Kingdom of the Silver Sea

by Sawyer Grey (UNEDITED PROOF)
 

Chapter 1
TRAPPED IN ODUSAR

 
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Chapter 1 - Trapped in Odusar
Chapter 2 - The Death of Kent
Chapter 3 - Return to Stanleyville
Chapter 4 - The Vengeance of Mor Teral
Chapter 5 - Assassins in Ehnvar Darsic
Chapter 6 - The Karthasa
Chapter 7 - The Silver Sea
Chapter 8 - Among the Martians
 

Mor Teral lit a torch and set off down one of the cramped access tunnels that honeycombed the ground beneath Odusar. I was not sure where he was headed and did not pay much attention as I followed him through the dusty passages, too exhausted from the day's events and too wrapped up in my emotions to care. Fury at Merewether's betrayal and trepidation over Charlotte's fate swirled around a white-hot core of rage burning at the anarchists' theft of Charlotte from me. That rage pushed me and kept me on my feet and moving despite the weariness that dragged at every limb. I felt as though I had been on the run for weeks; could this really only be my sixth night in Odusar? I counted back, starting with the night we had arrived. The second night was the night of the Martian attack on our camp, and on the third I had made the initial foray into the anarchists' tower with Mor Teral and Hicks. We had remained hidden in the tunnels the fourth night, then made the rescue of the captives on the fifth, so it was indeed only the sixth night. But it felt like I had been in the city for a thousand years.

In the darkness I missed my footing and stepped in a shallow hole dug by some nameless creature in ages past. I stumbled headlong, but caught myself with an outflung arm against the side of the tunnel before I could fall.

"Wait," I called out, and slid down the wall to the tunnel floor.

Mor Teral turned and walked back to where I leaned gasping against the smooth, cool tunnel wall. He cocked his head in the direction from which we had come and listened. Finally he nodded to himself and squatted down next to me.

"Are you all right?"

I nodded. "Yes. I just need to rest a minute."

"Very well. Anyone following us will take quite a while to catch up. I do not think they would follow us this far into the tunnels anyway."

His voice held much less conviction that I would have liked to hear. "Where are we going?"

"This way." He waved vaguely at the tunnel stretching into the darkness before us.

I cocked an eyebrow at him. "That's not as useful as I might have hoped."

The barbarian laughed. "I believe we are headed south, or at least that was my intent. These tunnels are not as familiar to me, though, so we will not know for certain until we go up to the surface and take a look."

"Why south?"

"Because with the remains of the Martian horde fleeing in that direction, my people are unlikely to believe we would go the same way and risk being captured."

"It does seem like a rather foolish thing to do," I agreed. "Not that being captured by your people would be any great improvement."

"No. No it would not," he said, and regarded me intently. "What would you do, Jack Branham? Your people have left you behind, and your enemies have taken your woman. Should you choose to try, I will aid you in an attempt to rescue her once more, but I am afraid that we used up our luck the first time. We shall not sneak past their guards so easily again."

"You're right. If we try to get back in there now, they'll be ready and waiting for us. I am going to get her back, though, Mor Teral. They will not keep me from her. If I have to fight alone against every one of them and scale the walls of their towers with my bare hands to rescue her, I will."

"You will not be alone," he said, and gripped my shoulder.

"It would not hurt to continue south, since it will likely throw your people off our trail. We can go to the edge of the city, then circle up the western side. From there I might find some way to cross the swamps and try to make my way home." I knew it was a false hope even as I said it; to get home I would have to cross a couple of hundred miles of swamp and dry sea bottom infested with tribes of hostile Martians, then almost another thousand miles of desert and rocky uplands before I reached Cydonia and Stanleyville. The odds of being able to survive that kind of trek on Mars were pretty close to zero, and even if I managed it I should be months making the journey. A sick wave of despair washed through me, but I shrugged it off. I would do it for Charlotte, however hard the journey, however long it took, and I would get her back from the anarchists.

Mor Teral had skepticism enough for both of us anyway. "I think you passed the swamps in the only way possible – with your flying machines. Trying to get through them on foot?" He shook his head. "They swallow anyone who enters them. There are quicksands and foul gases, Martians and fierce beasts and poisonous insects. And my people say that the ghosts of the souls lost there lure unwary travelers down remote paths then drag them beneath the mire."

"Thanks for the wonderful image," I growled. "You don't have to come along, you know."

