Derek smiled at him from across the polished wooden table. “So my friend, shall I have your hands?”
Holden didn’t have to force his grin. He’d prepared for the “end of the road” intimidation. Despite the threat, he liked Derek, who’d always been willing to loan Holden a little more. Flanked by two guards armed with cudgels, it seemed the charity had ended.
Fortunately, Holden had a plan. “Not today.” The guards tensed as he reached into his coat, but Derek continued to smile. Holden withdrew a small, dull grey metallic rod and set it on the table.
Derek frowned. “Is this it?”
“It’s Naga made,” Holden said.
One of the guards stifled a chuckle, and Derek looked even less pleased. “Trying to scam me, Holden?”
“Not at all.” Holden pressed a barely visible button on the side of the rod. The top slid back with a click, and a mechanized grinding sounded from within. Six silver tendrils emerged, reflecting the murky light. They curled upwards slowly until they brushed the ceiling, swaying like charmed serpents.
“And now I am intrigued,” Derek said.
“See the tips on the ends?” Holden had dared to touch one earlier. “They’re for stabbing.” He hadn’t figured out how to do the actual stabbing however. While experimenting, the tendrils swung about lazily.
“So you did run to the Naga city.” Derek’s eyes remained on the tendrils. “I figured it for a lie.”
Escape had been Holden’s only option when Derek’s men came to collect. Holden was out of money, and knew no one who wouldn’t sell him out. So he gambled on the chance the Naga ruins weren’t picked clean and cursed, like everyone claimed.
He stole away under the moon to the ancient city of the snake-people, and picked it apart. His risks paid off. He uncovered treasure after treasure, and compiled a cache he would gladly lead Derek’s men to.
“Give me some men,” Holden said, “and I’ll bring you everything I couldn’t carry back.”
Derek’s grin returned. “Remi,” he turned to one of the guards. “Take Holden and gather fifteen men. Get carts, packhorses, everything.” Remi nodded, marched around the table, and seized Holden firmly by the arm. “Bring me whatever else is hidden in that skeleton city,” Derek said.
Holden felt relief flood through him as he was led out. He opened his mouth to offer thanks, but Derek turned his gaze back to the rod. “It’s too bad your father never thought like you,” he mumbled. Holden grew red, but remained silent.
Remi half-dragged, half-walked Holden through the silent hallways of Derek’s compound. The rooms and passages went by in a blur, until he found himself standing outside, his eyes suddenly overwhelmed by sunlight. Throughout the courtyard, men lounged, gambled, sparred. “Wait here,” Remi ordered, and marched off, shouting commands at the men he passed. Holden leaned against the stonework and stared at the sand.
Derek’s words stung. Much as it angered him, Holden couldn’t disagree. No one could say his father ever thought outside the box.
Holden fancied himself the opposite of everything the man had been. Some called Holden a schemer, but he was an idea man. Think counter-intuitively. It tended to work. In younger days, there wasn’t a girl he couldn’t charm into a bedroom, or a man who wouldn’t hand him a coin, sure as the sun he’d get two back.
His father called it lazy and dishonest, always the first to chide. Holden hadn’t cared; he loved a different girl every night, and always had some sap’s coin for the gambling halls.
As the years passed though, the girls drifted away along with his luck. He borrowed from Derek. His father had lost it, and screamed into the night. Holden fumed inside, but shrugged, said something obnoxious, and the old man stormed off.
The next day his father gave in. He’d inhaled his first breath of Smoke in twenty years. Six months later, he died in an abandoned house, pipe in hand, tar stains on his white vest.
Remi had gathered a small amount of men in the center of the courtyard. They laughed. Harder than whatever the simple-minded joke Remi managed to tell warranted. He ignored them, as he’d ignored his father’s concerns.
Let them laugh. Soon he would be free, and rich. Ravaged by plunderers ages ago, the Naga city still held hundreds of valuables. Derek could have the entire stockpile Holden had set aside for him. Holden, of course, had another cache, for himself.
Holden knew nothing of antiquities, but once he paid Derek off, he’d return and take back a piece every week or so. Slow and careful were two words to live by. Fence it, stash the coin. By next year, he’d have more money than he ever owed Derek. If Father could see his “lazy” plan now.
A week on the road with Derek’s buffoons had been near intolerable. Between the jokes and threats, Holden had considered running away. When the men diced, and asked whether Holden “had any coin to lose,” he would just sit back on the grass, look at the stars, and think of the awaiting treasure.
The closer they got to the Naga city, however, the more uncomfortable everyone felt. Holden had slept beneath those towering ruins, and it brought him no comfort to return, even in company. It needed to be done.
All joking died with the Naga city, as Holden knew it would.
