‘The Pipe world, Ah’kis, is five thousand miles long and just over ten miles in diameter. It was one of a dozen Arks sent out from Earth to populate distant planets, each meant to journey a mere two hundred years at one third light speed. But some accident knocked Ark Six from its course and now ten thousand years have passed. Kassi seeks her brother who has been kidnapped by ‘demons’ and now travels north to the end of the world. Eighteen months ago she left the City of B’Jing and has now washed up on the northern shores of the circular sea. She is accompanied by Sebastian, a sentient bot of dubious origins with whom she can communicate telepathically. That ability seems to set her apart from the rest of the world’s population.’

Travelling across the desert was harder than Kassi had thought. The camels and their handlers were used to it but she was not. The sand was deceptively soft and each step became an effort. A month had passed and they had barely travelled a hundred miles across the shifting sea of red and gold sand. Gerall, as leader of the merchants, had welcomed the warrior’s aid but she still saw wariness in all their eyes, apart from young Perall who only wanted to hear tales of wonderment. She wore her full armour, its black skin reflecting away most of the sunline’s heat and keeping her cooler than the long white garments the merchants wore. It was a risk. She stood out amongst the rolling dunes like some large black insect scurrying around, its carapace glinting in the noon sun, but it was a comfort to her in some bizarre way. She had hardly worn it in over a year and yet here she was fully suited.

Also they never travelled in a straight line but appeared to meander from oasis to oasis. Some were obvious. For miles around you could see the splash of green against the pale sand, but some less so. Gerall told her that some spouted only at certain times and others so irregularly that nothing could ever be seen as not even vegetation grew. They approached one such watering hole now, settling for the night a distance from it as it held a demon, or so the stories said.

Kassi was intrigued by their tales, spun after long, spicey meals of lamb and goat, rambling from tales of daring to songs of love. It was the first time she had ever heard of tales from ‘Earth’, the planet on which Sebastian said all life on Ah’kis had originated. In the ancient stories it was called Urth and was a place of death, a world turned in on itself, ravaged by storms and heat, fires and floods. All because of the hubris of man. The stories never quite explained the whys or the hows but instead spoke of a people, the Builders, creating mighty arks to journey to new, distant worlds. 

That night they spoke in whispers. This place, the waterhole, was urf, their word for bad, evil, bedevilled, ill luck. All connected to that distant planet so long ago. Kassi’s job in the morning was to accompany the handful of men into the place beneath the sands and distract the ifrit, the restless ghosts that haunted the place whilst the men drew water from the hidden well. She never really believed in evil spirits, although the men said that the ifrit at this place were merely mischievous, Sebastian had always taken pains to explain everything in his logical manner. 

At the thought of her dead friend her heart tightened and she turned from the campfire, seeking solitude in the darkness. The merchants of the caravan had been good to her, allowing her to mourn in her own way, not asking too many questions. Who she was, what she had been this past year, was forgotten. The Shadow Queen of the sea no longer existed here on land, in the desert. All that remained was a broken, lost woman. She looked down at the twin scars on the inside of her wrists, remembering the searing heat that had burnt them into her skin. The skin had healed in a twisted, uneven way, two crosses no longer visible as swords. The sign of servitude to the pirates. 

In the morning as the sunline began to brighten Kassi waited at the edge of the camp as Gerall trod the sands carefully, mapping out a plan from his memory. As he walked, the warrior noted the faint shadows, an outline of sorts. Square and large. The older man walked the perimeter twice before aiming for a corner from which he paced four steps and then began to dig. Wyll and Lo-ann had joined them and they used wide shovels to turn the dry sand away. Barely a foot down, they hit something solid. 

The old man shushed the others away and smoothed the sand lovingly. A square trapdoor appeared as he swept the sand with his bony fingers. He looked up at Kassi in her black armour and asked if she was ready. She merely nodded. His fingers caught a latch and the flat square sprang open. The smell of death and rotting flesh rose quickly, so thick you could almost see it in the pale morning sunline. 

Kassi dropped in first, sword already in hand, the blue light from her shield illuminating a narrow corridor. The two younger men climbed in next, before aiding Gerall down. Each held a torch of rags which they lit, despite Kassi’s protestations that she could actually light the way with her shield. The caravan possessed treys, the flat batteries her shield used for power, and part of her payment for protecting them was a handful of them. 

