Ana: An Artefacter’s Tale, Part 2. By James Baldwin

Part 1 can be found HERE.

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Breakfast concluded and Ana safely ensconced in the steam launch the three companions headed in to the tangle of rubble and jungle which skirted the main complex. Everywhere roots and vines choked the revenant buildings in a campaign to eradicate all trace of former civilisation. Nature was the master here and would, with slow, inexorable patience,  prove it.

There was beauty here too. Brightly coloured flowers burst from the vines and fronds like little explosions of treasure. Iridescent insects floated above them as Half Flighted Dacts shot from one tree trunk to the next, snapping them up. They could hear birds too, their music combining with the sound of dripping water in a gentle tropical symphony.

As they moved further into the interior the jungle opened up a little, the trees growing a little taller, and the confused rubble coagulated in to more recognisable shapes. These buildings were multi-storied and half submerged. Strange signs hung from their exteriors while inside the contents had rotted away to a jagged slurry which grew the kinds of plants and shrubs which could survive on low light.

Everywhere else the trees fought for supremacy with the ruins themselves, winning out for the most part.

As they navigated their way down what, judging by the alignment of the ruins, might once have been a city street, a caustic roar ripped through the canopy. The cathedral like jungle shuddered all around them. Slethssk quickly dropped to his knees, pressing an ear to the ground. Silently but insistently, he indicated to the West.

Sage deftly hopped up on to a moss green balcony, using a vine to assist him, while Nix pressed herself in to an architectural niche framed with thick fronds.

An Allsor sniffs the evening air, seeking his prey...
The Drowned Earth is a dangerous place- sometimes it’s best to simply hide!

All three drew weapons, and Slethssk melted back in to a clump of razor fern. By now they could feel the vibrations of colossal footsteps, and just a few moments afterwards they heard them. Whatever the beast was, it was no dainty.

As the booming steps got louder Slethssk noted gratefully that what little wind there was came from the North-East. This meant the beast would probably not have scented them, which made sense, as it was making no effort to conceal its presence.
Finally, it crashed out in to the street like clearing they had been using as a path. It was at least seven metres in length, a deep green grey with purple stripes slashing the length of its back; An Allosor, probably the island’s Apex Predator. It let out a great breath, a noiseless grunt which could be felt rather than heard.

All three held their breath as it passed to the North, right across their projected path. If it had been just a few minutes later it would have scented them, and such a fight could easily have ended in tragedy, victory or no. Without a doubt it was the kind of luck they needed, and Nix commented quietly that it boded well for the rest of the expedition. Sage and Slethssk exchanged looks, but remained silent.

Before the sun reached its zenith they reached the main complex, a maze of jagged walls connected by vines and grasping growth, reaching high up beyond the canopy towards the Pinnacles like a strange, honeycomb volcano.

“Ready for a climb?” Nix said, shouldering her bow and securing her pack firmly.

“It had better be up there” Slethssk said.

Sage grinned. “Oh, our Nix doesn’t make mistakes. At least, not when it comes to finding the scrip”.

“On that we can agree” Nix said, eyes narrowed. “It’s up there all right. I’d have got it last time if I could have carried it”.

Like all the best ones, the plan was simple enough. They had to make it to the secondary pinnacle, and a little over two thirds of the way up, to where Nix had dropped the object they were seeking. From there Sage would carry it back down, and they’d sail home…

Presumably rich.

In order to get to the secondary pinnacle however, they had to traverse this confusing network of shattered walls, collapsed buildings and jagged barriers which formed a dense maze around the three towers.

The Primary Pinnacle was over 40 stories, while the second and third were 33 and 29 respectively, provided you counted the partial stories which made up most of the upper portions of each tower. How tall they had been originally, nobody could guess. Certainly, the current ground level floors were not the original.

Thankfully the maze portion could be traversed over rather than navigated on the ground. Vines and roots had bridged the zip-line-resized-and-refinedstructures, making the way to the main towers an intricate and often nerve wracking climb, but perfectly possible for all that.