The barbarian grinned and his teeth gleamed redly in the torchlight. "You are the kind of man who cannot help but fall into adventures, and so I shall follow you to relieve the dreariness of my existence in this city."

"Glad I could help."

"We should move on now. We have many more hours to travel before we can stop. It is far too dangerous to sleep in the tunnels."

Mustering all of my willpower, I forced myself back to my feet and we continued our journey. After an hour or so the side tunnel rejoined one of the main tunnels. The air in the larger tunnel was not so close and stale, and we were able to pick up our pace. That was when I noticed that Mor Teral only had one more torch. He shrugged when I asked about it.

"We will have to risk going above ground to search for material to make more," he said. "Or else we must finish our journey in the open."

"Maybe not." I pulled out the Martian light I had found in the old house and displayed it to Mor Teral.

"Amazing," he said as he shone it about. "There are legends of such things among my people, but any such things that we had have been lost or no longer function."

"Keep it," I told him, knowing that I could rely on my goggles to see in the dark in a pinch.

Two more hours passed and Mor Teral stopped where a ladder dropped through a narrow hole down to a lower level. "The main passage bears too much to the west," he said. I did not ask him how he knew; Mor Teral possessed an uncanny sense of direction. "If we follow it, I think it will lead to the river, and all of the tunnels that pass under the river were blocked off in ancient times to prevent raiding parties from using them. There may be a side passage that splits off to the south before then. If not, we would have to retrace our steps and possibly add hours to our journey."

I stared dubiously at the hole. "Have you used the lower levels before?"

"Yes."

"Then we'll do it your way." I gestured towards the ladder.

The lower tunnel was cooler, but the air was stale and had an unpleasant tang that irritated the nose. Every step we took dislodged a light fall of dust from the tunnel roof, which just made breathing more difficult and did nothing for my peace of mind about travelling this route. Worse, I noticed that the tunnel did not run quite level, but was slowly going deeper beneath the city. Unpleasant things live in the dark places beneath Martian cities, and the deeper you go the worse they tend to get.

We had gone perhaps two hundred yards up the tunnel when the last torch burned out and Mor Teral had to switch on the Martian light. Its steady beam drilled through the darkness before us, casting long, dancing shadows against the tunnel walls that made it difficult to see too far ahead. With every step forward the temperature dropped, and I could feel a hint of moisture in the air, just enough to add an unpleasant clamminess that had me pulling my greatcoat more closely around me. It was exactly the kind of place my Martian guides had always warned me to stay out of at all costs.

We slogged along, one foot in front of the other, without speaking for an hour, needing all of our breath to push on in the bad air. At last I saw something glittering faintly in the light ahead.

"Mor Teral," I whispered, and pointed at the reflections when he stopped.

"I do not know."

"Could it be condensation on the tunnel walls?"

He ran his fingers along the wall beside us. "We are not deep enough for that. The air is still too dry."

"Turn off the light and let me look."

I slipped the goggles up over my eyes and pushed the button that allowed me to see in the dark. About thirty yards ahead I could make out some faintly glowing blobs on the tunnel walls and floor. It was impossible to make out any details, even when I dialed up the magnification. I turned to the tunnel behind us to see if the blobs were just a problem with the goggles, and it was so dark I could barely see the outlines of the tunnel.

"You can turn the light back on."

"What is it?"

"Sleerels." These amorphous, amoeba-like creatures are ambush hunters who infest the cool, moist recesses of the dark underground labyrinths below the Martian cities. Their slimy membranes secrete a fast-acting paralyzing toxin, which they use to subdue their prey. Once the prey is immobilized, the sleerels absorb it within their bodies and slowly digest it alive.

Mor Teral let his breath out in a long hiss. "This is beyond me, Jack. How do we get past them?"

"I was told to use torches. Apparently they don't like fire. Even that isn't a sure thing if they are too hungry. They'll let parts of themselves burn to trap a victim."

"We do not have any more torches, and it would take hours to go back to the last exit to the surface."

"Then we'll just have to do it the hard way. Wrap your clothes tightly around you; you want as little exposed skin as possible. They only need one or two good strikes to bring down a man. Guns and bows are useless against them, but swords can deflect their attacks and do a bit of damage."