Gerall led the way down the short corridor into a room that took up most of the floor space. Once, when the tower had been above ground, wide windows had covered three of the walls. Now only shards remained, with drifts of sand spilling into the office. Furniture recognisable as chairs and a large desk of some form of metal sat uneasily on thick carpet now heavy with decades of sand. There was a hum from distant generators and thin strips of light, much like those found in dungeons, flickered briefly before expiring. At the far of the room was a door and frosted panels of glass.

A light flickered before them, twisting eerily in the air, coalescing into something human shaped and sized. The younger men muttered about ifrits while Gerall whispered to Kassi to keep the thing busy while they entered the water system. Kassi placed herself between the glowing shape and the men. The light appeared to come into focus suddenly. A young woman stood before them, smiling. She was dressed in a billowing skirt which drifted on some unfelt wind. Her golden skin glowed in the dim room. 

“Hello. I’m Nuwa. How may I help you today?” She smiled perkily and seemed to be bouncing on her toes. “Oh. I’m sorry. Access to that is prohibited.” She flickered, shifting her attention from Kassi to the men. Her tone also changed. Kassi stepped forward and swung her sword, but it went through the apparition. The thing stepped through Kassi and loomed at the men who were filling waterskins. An arm seemed to thicken in the air and Kassi swung her sword again, this time feeling it cut through something. 

The ifrit shuddered, its arm exploding silently into a rain of pixels, and faced Kassi. Her arm grew back and she aimed it at the warrior. Kassi easily dodged and swung her sword again. The arm exploded into light a second time. With a look of concentration the ghost/ifrit regrew her arm and ran at Kassi. The warrior dropped, swinging the edge of her shield into the ghost’s body which filled the room with light as it exploded. The core of light withered in the air and faded into the shadow. The three men looked on in astonishment.

“You have destroyed the ifrit!” Gerall exclaimed.

“You asked me to keep it occupied. Death is a great occupier.” 

The men huddled together, speaking rapidly in their own tongue. Kassi felt the wash of emotion again, recalling how Sebastian would interpret for her. 

Gerall approached her. “It is said that the reason this place is so well guarded is because it holds a great treasure, held far below.”

“Let me guess. You want me to find it.”

“Only if you wish. Wyll and Lo-ann can accompany you, but the decision is yours alone.”

“I thought this place was ‘urf’?”

“It is, but I have never seen anyone destroy an ifrit before.”

Kassi looked at where the ghost had stood. “Sebastian once took me to an old tower. He called them office blocks. Showed me such a thing. He didn’t call it a ghost or ifrit. He told me it was a ‘holographic assistant’ with AI capabilities. They can form solid light, so that was why she could hit you. My shield merely disrupted her holographic interface.” 

All three men looked at her in bewilderment and Kassi saw herself as a youngster in their faces. It almost brought a laugh to her lips. Almost. 

She added. “Okay. You said you need an hour to fill all the waterskins and allow the camels to drink. I’ll venture down. See what’s there.”

The old man nodded but looked concerned. “There is one more thing. The word used for treasure can also mean great danger.”

The next level down was similar in layout, only this time the whole floor was a maze of chest high dividers and small desks. Another ghost materialised but Kassi casually swung her shield, sending the smaller outer part skidding through the air and dissipating it before it fully formed. The next floor down was similar except a dozen ‘ghosts’ waited. Wyll and Lo-ann hesitated, graciously allowing Kassi to step first into the open plan office. The twelve ghosts were spread around the wide open space. Kassi smiled for the first time in a month.

She leapt up onto the nearest desk, hoping that it would take her weight, and sent her shield outwards, spinning in an arc. It passed through the first ghost, shattering him into a thousand bright pixels before altering course and cutting through a second. Then it bounced off the side wall and caught two more. The remaining eight suddenly hesitated. Her shield swooped down through a fifth and then rebounded off the thin metal strut of a glassless window. Two more went down. 

The remaining five ran screaming at Kassi, a maelstrom of PA angst with an edge of librarian steeliness. She swung her blade, catching two whilst leaping up over the heads of a third. Both sections of her shield reconnected and she swung it in an arc, catching two more ghosts before releasing it again. Kassi left the shield sparkling with energy and dashed around the ‘ghosts’. As she approached them she spun her broadsword in a figure of eight movement around her, steadily moving forward. The shield set up a blurry net of blue behind the remaining four. One stepped back and screamed in silence as she was obliterated by the shield. 

The remaining three tried to escape but Kassi was quicker. She grabbed the solidified arm of two and spun them about, throwing them bodily into the blue field of energy. The last ghost tried to fade but Kassi merely called the shield back to her right through the fading light of the hologram. A small waterfall of dead pixels cascaded to the dirty floor. 