The ridge descended into a valley, and within sat the destitute constructions of the Naga. Like the snake people themselves, the buildings were curved, arched and twisted. Their glass and stone had been elongated by magic, and spires twirled into the sky, bleached white and sparkling by the sun. Crevices and holes spoke of tunnels Holden hadn’t explored, stretching untold distances beneath the city.
Dotted about, with no semblance of order, stood statues, monuments, and empty bases. Mementos of the Naga; their scaled, clawed arms attached to curled snake tails, topped with heads sporting sharp fangs, slit nostrils and small eyes. Few were whole, but Holden felt them watching. He’d felt the same last time. Shifting his thoughts back to treasure, he gave the men a smile. “Let’s go, you won’t want to be here at night.”
They led the packhorses and carts down into the silent city of bones and glass. The clop of hooves on cracked, coiled walkways the only sound. Holden urged them forward, past familiar buildings and landmarks, towards the treasure he promised Derek and away from his own.
No matter what his father had thought, Holden was no fool. He made the men move slow, “for fear of cracks in the ground.” Let them stir under the gaze of headless statues for a time. All the more anxious they would be to load the treasures and leave. They could even forget a thing or two, something Holden could add to his collection later.
Holden called a halt before a domed building with a narrow archway for an entrance. Wide enough for only three men to move through, yet stretched higher than any of them could reach.
Remi left two men to watch the horses, and motioned for the rest to follow Holden. They walked into the shadows of the building, and Holden called for torches.
The door appeared around a slight bend; double marble slabs closed tight with knobs worked like sunbursts. “Help me with them,” Holden said, and Remi stepped forward. Together they shoved, until the doors came open with a resounding crash, jolting everyone.
However startled the men were at the sound, they were more so when they saw what the room contained. Jewels, bracelets, murky orbs, talismans bearing script, tablets depicting the Naga, rods like the one he gave to Derek, chipped wall ornaments, even a small statue’s head with a ruby lodged in an eye socket. Many gasped, and even Holden stood in awe for a moment.
“This is quite the find,” Remi mumbled.
Holden smiled and bowed. “Gentlemen, shall we?”
For hours they moved the goods to the horses. He lugged an armful of jewels back to the cart, his mind far and away on the many things he would buy with his fortune. Maybe he’d go dicing once in a while. With his wealth, it wouldn’t matter if he lost now and then.
“Holden,” Remi called when he reentered the building. He and two others were gathered around the statue head. “How heavy is this?”
“Not heavy at all,” Holden replied. “I just rolled it in here. Watch.” He waved them away and propped himself behind the head, careful of the angle. He didn’t want the ruby to get chipped or smashed. “Clear the way,” he said, and the men stood aside. Holden smiled as he bent down. This little exertion would go a long way. With a grunt, he shoved the head forward.
A loud crunch echoed through the room, and before Holden could think, the ground cracked open beneath him. He fell, without even a shout into the darkness. His head smacked something, and all went black.
He woke to nausea and a horrible throbbing behind his eyes. He opened them, to be greeted by hazy light and intense pain. He buried them in the crook of his elbow, and lay still. What had happened? His thoughts were a jumbled mess. His back ached like it never had before, and he stayed as still as possible.
Holden remained for what must’ve been hours, by his estimation. The pain subsided a bit. He lifted himself up a little; the ache not as terrible as it had been. He rolled onto his side, and the nausea struck. A moment later he vomited on the dusty stone floor. He collapsed, face inches from his own bile, and breathed in the stench of it.
Eventually, he managed to sit up and he shifted away from his stomach contents. Where was he? His thoughts were clearer, if still messy. He remembered the men, the statue, and the fall. I must be in a chamber beneath the treasure stash. He raised his eyes to the ceiling. Through the haze, he could see a hole, a rough circle too high to reach. Looking down, he saw the statue’s head. It stared at him with empty eyes; the ruby was gone.
The men! They would come looking for him. But why would they? Holden’s hope failed. They had what Derek wanted, the treasure. Holden didn’t matter. His debt was paid.
His father once told him he would die in a pit somewhere, alone and useless. Holden had found a bitter humor when the old man died in an abandoned house. Yet here he lay, in some forgotten Naga hole, deep under the earth.
Lamenting, he thought back to the girls and schemes from over the years. His thoughts always returned to his father. The man had been a Smoke addict in his early days, but had come off before Holden was born. The man had always held that over Holden, as if it were Holden’s fault he’d used the pipe in the first place. A shining example of how you could change yourself.
It killed Holden to know the junkie was right, at least about his demise. The man had been so chastising, so spiteful, even when on Smoke. He wondered if his ghost watched, shaking his head, familiar disappointment on his face.
Something snuck into his thoughts, something he’d ignored. There was light in this room. Though grainy, when he turned his head, he could make out what looked like a miniature sun, hovering not ten feet away. It pulsated with a dull light, illuminating everything within a few feet. Holden took full stock of where he was. A vast, rectangular tunnel stretched out to his left and right, its distance untold.
