They stumbled through the gate, exhausted, but relieved. The dirt of the road was ingrained deep in the travelers’ skin after more than a month’s travel beyond Crater’s borders. Their feet were sore, their backs ached, but relief was palpable in their steps as they crossed the threshold home. The wagons were emptier than they had been at the outset, but still carried a respectable variety of goods, the spoils of the journey. Fewer returned than those who had set off, but those who remained were met by a small crowd that had assembled to see those they had missed.
Felicity nearly tackled her brother Felix with a hug, returned much more gently by the large man. Tony’s father was there as well, more reserved in his bearing, but a large smile crossed his face when his son came into sight. Abby was met by her mentor, Adriana. She had never spoken of any family that lived in the settlement with her, but their reunion indicated she was far from alone.
Luke stood awkwardly to one side of the square, knowing that there was no one waiting to greet him. Then he felt someone punch his shoulder. He turned to see Naomi grinning at him and resisted the urge to massage the place she’d hit him.
“You’re still alive! It wasn’t as bad as you thought out there, right?”
“What?” he said, avoiding her gaze. “I wasn’t that worried about leaving.”
“Yeah right. You made it sound like you were walking to your own funeral. I bet it was boring as hell, right?”
“Pretty much. There was just a bandit attack on one of the settlements, and then someone tried to abduct me. Oh, and we saw a dragon. Not too much that was going on.”
“You saw a dragon! Like a real one? I didn’t even know they existed! Why the hell didn’t I go? You wouldn’t believe how fucking boring it’s been back here.”
“So we’re just gonna gloss over the whole ‘almost abducted’ thing?”
“We’ll get to that,” she said dismissively. “But you’re standing right here and a dragon’s not. You saw something I might never have a chance to in my entire life. I’m pissed, Casterley.”
She punched him again on the shoulder. Luke managed not to wince. “It was just a shadow. None of us actually got a good look at the thing through the clouds. You didn’t miss much, really.”
“No one thought to follow it? How do you even know it was a dragon?”
“Fuck no we didn’t follow it! No one in the caravan had a death wish. We found out when the elves let it slip when inLangrendi.”
Luke explained what had happened at their final stop on the journey. Naomi was interested in the different species there, especially the more feral-looking orcs, but she was still primarily interested in the dragon.
“I wonder why they wanted to know which way it went so bad. It could be anywhere by now.”
Luke shrugged. He would be just as happy never thinking about the dragon again. A few moments later they were interrupted by someone yelling nearby. He looked around and eventually caught sight of a small man standing on top of one of the wagons. Gradually, everyone turned to look at him as he continued to yell.
“All right! Everyone shut up! You made it back, which is great and everything. More importantly, you’re on time, so kudos for not being complete fuck-ups. Take the night for yourselves, and we’ll unload everything tomorrow. It sounds like it was an eventful trip, so I’m sure the Committee—” He glanced at Tony’s father, who shrugged, “—will find some of you to find out what happened, since Ella decided to fuck off and do whatever she wants. Good job.”
He hopped off the wagon and strode off. Luke stayed by the gathering a while longer before leaving to find the bath system. He’d hated feeling dirty back at home, and while he’d gotten used to it, he still didn’t enjoy it.
On his way out of the square where the wagons were parked, he saw a woman crying, comforted by a pair of guards next to her. He heard one of them talking as he passed.
“We don’t know for sure what happened to him, Em. He could still be alive.”
The woman cried even harder without responding. A pit opened up in Luke’s stomach. It had been less than a week since Andrew disappeared in the night, and already the event had fallen to the back of his mind. The thought made him remember the other man who had died, near the beginning of the caravan trip in Hobble. He didn’t even remember the man’s name! Feeling much worse than when they re-entered Crater, he bathed himself and returned to the cabin he’d been given to sleep in.
It was only early afternoon by the time he was done, and he wasn’t sure what to do with the rest of the day. There was no doubt a celebration planned for their return, but his sudden dark mood left him with little desire to seek it out. Not for the first time, Luke wished he had his PC from home to play video games. Or even a book.