The next few floors were empty but then they heard noises from the darkness, a rustling and squeaking. Something more alive than the holograms hunted them now. The flames flickered in the stale air and Kassi realised that she had become used to the stench of rotting flesh. Occasionally thin bones cracked beneath their boots. Shadows swooped around them, fleeing the torches and making even the silence feel alive with movement.

Then Kassi saw them. Two beasts, hairless and pale in the stygian darkness. Rats the size of large dogs. Their fetid breath filled the corridor as they turned, sensing rather than seeing the three humans. Kassi took a stance and waited as the two large creatures ran at them. The first leapt at her but found her shield, which pushed it against the wall, exposing its furless stomach. One thrust of her sword and the beast was writhing in its death throes. 

The second hesitated, giving Kassi the chance to step forward and neatly behead it. A mournful squeak echoed from its jaws as the body jerked back and forth before finally dropping to the floor in death. From the depths came echoing squeaks answering the dead rat. Kassi rolled her shoulders and carried on. Stairs took them down more floors. At a sign which stated they were on the tenth floor, a nest of smaller rats squirmed in the torchlight. Even as babies they were the size of cats. They ignored the nest, journeying ever downwards. 

The faded numbers on the wall decreased. Sixth floor, fifth floor, fourth floor. Slowly they descended, the air growing thicker with despair and death. They came to the basement which Kassi understood to have been below ground originally. Now it was almost three hundred feet below the surface and the weight of the sand felt oppressive, straining in, as much on their minds as the building in which they stood.

Kassi braced herself and stepped forward into the low ceilinged basement. Concrete pillars stood at regular intervals, fading into the darkness like a forest of trees late at night. Rusting hulks of metal waited, dotted about the floor like sleeping iron beasts, although Kassi could tell that the centuries had not been kind to these travelling machines and none would rise up against them. Still she sensed something in here. Something skittering beyond the feathery edges of light cast by the torches. 

She indicated for the men to wait by the door. Whatever was in here was hers alone. She stepped forward, her shadow dancing away before her, reaching out into the sombre darkness. 

Kassi sensed the movement before she saw it. A feeling of shadow across darkness. She leapt up as a tentacle as thick as her waist sliced the air beneath her feet, streams of silver metal crisscrossed its pale, albino surface. Landing, Kassi rolled quickly to the side, forcing herself up and off a nearby pillar. More tentacles snaked out of the gloom, twisting and writhing purposefully. 

A pale shape bloomed in the blackness, squirming. An eye, nearly as big as Kassi, blinked as a hideous screech echoed in the chamber. The creature oozed silently across the floor, a mass of tentacles flowing like an eerie sea of foam over the dark grey concrete. It squeezed easily through the concrete pillars and seemed at once formless and yet solid. A beak, tall as a man, opened, and Kassi smelt its fetid breath. 

She swung her sword, catching the creature’s cheek. Sparks flew as, beneath the skin, wires carrying electricity short circuited. Kassi circled the monstrosity, wondering if this was similar to the creature from the silent village all those years ago. Was this how Sighs progressed? First they appear to aid you and then their minds snap and they create these flesh and machine creatures?

She slipped on a slime smeared floor but pushed herself forward and under the creature, its tentacles missing her by a hair’s breadth. Underneath, Kassi slashed at the thing’s underbelly before rolling out and swinging her shield free. The circle of blue slammed into the beast like a chainsaw, cutting through tendon and machinery alike. The beast grabbed hold of a pillar and Kassi noticed large suckers as big as dinner plates press into the concrete. One tug and the pillar came away. The beast unfurled its tentacle throwing the concrete at Kassi. It screeched in pain and frustration, the girl dodging the crumbling pillar and catching her shield mid leap.

She brought the edge of her shield down hard on the soft body of the creature but it absorbed the blow easily. Her arm came up covered in slime and only a thin trickle of pale blood. A summersault brought her out of reach of the creature for a moment. She flicked her sword across two of the tentacles, severing the ends, but this did nothing to slow the horror. What she really needed, Kassi thought, was a wand. One of those guns that Sebastian always went on about. 

She dodged around, recognising that the thing was barely damaged and she was already feeling the effects of her exertion. In contrast to her hesitation the thing threw a second pillar at her. It skidded to a halt at her feet. Its strength was prodigious but its general aim, shit! Leaping over the concrete she slashed at the beast’s body again and again before running back and away from all but its longest tentacles. 

Suckers slammed against the wall, pulling the thing along its bed of slime. More pillars shook and one crumbled into rubble. Above her the ceiling vibrated as though in agony. Unperturbed the creature advanced.