We moved forward cautiously with me in front to break trail and Mor Teral following a few steps behind, the Martian light in one hand and his great curved blade in the other. Before long we could see them clearly, shapeless blobs of grey and sickly-green colored slime that pulsated slightly to some weird internal rhythm. They were disgusting to look at, and the smell like old death that rose from them sent waves of nausea coursing through me.

"Go through quickly. They strike at movement and heat within a couple of feet, but they are too slow to pursue us once we're past. If we can break through this group, we'll be all right."

Mor Teral nodded and I darted forward. There was enough space between the sleerels to run and dodge if you were careful. A slender, translucent grey protuberance that looked rather like a snail's eyestalk snapped out and whipped against the sleeve of my greatcoat. I flicked my saber to the right to catch another before it landed against my hand and sliced clean through it, sending it writhing into the darkness to one side. The sleerels flung more and more of these wriggling appendages towards us until it seemed as though we were surrounded by horrid, giant sea urchins. Our swords never stopped swinging, scything through the sleerels' feelers until the clear ichor the creatures used for blood spattered and dripped down the blades. Tiny droplets landed on my sword hand and I felt a tingling numbness creeping into my fingers.

I heard a grunt behind me and looked back. Mor Teral had slipped and fallen to one knee, caught off-balance by multiple strikes while ducking to avoid a stalk lashing out at his face. Without thinking I reached out and grabbed his hand which held the Martian light and pulled him back to his feet. As he lurched forward, a line of icy fire burned itself into my hand. My saber sheared through the appendage, leaving a six-inch tendril clinging to the top of my hand that I had to scrape off with my sword blade. Excruciating pain shot up my arm, throbbing in time to my pulse. I lashed out blindly with my sword, kicking and shoving through until I was finally free of the brutes. Mor Teral staggered out of the writhing forest a second later.

I fell to my knees in the dust and buried my hand as best I could and used the fine, dry powder to scour away the sticky slime from it. When it was finally gone I dragged myself to my feet using my sword as a cane. Mor Teral stood watching the sleerels, which were slowly creeping up the tunnel towards us.

"Are you all right?" he asked, his voice tight with concern. "We can rest here for a while if you must. Unless we fall asleep we are in no further danger from these things."

"Let's keep moving. I got enough slime on me that the arm will go numb, and resting isn't going to help with that. The poison will take some hours to wear off, but walking may speed up the process."

We continued down the tunnel and I was immensely relieved a few hours later when it began to rise towards the surface again. Mor Teral noticed it, too, and at the next ladder we climbed up to the higher levels again. We soon entered a very large tunnel that had apparently been one of the main north-south passages before the city fell into ruin. We followed that for several hours longer until I began to regain some sensation in my fingertips. At last Mor Teral stopped at another ladder piercing the gloom overhead.

"I think this is it. You go first so I can catch you if you slip."

It was awkward with only one hand, but I climbed up the ladder as quickly as I could. Once Mor Teral came up with his light, we forced open the door we found there and found ourselves blinking in bright sunlight. Enormous buildings three and four stories high that I took to be warehouses stretched out as far as I could see to either side of us, while before us a broad avenue sloped down to the old docks stretching their skeletal fingers out into the riotous morass of the great swamps.

Without a word we set off down the road towards the docks. We would need to replenish our water supplies, and the nearest place to do that was the swamp. With luck we might find food there as well. When we reached the docks, we discovered that they had been constructed of huge slabs of white marble. They were mostly intact, though worn down by aeons, and here and there great fissures had opened up between the blocks. We walked all the way to the end of the first pier we came to, and sat at the end with our legs dangling over the edge, happy to soak up some sun and air after our long sojourn below ground.

An endless sea of purplish-green stalks taller than a man stretched out before us, sprinkled with extensive groves of slender trees soaring above the swamps. The tall grasses had a topknot of broad green leaves that provided a dense canopy. You could march an army through the grasses and it would be completely invisible to any watchers above. Flocks of the four-winged birds of Mars floated through the clear skies, hovering and dropping to rest on the open water like low-lying clouds. Their distant, plaintive calls were haunting in that desolation. I leaned my head back and let the sounds and the clear, sharp air wash away some of the accumulated fatigue and stress.

"Jack."

I slowly cranked my eyes open. Mor Teral was peering into the distance in the west, far out into the air above swamps. I squinted until I saw what he was looking at, and scrambled to pull up my goggles and focus in on the remote speck above the trees.

"It's the Joanna," I breathed, "and she's coming this way."