He ended up laying in his bed, staring up at the ceiling, letting his thoughts drift freely. After an indeterminable time staring at the flat gray material, someone knocked at his door. He expected to see Naomi, ready to pester him more about the dragon, but felt like he shouldn’t have been surprised when he opened the door and saw Sarah.
“Welcome back, Luke. I hope you are settling in well.”
“All right,” he shrugged. “It’s nice to be off of the road. What’s going on?”
“Would you mind coming with me for a walk? There are a few things we need to speak about.”
Luke’s feet ached, but Sarah wasn’t easily put off. And there was next to no furniture in his cabin and nowhere to sit other than the bed. As he followed her out, he was surprised to see that the sun was already setting. He had laid in bed longer than he thought. Sarah walked down the sidewalk silently for a time.
“How did you find the trip?” she asked eventually.
“I don’t know. Some of it was all right. A lot of it was terrifying.”
“So I’ve heard. I don’t know why this latest expedition was so much more…memorable than most. Perhaps it was just bad luck. Or perhaps not.”
“What else could it be?”
She shook her head. “The Committee had an emergency meeting today to discuss the ramifications of all you encountered on the road. We came to no conclusions, but some did raise the possibility that it was merely the natural result of changes in the world.”
“What do you mean?”
“Every year there are reports of new creatures that have never been seen before, by us or any settlement we have contact with. The…thing that affected Andrew is just the latest example, if one of the more horrifying. The simplest explanation is that a continuous parade of beings are migrating to our world, crowding it with dangerous creatures. If this is in fact the case, as more time passes it will become increasingly difficult to leave the settlement without encountering ever more perilous transplants.”
She stopped walking and turned to Luke, a serious look on her face. “As of yet this is only a theory, but if there is even a possibility that future caravans will confront similar hardships, it is our responsibility to proceed with as much caution as is feasible. We think it best if you refrain from joining any more excursions for the foreseeable future.”
It wasn’t too surprising to hear, but Luke was still a little disappointed. Joining a caravan was the easiest pretense for leaving the settlement, and as terrifying as it had been he would likely need to do so again if he wanted to find a way back home. Not that he could explain that to Sarah.
“Makes sense,” he said, trying to keep his face neutral. “I’m not very eager to go back out myself, to be honest.”
“I expected not.” She scanned his face for a moment and resumed walking. “It’s even more imperative that you remain within the safety of Crater if there is indeed someone targeting you specifically, as you heard in Ark. Since you were the individual most directly involved in those events, I also wanted to hear your account of what happened.”
Luke recounted the attempted abduction he and Tony fought off as well as the odd testimony of Adam, the prisoner they spoke to the next day. He left out any mention of Kiango, fearing that it would lead to questions he didn’t want to answer.
“Interesting,” Sarah mused when he finished his recollection. “And you are certain that this man was not lying about his motivations or memory?”
Luke shrugged. “Tony and I didn’t think so at the time. Ella and Angela talked to him after we did and seemed less convinced.”
“Right. I’ll have to try to contact them, though that will be difficult with Darkend’s renewed hostility toward us. Another headache.” She shook her head again, as if clearing her thoughts. The woman had always been imperturbable when Luke spoke to her before, but this was the most agitated he had ever seen her. Though that still wasn’t saying much.
Sarah stopped at the corner of a cross street. “Is there anything else you think we need to speak about?”
Luke shook his head. She had been the one who wanted to talk to him!
“Then I hope you won’t find it rude if I ask you to return alone. The work never ends, I’m afraid.”
Luke shrugged, and with a final farewell she turned onto a road that he knew would take her back toward her office. He watched her go. Resentment suddenly flared within his chest. It was always present to some degree when he saw Sarah, the woman most directly responsible for bringing him to this world, but at that moment, as he remembered everything he’d been through on the trip, it felt closer to hate. He called out at her back before he realized what he was doing.
“Do you know someone named Smokey?”