On the walls, opposite each other and evenly spaced were thick slabs covered in rubble. Beside them, sat more suns. They went on as far as Holden could see, which granted, was not very far. Still, its non-Naganess struck Holden. The Naga, who had no use of geometry, had constructed a uniform… something. He rose, and his head swam. He kept a hand on the slab he’d been propped up against for support.
How had the light not gone out? Perhaps the end of the tunnel would provide some exit, some hole in the ground he could crawl out of. He didn’t know how long he had been here, but if he escaped he could catch up with Derek’s men.
His optimism lasted until he turned to face the slab. It was not rubble.
Thin ribs and short arms made up the torso, while a long silvery tail-bone curled around and around. The Naga’s skull, with its fangs and tiny eye sockets, sat impaled upon a spike, which rose from the head of the slab. Holden backed away, and bumped into the opposite slab. He turned and saw a skeleton, its skull impaled. He walked quicker, ignoring the rising nausea, and passed ruined bodies, some intact, and others near dust. No spike was unadorned. He stumbled and fell. This time, he dry heaved for a time, clutching his head in vain to limit the ache.
Once, while drunk, he’d wandered through the grand cathedral’s graveyard. It’d been dark, and he imagined spirits danced among the stone markers. In light, graveyards ceased to be terrifying. Aside from the orbs, this room had not seen light in millennia, if ever. Holden felt small as rose, doing his best to ignore the pain throughout his body.
Every breath tasted stale. The air hung heavy. Were all the Naga down here? Was this what happened to them? No, it can’t be. A grand city sat above him, and there were not enough down here to account for the entire population. Why were these down here? Why did Holden get the impression no one had forced their heads onto those spikes?
He hobbled along, lurching from one stone slab to the next, doing his best not to look at the bodies. This was worse than the statues above. With every footfall he prayed the bones wouldn’t rise up and claim Holden as their own.
Nausea and his pounding head threatened to overwhelm, but he moved; maintaining stability from the slabs the Naga lay upon. He counted their passing in his head, counted the seconds to reach a new one. Uniform, repetitive, safe.
He missed one, and his knees smacked hard stone. There should’ve been a slab there, something for him to grab onto. Holden turned his head. It looked like an altar. He crawled closer and saw twin snake statues coiling up, a bowl resting on their heads. Within the bowl, sat a pitch-black orb.
Holden stood. The light from the hall didn’t reflect off it. The thing was obsidian, black through and through. He leaned closer. Something in the orb moved. He soon realized the swirling mass inside the orb was just a mass. It reminded him of storm clouds rolling and breaking. Holden watched the chaos within, waiting for something to happen, but nothing did.
This alone could pay off his debts; could make him rich. He was stuck in this pit, but he would find his way out. The tunnel had to end somewhere. If he stumbled into Derek’s men, he’d have to hide it. If he could get it to his second stash, it’d be safe. He wondered if he should even bother with the second stash, or just head back alone.
He debated still when he grabbed it. The pain in his head intensified a hundred-fold, and he doubled over, too agonized to scream. Acid slid through his veins as his mind expanded against his skull, near to bursting. It stopped. Holden clenched his eyes shut. Nothing hurt. The throb in his head had gone away; his aches and pains had fled as well. The orb rested cool in his hand. He opened his eyes.
Spots of light floated in his vision. He blinked, and shook his head. They remained. They crawled across his eyes, bouncing about whenever he shifted his gaze. Disoriented, he sat with his back to the altar. He placed the orb on the ground. Nothing happened. His vision did not improve. He picked it up again. Nothing happened. His vision did not get worse.
The familiar sound of sandals on stone drew his eyes into the distance. The light bounced about in protest. He could make out a tall shape, between the flecks of light. “Remi?” The shape was gone. “Hello?”
No response. He was alone with the dead. Shifting the orb to his pocket, he rose. He trotted down the corridor in the direction he’d been heading, worried about his eyes, but glad the light helped obscure the bones. He could pretend they were bits of rubble.
“Lazy and dishonest,” a voice called out.
Holden spun about; the voice had sounded from behind. What’s more, he recognized it. He bolted down the hall, and the lights seemed to swirl, coalesce, and form. The tomb warped, and ahead Holden could see a deep, rolling blue sea and a patch of green far in the distance. His feet padded through sand.
“That’s the Barbed Island.” The man next to him pointed. In life, he had never been tall, but Holden looked up at him. He was younger, closer to Holden’s age. The detoxification of Smoke had withered him up, but he seemed lean, skin pulled tight over muscle. “Your grandfather was once dared to swim all the way there and back. There were sharks and worse in the water, but he did it anyway. He was not afraid.”
