The Writers Voice
Ana and the Artifact
Ana lifted the tent flap, wondering why she felt compelled to enter, to see the object again. She froze when she heard her name. Had someone missed her? She glanced over her shoulder. Pinks and oranges stained the desert sky, but no one followed. She must have been mistaken. Relieved, she stepped inside.
Her eyes swept the crammed tables visible in the dim light. The artifact should be easy to find. She’d never seen anything like it. As big as a man’s fist, the box boasted gruesome torture scenes and was uglier than anything she’d ever seen. But its hideousness fascinated and demanded attention. Ana wanted to reach out and touch it, to run her hand over it. Other, more beautiful, artifacts crowded the tables but they did not call to her. Why did this?
Within moments, Ana found what she sought. It sat like a disfigured queen among tawdry subjects, commanding her. Her fingers tingled as they touched cold, scarred metal. The lid opened with a soft click. Light flashed from the crystal within, blinding her. A familiar voice called out in alarm before falling silent.
Emptiness enveloped her, terrifying in its lack of light and sound. Despite warm air against her skin, Ana shivered in the darkness. She blinked. Nothing changed. Rising panic made her mouth dry and her palms moist. I can’t see.
“Your sight will return in time.”
She whirled toward the deep male voice, loosening dirt and stone when she staggered into a rough wall. Had she spoken aloud? Strong hands steadied her at the waist.
“Do not be afraid. I will not hurt you.”
“Where am I?” Gentle pressure eased as he released his hold, leaving her adrift and disoriented. She hugged herself wondering if she could believe his words. “Who are you?”
Ana’s heart thumped in her chest when her companion grasped her wrist, pulling her forward.
“Introductions will have to wait.”
Not understanding his intentions, she tried to free herself from his grip. When that failed she pulled against him, digging her heels into the uneven ground. “Why? What’s happening?”
“No time to explain.” He caught her other wrist and dragged her forward as if she offered no resistance. “You are going to have to trust me.”
She struggled to keep up with her guide, tripping over the bumpy terrain. “Do I have a choice?”
He picked up the pace. “No.”
“I didn’t think so.” Losing her balance, she splashed through a stream. Frigid liquid seeped through her boots, soaking her socks and numbing her toes. A chill shot through her. “At least tell me…your name,” she said, through chattering teeth. She tripped as feeling left her feet and cold spread into her legs. What had she stepped in? Fear for her health overrode her concern over his motives. “Please, I can’t keep up.”
Vague outlines took shape as Ana began to regain her sight. A tall figure loomed over her, a man indistinct in all but general form. He lifted her to her feet with little effort. “You have to.”
“I can’t.” Shivers racked her body. “I’m so cold. I can’t feel my legs.”
“Cold?” Squatting beside her, he pushed up her pant leg and touched her skin. “Blazing rivers,” he muttered. Then more gently, “Tell me when you can feel my hands.”
His words buzzed in her ears like annoying insects. She tried to swat them away. Why wouldn’t he be quiet? She knew she was being unreasonable. She’d asked his name, but she didn’t care. Now she wanted silence. Then she could rest. Drowsiness began to overtake her and dropping to the ground she allowed herself to drift. “Keep your hands to yourself.”
“Stay with me.”
The urgency in his voice snapped her eyes open, but Ana couldn’t focus. “Tired,” she murmured. “Sleep.”
Her world shook and jostled. Ana curled up against the intrusion and yawned. “Go away.” Something warm wrapped around her lifting her in a gentle embrace. Then she was flying. She smiled at the thought. She’d always wanted to fly.
Awareness came to Ana in gentle, comforting swells. Warmth enveloped her. She opened her eyes and panicked. Water surrounded her like a liquid shroud. She tried to push to the surface but something kept her submerged. Her arms and legs flailed in an effort to free herself. What pressed against her face? She tried to remove it.
Leave the mask.
Mask? The words touched her mind, terrifying her. She couldn’t breathe. Darkness crowded the edges of her vision.
Do not fight me.
The voice seemed familiar but how could she hear it in her head? Ana pushed harder. The grip around her waist tightened, pulling her close against a man’s chest. Why was he trying to drown her?
I do not want to hurt you. Let me help.
Her heart pounded. She wanted to speak, but couldn’t open her mouth. She didn’t want to die, but he seemed determined to kill her. With a strength born of fear, she broke away.