She stopped in her tracks and turned back to face him, about ten feet away.
“Where did you hear that name?” There was an edge to her voice that hadn’t been there before.
“One of the settlements,” Luke said, thinking furiously. Speaking out had been stupid of him. “Someone said I should know who he is since I’m from Crater.”
He thought that she relaxed a little, though it was hard to tell. “He was a resident from a long time ago. He left, but it was not…an amicable parting. Nothing you need to be concerned with, I assure you. Please refrain from bringing him up with others, it may raise bad memories for many of the residents.”
Luke nodded, and she turned once more back toward her office. He started back for his cabin himself, thoughts racing. Sarah had spoken the lie as easily as if she were pointing out the weather. If Kiango hadn’t told him otherwise, he never would have suspected a thing. It made him wonder if anything else he’d been told was a complete fabrication.
Luke awoke the next morning, unsure what to do. No one had told him to go anywhere, and unlike the others he didn’t have a job that he needed to report to. He supposed that getting food was a good enough place to start, but he barely left the cabin before Naomi found him in the street.
“Hey! What are you doing today?”
“I’m not sure, I was—”
“Great! Come on, the others are waiting.”
“Waiting for what?” His question went unanswered as she pulled him into a jog. His legs still hadn’t recovered from the journey, but Luke had gotten used to moving with sore feet in the last month.
“Don’t you have work to do today?” he asked as Naomi guided him through the streets of Crater. A few people they passed looked at them curiously, but most of the residents were used to Naomi’s odd behavior, offering only passing glances.
“Nah. Blew it off. This is more important.”
“Is it? What are we doing, did something happen?” Luke fought to keep his breath even, determined to keep up with the excited girl.”
“More important, more fun, whatever. We’re taking a day off, Luke, you gotta stop being so nervous all the time”
“Right, because life’s been so easy and carefree for me lately,” Luke grumbled, but he asked no more questions until they reached the edge of the settlement. “Wait, we’re going outside of Crater?”
“Barely. It’s fine, I do it all the time!”
She finally slowed her pace down to a walk, and indeed the guards posted at the threshold didn’t seem to find it amiss that they were leaving the settlement unattended. One nodded toward Naomi, she waved back carelessly, and they were out. Luke had imagined it would be harder, somehow, when he wasn’t with a caravan.
“You said the others are coming too?”
“Sure. They’re probably already by the cave.”
“What cave?” But Naomi appeared to delight in his confusion, and stayed vague as they made their way toward their mysterious destination.
Rather than following the road as they had the last time Luke left Crater, they immediately veered off into the brush, curving back around toward the canyon on the other side of the settlement. Short, prickly plants dug into his legs, and the heat was already starting to make him sweat. Luke stayed quiet, but he was thoroughly annoyed with his companion by the time they approached the rim of the gorge, the buildings of Crater visible off to their right.
It was the first time he’d gotten a good look at the canyon since before the caravan trip, and the only time he’d ever seen it from anywhere other than the dam. He had to admit it was a pretty good view. The midmorning sun sparkled off the surface of the gently-flowing river, a long, winding landmark that curved off beyond his sightline, firmly entrenched within the borders of the canyon. Though he couldn’t see it, the sound of water flowing through the gaps in the dam was faintly audible, a crashing sound that he well remembered from his trip through the interior.
While he gazed out over the water, Naomi peered over the edge like she was searching for something. She scanned the canyon wall and cocked her head.
“Where the hell is it? I thought it was right here.”
“What are you talking about?” Luke asked. Before she could reply, a voice called out.
“Hey! This way!” Felicity was farther down the canyon edge away from the settlement, yelling and waving her arms, the other three close behind her. Naomi waved back and they walked over to meet them. As they got closer, Luke frowned at his friends’ appearance.
“I thought you guys would have already made it to the cave by now,” Naomi said.
“Abby thought you might have some trouble finding it,” Felix replied, an undercurrent of amusement audible in his voice.
Naomi looked offended. “You think I can’t find a stupid cave? We would have made it eventually.”