Sage made short work of the first thirty metres or so, turning back to help his friends. Nix had a vine break on her, but sprung easily to the firm sucker tendrils of a banyan tree which hung precariously by its root system between two walls.

In all, the first portion of the climb took no more than a few hours, and they stopped for a rest at the end of it. Finding a platform which seemed once to have been a promenade between two buildings, they took a bite to eat and girded themselves for the ongoing journey.

The next part of the ascent was more difficult, and certainly more dangerous. The concrete on the southern wall of the second pinnacle had obviously seen the most rainfall, and was partly friable. The going was rough, and several times they had to turn back from a path which had seemed promising, but where hand holds crumbled to the touch.

The northern interior would be easier to climb, but in order to get to it they would have to leap from a point about ten stories up, connecting the southern to the northern wall. At the lower portion, the eastern and western walls were gone entirely. The centre of the building seemed to be held up almost entirely by a substantial looking but featureless pillar.

On the tenth story Nix suggested they rest again. Only Sage was unwinded, his body better suited to this sort of work. They pushed on again soon afterwards though, making the leap to the northern side without incident. Thankfully for the next seven stories there was a stairwell which was mostly intact.

On the seventeenth floor though, they encountered a problem. On her last visit to this place Nix had used a collapsed portion of interior wall to climb two stories to where the stairwell continued. However both the interior wall and the stairwell above were gone completely. This meant that they were obliged to climb the exterior once more, but now they were nearly 20 stories up!

This was of course, no mean feat. Firstly the distance to fall was daunting, but secondly higher up, the growth was much less significant, meaning they could not rely on sturdy growth to assist their climb.

On balance though, there was little choice but to brave the exterior or call it a wash. None of them were in favour of the second option, so the journey continued, the three companions braving the dizzying heights of floors 19 to 23.

A terrifying call broke the concentration of the climbers as they approached the 24th floor. Sage already had his Flechette Rifle out, firing at a large Terrodon which had swooped down on Slethssk. The winged monster broke off just as its prey swung around a window frame, dangling precariously by one hand to avoid its snapping beak.

Sage’s shot ripped through its wing sending it spiralling downwards, screeching maniacally. Three more had spotted them though, and began to circle ominously towards them. Nix had moved up to Slethssk’s position now, grabbing hold of his arm and helping him to a more secure position. Sage fired shot after shot, but doing no more than deterring the attack as the creatures split away from each other. Then suddenly, in almost telepathic coordination, they dived. Sage fired again but cursed as his weapon jammed. To their amazement though, the three Dacts shot straight past the three climbers, and instead…

Slethssk: Artefacter Scout
A Sorrian Scout, Slethssk is the scout of the Artefacter’s crew, and often the voice of reason…

A squeal of fright sounded as a small Dverg could be seen below them, wrapping a vine around her waist.  She struggled to ready a weapon which seemed far too big for her. Slethssk grabbed Nix’s bag strap as she let go with both arms, drawing her bow and preparing a shot. She fired an explosive tipped arrow which caught the tail Terrodon in the back of the neck, blowing its head clean off.

By now Ana had managed to bring her own weapon to bear, but Sage doubted greatly the suitability of a long range rifle at such close range.

Instead of firing a bullet though, Ana cranked a handle on “Lucile” and fired. The round exploded shortly after leaving the weapon in a bloom of black-blue smoke which begun to float upwards towards the climbers.

“Ana!?” Sage called, face a portrait of angry concern. His heart sank as he saw the two Terradons arc below, flying away from the building, seemingly unhurt.

The smoke though, was providing them with cover. They only had just over one story more to climb now.

“You two go ahead” Sage said. His face hardened in to an expression of determined concern. “I’ll go down and see if… she survived”.

Slethssk nodded grimly and, with Nix, began to ascend. The climb might’ve been difficult, or it might’ve been easy. Later, neither could recall. At the top of the climb though they found themselves on an open platform which formed the highest point of the northwest corner of the building. Half embedded in the floor where it had fallen, was a large, metal safe.