She darted out of reach. How long before he caught up with her? Seconds? Minutes? Where was the surface? Everything looked the same in the dim greenish light. The current changed, dragging her downward. Her lungs should be screaming. Why weren’t they? How did she breathe?
Water swirled around her, pulling her where she did not want to go. Suction ripped the mask from her face. Ana wallowed water. What had she done? Her head began to throb and her lungs to ache. She kicked her feet and tried to push through the current without success.
Grab my hand.
Unable to see anything but muddy debris in the swirling water Ana reached out blindly. Strong fingers gripped her arm. Would he be able to free them both from the vortex?
The waters calmed but her lungs felt like they would burst.
You are safe now.
She caught a glimpse of her savior just before he pulled off his mask.
We will share.
He pressed his mask against her face and she forced herself to take slow, even breaths. When she nodded, he took some air for himself. Ana wondered how much they had left.
To her surprise, they did not swim up, but straight ahead, away from the whirlpool. He put his mask on her face and pointed to a small tunnel.
We must go single file.
Before she could answer, he entered the passage. Could she trust him? After a moment’s hesitation, she followed, knowing she couldn’t stay where she was. Ana wondered how long he could hold his breath.
Soon the tunnel will open into a wide pool. That is our destination.
Ana tried not to look at the walls, tried not to see them closing in on her. She could breathe; she would be all right. If she kept swimming.
She pushed forward, stroke by agonizing stroke. Would the channel never widen? Had her rescuer left her to die after all? Ana treaded water and tried to calm herself. She could do this. She had to.
You are almost there.
Ana focused on his words and pushed forward. Her heart pounded as she sped through a passage narrowing at an alarming rate. Or was it in her mind? Ahead she glimpsed the opening. Did it shrink? When she shot through it the man caught her by her arms and pulled her to the shore.
She squinted against bright light that surrounded her. The walls of the large cavern pulsed and glowed. How did they do that? She’d never seen anything like it.
“I was beginning to worry. What took you so long?”
Ana removed her mask and tossed it to him. “Claustrophobia,” she said. Despite his size, he caught it with a serpent-strike movement. A shiver of apprehension ran through her. What did he want with her?
Several tunnels, none of which looked inviting, opened into the cavern. She edged toward them, knowing they were her best hope of escape if the need arose. “Who are you? Why did you try to drown me?”
“My name is Alix.” His eyes followed her movements as he folded the mask and tucked it into a waist pouch. “And I did not try to drown you. Why would I do that, and then save your life?”
“I don’t know. You tell me.” She pushed her hair from her face. “Why was I out there?”
“You were ill.”
“That explains everything.” The warmth of the cavern chased the chill from her body, but did not explain why her clothes were damp instead of dripping wet. Not that she was complaining. She took a good look at Alix. Disheveled short blonde hair fell into eyes that may have been green or blue. His tunic and pants looked like he’d never been in the water, though his calf high boots bore water stains. Her breath caught when she noticed the long dagger at his belt. She put more distance between them. “I don’t remember being ill.” He made no move to stop her, though his disappointment was apparent in his expression.
“You stepped on an ice biter. It defended itself. ”
“An ice biter? What are you talking about?” Ana hugged herself. “Nothing bit me. I stepped in a stream. I thought I’d freeze to death.”
“You almost did. In its fluid form the biter’s venom can be fatal, freezing a person from the inside out.”
He looked to the lake and Ana wondered what he searched for. “How can an animal become liquid? It isn’t possible.”
“It is possible, but proper explanations require time we do not have.”
Curiosity overrode caution and she approached him. “Give me the short version.”
He turned to face her. “An ice biter is a low-level form shifter. At certain times of year it seeks the darkness of mountain caves and liquefies to conserve energy until the next breeding season.”
“I think that’s what I said.” He indicated her legs. “They are most dangerous in their liquid form, needing only to touch the skin to immobilize or destroy. The ‘stream’ bit you when you stepped in it. That’s why I brought you here.
Ana pushed up one pant leg and then the other. She found what looked like faint burn scars. “I don’t understand.”
“Watch.” Alix walked to the edge of the lake. He pulled out his dagger, and before Ana could react, cut his hand and plunged it into the water.”
“What are you doing?”
When he pulled it out the cut was gone, leaving a trail of blood in the shallows. He lifted it for her inspection. “It mends.” Guilt flashed in his eyes. “As soon as I touched your skin I knew you needed intense healing if you were to survive. I brought you here, but I was losing you. That’s why I had to submerge you in the deep waters. They are the strongest and the most effective.” He rinsed the dagger and returned it to its sheathe. “I didn’t think the waters would work so fast or that your reaction would be so violent. I am sorry if you were frightened.”