“I’m sure, but I’d prefer not to wait the day or two it would take for you to get there,” Abby said. “It’s easier if we all go together.” The group started to turn back away from the settlement.
“Get where?” Luke asked, exasperated. “And why are you all dressed like that? Can someone explain what we’re doing?” Naomi was wearing shorts and a worn t-shirt, typical for her, but everyone else looked like they were going to the beach. Tony and Felix wore swim shorts, and while Felix had a white sleeveless shirt and backpack on, Tony wore no shirt at all. Felicity and Abby both had shorts on, but Felicity had a swim top on over a loose shirt.
“Oh, yeah. Here.” Tony tossed another set of shorts at Luke. “I took them from Cael’s place. He owes my dad. Hope they fit.”
“There’s a cave that we go to sometimes,” Felix explained. “We almost never get a day off at the same time, but I guess it’s easier when you just got back from a month long trip. It’s pretty cool.”
They started walking away, following the path of the canyon. Luke looked at the shorts he’d been given. They weren’t his style at all, black with flame designs all over them, but they looked close enough to his size. He followed after the others.
“No one cares that you leave the settlement to go out here?” he directed his question toward Felix at the back of the procession. He knew the large man least out of everyone, but he had an easy manner. He laughed at Luke’s question.
“As long as you get your work done, they couldn’t give less of a shit. You could throw yourself off the edge of the canyon and no one would notice until you didn’t show up at your job. And even then they’d probably never find you.”
In front of him, Abby frowned. “That isn’t true. The Committee sends out search parties the moment they realize someone’s missing. We’ve both been on them before.”
Felix shrugged. “Sure, but how long does that last? It’s a token effort to make it seem like they care and then they give up.”
“You’re so cynical, Fel,” Abby said, shaking her head. “What if another five people died running into something while they were out looking? They have to make those kinds of assessments.”
“And they always decide that the answer is to stay as safe as possible,” the big man retorted. “Crater’s going to die a slow death if that’s the way things stay. The world’s changing, and we’re not. Look at how this last caravan trip went. There’s going to be a lot more casualties soon, trust me.”
“Calm down, kid,” Felicity said from the front. “You’re creeping into asshole territory again.”
Felix snorted, losing his intense look. “You’re two minutes older than me, Liss. Pretty sure that’s not enough for you to boss me around.”
“We’re out here to have fun, Fel. You remember what fun is? Here’s a hint—it doesn’t usually involve preaching at everyone in earshot.”
“Fine. We can walk in silence then. That’s fun, right?”
“There’s a pretty wide gap between what you were doing and saying nothing. I believe that it’s possible to find a happy medium.”
“All right, I get it.” But Felix said nothing after that, and they walked without talking for several minutes until Naomi broke the quiet.
“So did you guys see anything interesting while you were out with the caravan?”
Luke opened his mouth to answer, but Tony beat him to it. “Not really.” There was a curtness to his tone that Naomi didn’t seem to hear, or chose to ignore.
“C’mon. Everyone was talking about how it was the most dangerous run in years. And Luke already told me about the dragon. What else was out there?”
“Fine,” Tony said, his tone harsh, “did you want to hear about the suit of armor that walked around and killed someone, or the bundle of nerves that walked around and probably killed someone? Or did you want to hear about the guys who were probably in a cult that wanted to abduct Luke and most likely kill him? It was real fucking romp we had out there, there’s nothing I’d like better than to talk about it all day.”
A brief silence followed his impassioned outburst.
“He could have just said no,” Naomi said in a stage whisper. Tony was probably close enough to hear, but didn’t respond. Abby looked back at him, but no one talked until they stopped farther down the edge of the cliff.
“It’s over here,” Felicity said.
Naomi shook her head. “Damn, I was way off.” Casually, like she was hopping off the last step of a staircase, she jumped off the edge of the cliff down out of sight.
