't try an' wiggle out of this. I'm no one-night stand. Do you think you can just use me up and toss me out?"

She smiled thinly and slipped out of his grip, suddenly uncomfortable with his intimacy. Was he as sincere as he sounded? How many other men had vowed perpetual commitment, only to vanish from her bed and disappear into the night? And what about her ex-husband? Scott had sworn devotion and love just as sincerely, and look what had become of that. She placed a hand on her belly, remembering the pain and her loss.

She stepped away from Ben, trying to ignore his wounded eyes. "We need to make a plan. Just in case we can't talk our way out. Michaelson still has his backpack of weapons. We should-"

A commotion at the entryway to the chamber interrupted her. Twisting around, she saw Harry push through the guards. Michaelson limped behind him, using one of the spears as a makeshift crutch. Ashley secretly sighed in relief at the interruption, glad to have others around to dilute the intimacy of the moment.

She cleared her throat. "Harry, have you heard anything?"

He nodded. "I've been up all night, prying information out of some of the local gossips. They've got this type of rotgut booze made from some type of mold-tastes like warm toothpaste. But hell, a buzz is a buzz."

"Get on with it," Ben prodded gruffly. "We don't have all bloody day."

Ashley glanced at him. It was unlike Ben to snap at people like that.

Harry blinked a few times, obviously tired, or maybe even a bit hungover. "Anyway, this little libation loosened a few tongues. It seems that everyone thinks you're killing their precious fungus."

Ashley nodded. "We know all about that."

His eyebrows shot up. "How the heck-"

"Never mind that now. What have you heard about the council meeting? Will we be given a chance to defend ourselves?"

Harry looked at her quizzically. "Rumor has it that Mo'amba will plead your case. Even though he's old, he's someone many don't want to cross. So we might have a pea-sized chance to dissuade them."

"But we still need a backup plan." She glanced over to Michaelson, noticing he still carried his holstered pistol. "How's our armament?"

He slapped his holster. "This, a stubbed AK-47, and my collapsible rifle back in Harry's room."

"What are the odds of shooting our way out of here?"

"I wouldn't bet a plug nickel. I've seen the council chamber. It's deep in the village. It's doubtful we'll make it to the outside. And even if we should manage, we still have to find our way back up."

Ashley frowned. "Then we'd better be damned persuasive."

Drums began beating a slow cadence somewhere far off. The guards stirred at the door. One of them barked an order.

Harry turned to her. "It's showtime."

The first thing Ashley noticed about the council chamber was the floor. The rock had been polished to a mirrored sheen that gave it a slippery appearance, like black ice. The floor sloped to a small bowllike pit in the center of the chamber. Positioned in a circle around the room, like guards, were stone pillars, polished to the same silky smoothness. Ropes of fungus, some glowing red, some green, trailed in loops and spirals down the shafts of the pillars in delicate designs. Similar designs in phosphorus lines etched the walls.

Eight tufted pillows, each of a different color, ringed the central pit. Ashley raised an eyebrow at the scooped depression. This was the only nonpolished area of the chamber, looking as if it had been crudely chopped out of the rock. Her mind, even spinning with fears for Jason and trepidation for herself and Ben, was still that of an anthropologist. It kept gnawing at the many mysteries of these people. Like just what was the cultural significance of these pits? Almost every chamber, even those at Alpha Base, had one of these dug-out spots. She had originally dismissed them as mere firepits, but after seeing how these creatures lived, she no longer believed this. She had yet to see even one flaming hearth. With the many boiling springs, the volcanic heat, and the scarcity of wood, she did not see the cultural necessity for so many firepits. So what the hell were they?

A hand, one of the guards', pushed her from behind. She stumbled into the chamber.

Ben nudged her. "Looks like we're the first to arrive."

Ashley moved aside to allow Harry to enter. Michaelson, with his injured ankle, had detoured back to the hunter's enclave to retrieve his weapons and ready them. The major's pistol dug into the small of her back where she had shoved it into her belt, hidden by her loose-hanging shirt. Just in case things went sour, they could use the gun to reach the hunters' area and join up with Michaelson… and his arsenal.

One of the tribe entered from another doorway, carrying an amethyst-tipped staff. Her pendulous breasts marked this one as female, and from the bulge in her belly, most likely pregnant. She crossed to kneel on one of the pillows, guards flanking her on either side. She ignored Ashley and her group, avoiding eye contact as she lowered to her pillow.

She did, however, acknowledge with a small nod the next creature to enter the chamber. He was difficult to look at, with a missing hand and a jagged scar ripping across his face. His left leg dragged slightly as he crossed to a purple pillow and collapsed with a loud sigh.

Harry stirred next to Ashley. "That's Tru'gula. He's the head of the warrior clan. He may look a mess, but he's a sharp one."

Harry's words, though merely whispered in her ear, apparently carried to Tru'gula. He gave them a stern heavy-browed look. Harry stepped away from Ashley, remaining silent as a procession of staffed figures eventually filled the remaining empty pillows. Soon, many armed guards lined the walls around them. Ashley shifted, trying to work the hidden gun into a comfortable position. Even though it dug into her back, there was a certain security in its pressure.

-- Advertisement --