Holden never met his grandfather. He had died before Holden was born. Yet still he despised him. The man was regarded as a hero in his house, of daring and bravery, against whom Holden was juxtaposed. What of my daring? No one had ever come to the Naga city alone. No one had ever possessed the nerve to spend the night. But he did. Holden did. “I did.” His voice echoed off the stone.
He waited for criticism, but none came. The lights had reshaped the tomb, and Holden fled onwards, even as they built a door before him. The same figure stood before the door. “He’s dropped you as an apprentice, what were you thinking?”
Holden remembered this well. An arranged apprenticeship ended with Holden dozing in a hayloft, a girl in his arms. He shoved past the ghost, and reached for the door.
He was back in the hall. The slabs rushed up at him, and their occupants were moving. Holden saw their scales, and grey-green tails. Their fanged faces were worn, and they dragged themselves forward, shifting their heads towards the spikes.
Dice sounded. Around the slab to his left was a game. He saw himself, a hungry grin on his face, playing shadows. He watched himself lose and felt the revulsion of continued disappointment.
“Lazy and dishonest!” A voice not his own, said. “You should’ve been a man!”
“Like you?” Holden screamed into the darkness. “Like you with the pipe and the Smoke and the stains on your vest?” He looked down and saw the pipe in his hand, the black Smoke pouring from the mouthpiece. Its sick aroma called to him. Breathe it in. Breathe it in and forget the boy. Forget the pain. Everything can be okay again, if only for a little while. He put his mouth to the Smoke.
It evaporated in his hand, his calloused, worked hands; the hands of a man. A man who had given up everything for Holden. He shook the thought away. Someone save me, I’ve gone mad!
The Naga thrashed as they flung themselves upon the nails. He wanted to look away, wanted to stop watching, but he could not close his eyes.
The lights swirled and danced and taunted him. The visions came faster, and fragmented. He saw the silhouette of his mother, far away. She walked further. She left them. Left him.
Faces of gamblers and women flashed before his eyes, and they ate the bits of himself he had given to them, as he never gave to himself. Disappointment.
He saw the end of his grandfather’s legacy, the brave man who’d swam to the Barbed Island, whose son was a drug addict, and whose grandson was a waste. He saw the boy throw everything into a dice cup. The rattling of ivory upon stone turned to the bubbling of a pipe. The sound filled him, and his blood boiled as the sound grew louder.
He stopped running. The noises faded to a soft hum, the lights cleared for a moment. An empty slab sat before him. The charcoal nail sat unadorned, and he climbed up. He would die. Die in a pit like his father. No better, no worse.
“Holden,” the voice cut the noise, and Holden turned. His father stood beside the slab, smiling. Not as he had died, with shriveled skin and gaps in his teeth, but as he’d lived during his best years. Strong, with a bold look in his eye. “Holden,” he said again.
“I never liked you,” Holden said. “Never.” His father said nothing. “But I loved you. I loved you and failed and I never wanted you to die. Forgive me old man.”
His father’s smile grew, but he did not fade. “Forgive me old man,” the ghost said.
“I forgive you,” Holden said.
“Holden!” The lights vanished and the noises ceased. The aching pain returned and Holden fell upon the cold stone. Remi stood where his father had been. “What are you doing?”
Derek’s men fanned out behind Remi, eyeing the silent and still bones around them. “You came for me?” Holden asked.
“Derek said not to leave you,” Remi said. “In case you held out on us. It’s wise to do what Derek says.”
“How’d you find me?”
“We used the rope to climb down your hole,” Remi said. “We couldn’t see, so it was slow going. We found this tunnel, and followed it. Seems we went the right way. You ran when we first saw-”
“What is this place?” One of the men asked. “Why would these snake demons build it?” Some of the men turned to Holden. He could feel the orb inside his pocket, cool through the thin layer of clothing against his skin.
“They came here to die,” Holden said. “I don’t know why.”
“Are you done running?” Remi asked. “We’ve been here long enough.”
“Yes,” Holden stepped down from the slab. “We can leave. Show me the way.”
“And so your debt is paid,” Derek said. “You may go.”
“One more thing,” Holden said, removing the orb from his pocket and placing it on the table. “I want you to have this.”
“What is it?”
“Just a jewel,” Holden replied. “But I don’t think it was meant for human eyes.”
Derek studied the swirling mass within. “If you ever want another loan, come see me.” He smiled. “We’ll work something out.”
Holden smiled back. “Thank you Derek, but no.” He left the loan shark sitting there, wondering what he’d see, if anything. Perhaps the Naga orb worked differently for everyone.
Heavy clouds hung overhead. As he walked out of Derek’s compound, he wondered which direction to go. He needed some odd jobs to come up with money, something he could put away. Perhaps he might find an apprenticeship, despite his age. He strolled down the street, hands in his pockets. He would figure something out, after all, he was an idea man.
Jack Dowden’s work has appeared in Aphelion, Fear and Trembling Magazine and Surprising Stories.
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