“What the hell!” Luke said, running over. No one else was alarmed, and as he looked over the edge he registered that there had been no splash from the water below. He looked down to see her cheerfully waving from a natural ledge carved into the side of the canyon. There was a slope a little farther back, but the daredevil girl had chosen to jump down directly instead. The water of the river was another twenty feet or so below her, but if she fell Luke saw no easy way for her to make her way back up.
“God,” he said shaking his head. Naomi didn’t seem to realize his concern, but Felix was shaking with laughter when he turned around.
“Yeah,” he said, “she does that. You just gotta roll with it.”
The rest of the group took the safer route down, and while the ledge was nearly wide enough to support two of them standing beside each other, Luke still thought he wouldn’t have been comfortable jumping.
“How long are we staying on this thing?” he asked.
“Not too long,” Abby replied. “It isn’t far.”
True to her word, they followed the ledge for less than ten minutes before an opening became visible, a small crevice like a gash in the side of the rock. It was barely large enough for a person to pass through, and Luke had some trepidation looking at the small space. He couldn’t make out anything inside—after a few feet the opening curved away.
“Well that’s inviting,” Luke said, staring at the hole. Tony sighed next to him.
“I fucking hate this thing,” he muttered, but he entered first wiithout waiting for anyone else to speak, sidling sideways through the opening. After a moment he vanished as if he’d never been there.
“Is this really the only way in?” Luke asked. He felt like a wimp, but a picture of getting wedged in the crevice, unable to move, wouldn’t leave his mind.
“It is. The first time’s the worst, you just have to go for it.” True to her words, Felicity moved into the gap without hesitation. Her movements were a little easier than Tony’s with her smaller frame. Her brother followed after, clapping a hand on his shoulder as he went.
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” he murmured. “If I can make it through, you definitely can.”
It did reassure Luke to see the large man pass through without any apparent difficulty, but he still didn’t step up to go next.
“See you on the other side,” Naomi said, and disappeared within seconds.
“She makes look so easy,” Luke said, staring at the gap.
“It is easier once you’re inside,” Abby said, the last one remaining outside with him.
“Do you want to go?” he asked, but she shook her head.
“You can do it.”
He took a deep breath and stood in front of the crevice for far too long. He’d never had a phobia of enclosed spaces, but he’d never had a reason to enter a hole this small either. Finally, he stepped forward and turned sideways into the crack, moving deeper into the unforgiving rock.
His friends had been telling the truth that the space was a little more spacious than it seemed. While he couldn’t turn to walk straight, there was enough wiggle room that he wasn’t in danger of becoming stuck. The worst part was when he walked in further than the light reached and could no longer see where he was going. There was no sound but his own footsteps, and he had nothing more than his forward hand to guide steps.
After what felt like an eternity, he heard a rushing sound and faint laughter coming from ahead. A few seconds later, he burst out into the open, able to move freely once more. A bluish glow suffused the environment, giving enough light to see his surroundings. His friends stood a few feet in front of the exit hole, looking at the cavern before them. Luke followed their gazes to the source of the light, taking in the sight for the first time.
The cavern was long, with a ceiling seven or eight feet tall. It was more of a wide corridor than open space, but it was still far larger than Luke would have imagined from the crevice he saw on the outside. The source of the rushing sound was visible, a small river that flowed across the back half of the room. What took up most of his attention, however, were the light sources that filled the cave.
Veins of some kind of rock or metal glittered all along the cavern walls, shining brilliantly. They almost looked like natural murals, scintillating patterns outlined in the cave’s walls, whorls and waves and tessellations that flowed as if they’d been drawn on, except that they were embedded in the rock itself. The whole room was suffused with the blue glow of their aura.
“It’s beautiful,” Luke breathed. The others turned toward him. He vaguely registered Abby exiting the crevice behind him.
“It really is,” Felix agreed. “As far as I know, no one’s ever been here but us. Naomi found this place, and we’ve never seen anything to suggest anyone else has ever seen it.”
Luke could believe that. There was something intensely distant about the cave, an air of remoteness that felt like it was in some forgotten corner of the world rather than a stone’s throw from the largest remaining human settlement.