Neither was in a mood to celebrate. The smoke was dissipating now, and the two surviving Dacts were wheeling for another attack. Slethssk spun the barrel of his large calibre revolver and took cover while Nix fingered another arrow. Just as they did however, a huge black hand thudded on to the platform edge, and a few moments later, Sage’s broad face. Over his shoulder could be seen the face of a small Dverg girl, beaming at them.

Seeing the travellers’ climb ended, the Dacts seemed reluctant to renew their attack. Sage reached back and gently plucked Ana off him and placed her on the ground.

“Well, least said about that the better!” Nix said, “Here it is”. She gestured towards the safe, and Sage unstrapped a harness he had brought for the purpose, grunting with effort as he lifted the safe on to his back.

“Pushed it off the 29th floor” Nix said. “Decided it probably wouldn’t make a 25 story drop though, so here we are”.

Ana glanced over the safe’s electric lock with professional interest, and began to prod at it. Sage waved her away.

“So what now?” Slethssk said. “I don’t think back the way we came is a good plan”. He turned to the wheeling Terradons in the distance, which seemed to have found a few more friends.

“I guess it’s time to find how things look this way then” Nix said, heading towards a dark, interior doorway. “Keep sharp people” she added. “Lets not forget what happened at South Shiv”.

The interior was a crumbling temple to rot and fungus. It was always the case with these low altitude ruins. Unless you were lucky enough to find a sealed room, the contents were usually rotted down to mulch, meaning that finding anything meant sifting through the dirt for objects made of antigrade materials.

Ana pulled an electric torch from her pack. Nix whistled her approval while Slethssk hummed appreciatively.

“Oh it’s not an artefact” she said. “I made it myself. The battery is actually an acid mix brewed from… Yeah… We need to be quiet… Ok. I get it”.

The flickering light was enough to illuminate the scattering of small animals they would almost certainly have rather not seen. It also helped them to be sure of their footing, but best of all it allowed them to find something Nix had been hoping desperately to come across.

“There we go” she whispered triumphantly. “The lift shaft”.

Nix, Artefacters Leader
The brave and somewhat reckless leader of the Artefacters crew: Nix!

Slethssk didn’t bother to hide his scepticism.  “In full working order I’m sure” he said. Nix shot him an evil glare.

“I’m not as stupid as you lot think” she said. “It’s not in working order, obviously, but the cable is sound. I checked it from the top floor. We just need to get control of the counterweight from the second shaft and we’re golden”.

Prizing the lift doors open proved a lot more difficult than Nix had anticipated. Brute force wasn’t going to work. Some sort of heavy duty locking mechanism was in place. After Sage lost his temper Ana tried the subtle approach.

Prying off the cover-plate she found the electronic controls in reasonable working order, although a few synth-cables had to be replaced. Within a few minutes the bolt locks could be heard withdrawing, releasing the doors for Sage to force apart.

Hanging in the centre of the shaft was a quad-coiled fibre cable of black shiny antitrade material. On the far side of the shaft was a ratchet system which seemed to appear on every floor: a safety mechanism to ensure the lift could be manually controlled in the case of an emergency.

“I’ll go first” Slethssk said. “Test its strength. Then Sage can send down the safe by itself – we need to spread the…”

“No” Nix interrupted. “It’s too heavy for you to move it at the other end. Sage will have to go down with it”.

“That’s crazy” Slethssk argued. “The two heaviest things we’ve got going down together?”.

Now it was Sage’s turn to interrupt. “No she’s right. If I weaken it you guys can find another way down, but if you weaken it, getting the safe down will be that much harder. I don’t want to have to climb with this thing more than I have to”.

Sage’s entry in to the lift was punctuated by an unpleasant groan. They waited a few more moments, Sage nervously moving his weight around to test stability. Then he nodded.

“Ok, lets get this done” he said with a reassuring smile.

Half way down it happened. The lift jolted hard, and jammed. There was another ominous moan of stressed metal. Not the cable, Ana thought, but the support above.

“It’s stuck!” Nix shouted.