Ana tried to understand what was happening. She had no idea where she was or what this man’s intentions were. She should be frightened, but she wasn’t, at least not of him. Alix had saved her life. He couldn’t be all bad. “Are you apologizing for saving me?”
“Of course not. I…”
She smiled as his words tumbled over each other, pleased without knowing why, at unbalancing this self-assured man, the way she had been unbalanced since that strange flash of light blinded her. “Let me see your injury.”
“It is healed.”
She held out her hand. “I know. I want a closer look.” Ana fingers trembled as she traced the faint scar across his palm. Impossible. She’d seen the cut; it required medical attention. “How can water heal like this?”
He shrugged. “It is what it does.”
Her cheeks warmed when she realized he was watching her with some amusement. She released her hold. “Why don’t we start again? I’m Ana and I want to thank you for saving my life.”
“You are most welcome, Ana.” Alix inclined his head. “Your name fits you.”
Not knowing what to make of that, Ana looked around the cavern. “Where does the light come from? I’ve never been in a cave this bright.”
Alix took her arm and led her to one of the walls. “Look closely. What do you see?”
What Ana first took to be luminescent rock formations showed themselves to be glowing wormlike creatures, writhing along the walls. “What are they?”
“Glow moths at the end of their lives. They come here to die, to become part of the rocks and so light the caverns.
“Sort of like coral, but brighter,” she said.
Ana nodded but did not answer his unspoken question. That could wait. What she’d wanted to ask since he pulled her from the water could not. She had to hear him say what she didn’t want to believe. “This isn’t my world, is it?”
Alix squeezed her shoulders. “No. It is not.”
“Where am I? How did I get here?” Fighting rising panic, she turned to face him. “How do I get home?”
“This is Rayner.” He pushed back a strand of her hair, a gesture filled with regret and sadness. “You have been called. You cannot leave until you do what must be done.”
“Called? By whom?” Anger crowded fear from her heart. “To do what? I don’t know how I got here and I have no idea what you think I have to do.”
“You have to prevent the joining.”
Of course, it all made perfect sense. A low throbbing began behind her temples. “The joining? Of what?”
“Do you remember a flash of light before you met me?”
Ana nodded and massaged her head to ease the pain. “I think that’s what blinded me.
“And before that an artifact of some sort, unpleasant to look at but demanding attention?”
Startled by his words, she gave him her full attention. “Yes, but how did you know?”
“I am to guide and protect the one it calls.”
She closed her eyes when he reached out and touched her head, opening them again when the pain vanished. “You mean me?”
“Yes.” He lowered his hand. “The piece has remained hidden for centuries but when it woke, I knew you would come.”
Puzzled, Ana studied him. “You can’t be centuries old.”
His laughter surprised her. “I am not. I’m the last in a long line of guides who lived and died awaiting your arrival.” His eyes scanned her body, lingering at her throat. “You must never let it out of your sight.”
“But I’ve lost it.”
“No, you have it. Look at your necklace.”
“I’m not wearing a necklace.” At his urging, Ana reached inside her collar and to her amazement, pulled out a square crystal pendant on a silver chain. “I don’t understand.”
“Take a closer look.”
Ana lifted the gemstone and peered inside. The artifact. “How did it get in there?”
“It has done its duty, now it waits for you to do yours.”
She let the pendant hang against her chest. “To prevent the joining, but of what?”
“Its joining. With another artifact.” He lifted Ana’s chain with his finger until her clothing hid the pendant and let it fall. “ Before you left, did you also find a piece of great beauty and value? An emerald rose resting in sapphire leaves with a diamond bee suspended above it? This is important.
“Yes, it was locked up for safekeeping.”
Alix cocked one eyebrow. “Really? Then we may have some time.” He patted his dagger. “We will put it to good use.”
She eyed the weapon warily. “How?”
“Weapons and cultural training. You have to blend in as much as possible and be able to protect yourself should something happen to me.”
What seemed at first like a bizarre dream began to take on the sinister overtones of a nightmare. Weapons? She’d never handled a weapon in her life. “Why should something happen to you? Why is it so important that the two pieces remain apart?”
“Not apart; when the time comes, you must destroy them. If you succeed I will help you return to your world. If you do not, if they are joined, your world and mine will never be the same.”
© Marlicia Fernandez 1-29-06 (WC 2748)
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