Kassi began to spin her sword, weaving an intricate pattern around her. The air grew still but for the thrum of air cut by the sword’s edge. Faster and faster she twisted the sword. Always moving forward. A tentacle snaked forward and the sword bit through it with ease, taking half its length off. A howl of incoherent rage arose from that gaping mouth. The woman stepped forward, catching a second tentacle which spewed a freezing stream of thin white blood over her. Still Kassi moved forward.

The creature drew itself up to its full height as best it could under the low ceiling. It thrashed its tentacles about, smashing into a number of pillars, revealing rusted metal struts now twisted by the creature’s spasms. Suddenly the warrior leapt upon the thing, her sword plunging deep into its body. Sebastian had taught her enough to see this as some form of squid hybrid, which meant that even if she were fortunate enough to hit its heart with one blow it had another two. But then she did not mean to kill it with her sword. Merely provoke it.

She dodged to the left, where many of the concrete pillars looked worse for wear. Running slowly in and out she allowed the horror to follow, screaming and thrashing, not noticing what it was doing. For a century or more it had been at the apex of the creatures within the tower. In its small memory it somehow knew that it was the strongest creature there. Never had it met anything that challenged that fact. The few men that made it so far down had always been easily dispatched. Never had it met an opponent it could not slay.

Until this day.

Kassi ran full circle, leaping onto pillars and flipping across the walls, the beast never far behind, its tentacles always a fraction of a second too late, but always pulling at concrete or smashing it apart. Finally the ceiling began to moan, a low vibration as it slowly shifted its massive weight over fewer supports. Kassi stopped beside the doorway, waiting.

The beast slid inexpertly across the floor before stopping an arm’s length from her. Somewhere in its primitive mind it understood that something was wrong. This small creature had danced around and away from it and yet now it stood still, within easy reach. One word rose to the fore of its primitive mind; why? A tentacle wavered before her. Kassi slashed it with her sword.

The beast rose in anger, slamming into the now fragile concrete ceiling. It split with a loud, deafening crack, and dust and soil tumbled down, along with chunks of concrete the size of a man. Kassi stepped back into the stairwell and the whole underground space fell in on itself, filling with debris, squeezing the monstrosity in jagged claws of stone and ancient concrete. A wail, ear piercing and forlorn, echoed briefly before being cut off.

The whole building shuddered and Kassi was afraid that it would collapse in on them. The three raced up the stairs two, three steps at a time. Remarkably, after what seemed an eternity, the structure stopped shaking and the building settled back into silence. ‘Perhaps the compacted sand outside held the building up,’ she thought. Whatever the cause they were thankful as they climbed back up. Each floor was silent, allowing them to pass as though it understood what the warrior had done. 

Finally they stepped out into the sunlight. Gerall waited away from the building’s outline, along with all the other men from the caravan. He looked relieved when he saw them. Perall ran over and hugged Kassi as though he had not seen her for days. Judging by the brilliance of the sunline they had been no more than three hours. The old man looked at Kassi inquisitively as though to ask if they had found treasure. 

She merely muttered. “Urf. There was only grief.”

Two weeks previous, on the shores of the Circle Sea. It is night and the moonline shines brightly, half hidden by the twisting clouds miles above the surface. As waves lap gently upon the endless desert shore, a dark shape slowly emerges from the roiling water. A machine on eight legs, one pair to each part of its jointed body. The bot slowly walks out of the sea. It has followed calculations made a thousand times each second to work out tides and patterns of drift. Its sensors have tasted the water, following familiar scents to this spot. 

It walks up the beach and follows a path only known to itself, until it comes to a certain section of the ground and waits. Sensors scan, noting a child’s body buried beneath the sands (all the while its positronic brain calculates how long it will be before the winds blow away the red sand and expose the body—three months.) He, somehow the machine gives the impression that it is a he, sentient and alive, walks a little further on before waiting. More bodies. These unburied. Sword wounds. Ancient blood. At least a fortnight old. 

Sebastian turns to the ocean and ponders his position. He had made sure that Johan and the others made the lifeboats but he could not be sure they made it ashore. When the aliens had finished with the Mother of Pearl they had simply tossed him overboard, expecting, correctly, that he would sink down the two miles to the Circle Sea’s bed. They had not reckoned on him walking the last three hundred miles to shore. 

Kassi had dived into the ocean hours before, naked and unarmed. Now he could find a vessel and search for the others or follow a familiar scent. He sighs. There is no conflict. He turns inland and follows the scent of his friend, Kassi.


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