“How do they glow like that? They’re so bright.”
He saw the half-lit form of Felicity shrug. “No idea. I’ve read about a few glowing rocks, but usually you need a black light to make them light up. You’d think something like this would be in every geology book out there. I’m guessing either they’re so rare no one really knows about them, or…they’re not native, somehow.”
Luke thought about that for a moment. “How would rocks migrate from another world?”
Felicity shrugged again. “Your guess is as good as mine.”
“God, you’re boring,” Naomi interjected. “Who cares? You want to talk about where the rocks came from, or do you want to dive in the river?”
“Sorry, what?” Luke asked, but Naomi had already darted off without waiting for an answer. With an excited yell she cannonballed into the river and vanished under the surface.
“What the hell?” Luke said loudly. “What if she hits some rocks under there?”
“That’s more or less what we said the first time she did it,” Abby said from behind him, “but it turns out it actually flows straight back into the canyon. It was a stupid thing to try, but we’ve all done it since then.”
As if to demonstrate, she followed in Naomi’s footsteps and leapt into the water herself, leaving no trace of her presence on the surface.
“It’s fun,” Felicity said, catching sight of Luke’s stricken expression. “Just make sure you dive low to get under the rocks and there’s not really much that can go wrong. You’ll be under for less than thirty seconds.”
“You’re all insane,” Luke said, watching her perform the same maneuver and disappear. There was no possible way what they were doing was safe. Her brother quickly followed, leaving only Tony and Luke alone in the cavern.
“They’re probably already on their way back in,” Tony said. “We’ve spent whole days doing this before, it’s actually pretty fun when you’re used to it.”
“Right. Fun.” His voice echoed slightly around the cave, sending his own doubtful words back to him. Luke flushed slightly as he heard his tone, and again felt like a coward. He’d done nothing but protest everything they’d done since walking to the canyon. He contemplated jumping into the river to try to redeem himself, but Tony spoke again before he could move.
“Luke…” he paused awkwardly and cleared his throat. “Before they get back, I wanted to ask you for a favor.”
“What is it?” Luke turned toward his friend, painfully aware of his sculpted body even in the half-dark of the cavern. But Tony was choosing his words more carefully than normal, and sounded embarrassed to even bring up what he was talking about.
“So, I’ve been trying to talk to my dad about…how I am, but every time I try the words come out wrong and I can’t think of how to say it. I don’t want to keep pretending to be someone else around him, but I don’t know what to say. Can you help me?”
“Sure.” He could go over a script with him, maybe give him advice on how to frame it…
“Great.” Tony sounded relieved. “I’ll talk to him, figure out a good day for you to come over. He likes to get to know anyone I hang out with anyway.”
“Wait—” He wanted Luke there when he came out to his dad? He instinctively cringed at the thought of being present for such an intimate moment between parent and child. He started to protest, but caught sight of Tony’s expression in the blue glow of the rock. The other boy looked relieved. Luke had never seen him look that vulnerable before. The objection died in his throat.
“If you’re sure.”
Tony nodded eagerly, and Luke sighed. There was no way that could go wrong. Tony quickly turned toward the river and changed the subject.
“All right. You go, I’ll be right behind you. Just remember to dive low.”
Luke nodded, and started running before he could second guess himself. He wanted to dive in head-first, as Naomi had done to get as deep as he could before the river met the wall of the cavern. He burst forward, his heart beating fast, but a thrill running through him he’d rarely known. He’d have never done this kind of thing back in his world. All thoughts of what might happen if he hit the unforgiving rock wall fell away, and all that remained was finding the right spot to jump.
The moment before he leapt, his foot hit a wet patch on the ground. He slipped, and instead of diving deep into the quick-flowing river, he belly-flopped onto the surface. Disoriented, Luke felt himself being carried down the river, faster than he expected. He tried to turn his body to swim downward, but before he could twist himself downward, his head clipped the lip of the rock at the gap in the wall. Blue faded to black, and he knew no more.