“I can see that” Sage called up from inside the lift. There was another jolt, and the screech of metal.

“Frak!” Slethssk shouted, trying desperately to unjam the ratchet mechanism.

“I’m between floors” Sage shouted up at them, fear in his booming voice. There’s a door but I can’t open it more than a crack”. The end of his sentence was cut off by a screeching sound, and a shudder, followed by a snap fizzle of shearing cable.

But Sage was suddenly startled by a zipping sound and a light click of leather on metal. Looking down at him from the ceiling panel of the lift was a grinning Ana, holding the lift cable she had just descended at high speed.

The groan began again, but this time it was long and portentous. Ignoring the ominous sounds Ana smiled sweetly at Sage and bowed towards the metre of door which lead to the floor below them.

“Would you be so kind, gallant sir?” she said with a bow.

Sage roared as he pulled it open as far as he could. It was just enough room for Ana to squeeze through, falling headlong in to the passageway, the door clanking shut behind her.

Quickly she went to work, ignoring the intensifying metallic groans, the meaning of which didn’t bear thinking about. Her fingers flicked across the panel innards, replacing a cable here, re-connecting a plas-weld point there. She hardly noticed the jolt of electricity which cut through her. More important than her pain, it signalled the working status of the door bolts.

“It’s unlocked!” she screamed desperately. The doors began to open just as there was a terrifyingly loud ‘clack’ followed by the whip hiss of cable bouncing off shaft wall. The lift began to fall just as Sage leaped out of it with all his might, thudding in to the opposite wall as the lift plummeted to its doom.

The whole building shook and reeled as the lift smashed to the bottom of the shaft. It was followed by a low grinding sound, and several shattering cracks.

“That’s not good” Sage said. For a moment they just looked at each other. Then there was another ominous crack and Sage suddenly felt his balance go off centre. Scooping Ana up with one great arm he thundered through the darkness as the building began to shake and tilt. There was no time to think of Nix and Slethssk. It was survival now, and nothing else. The Berengeii ran instinctively for the East face of the building on which the Primary Pinnacle was located. Suddenly there was grey light and dust as the room they just exited fell away in a blur of motion. Sage bombed through another doorway, leaping at the last minute as the floor collapsed under him. He grabbed the remaining edge of the floor in the room beyond and hauled them both up, not even feeling the weight of the safe on his back.

Then he could see it: the Primary Pinnacle, moving sideways and upwards… No… It was they who were moving! But the Primary Pinnacle was still a good fifteen metres away. To far to leap.

He leaped.

The Drowned Earth: Leap of Faith.
Sometimes you just have to take a risk!

Catching one of the multitudinous vines which grew between the two pinnacles, Sage swung hard towards the Primary tower just as the Secondary gave way completely. Sage’s eyes narrowed as he dropped down a metre or so on the vine, aiming for an open window. They sailed through it, vine catching on the window pane above and slowing them before it snapped, sending them sprawling to the floor, but quite safe.

Sage stood first, hefting the safe off his back and laying it to rest safely on the floor before looking to Ana. She was dusting herself and checking everything was intact; that no bones were broken. They both looked at each other, shell shocked. Walking to the window they saw the great empty space where the second Pinnacle once stood. The building in which their friends had been when it collapsed… Ana stretched her head far out of the window to see a vast cloud of dust settling below.

“Hey!” a familiar voice came from above. “A little help maybe?”

Sage and Ana looked up to see their companions hanging from a vine five stories above them, decidedly sheepish looking.

“I’ll come up” Sage shouted with a toothy smile, giving thanks to some unnamed deity as he climbed out of the window and began the journey upwards.

Ana’s heart skipped a beat at the shrill scream which exited Nix’s lips, certain that she had lost her grip and must be plummeting to her death.

“Where’s the Fall-Damned safe Sage!?” She roared, looking at his empty back as he climbed up to them.

The Berengeii gritted his teeth as he ascended to help his friends. “I don’t know what’s in the damned thing, but It had better bloody be worth it” he muttered.

-The End-