“This is your fault.”
Kassinara turned to the co-inhabitor of the slimy pit she found herself at the bottom of. Both were covered in a green film, and if Kassinara looked anything like Anya, she had the look and disposition of a wet cat. Though Kassinara did not have a twitching tail to complete said ensemble.
“How….” Kassinara began slowly, tempering every word. “Is it my fault….that I fell into the pit….that I rescue you from?”
“It was that stupid pack!” Anya practically shrieked. “All the Junk you're carrying snapped the vine!”
“I’m prepared!” Kassinara retorted, “I’m the only one whose ever prepared! Everyone comes to me when they’re out of water, or power, or food!”
Anya crossed her arms with a slimy squelching sound. She ignored it. “Well, did you bring anything to get us out of here?!”
“As a matter of fact-!” Kassinara reached down to her hip, pulling on an old one handed scythe attached to a chain. Thinking to use it as a climbing spike, she stabbed the end of the tool into the dark green side of the pit, with an anger fueled emphasis.
Immediately, the lower half of the pit jolted and shifted. Wide eyed, both girls froze.
“Whuh-wuzzat?” Anya whispered, frantically glancing around.
Beside her, Kassinara was already checking her wristband. After a few seconds of soft beeping, it gave the answer.
“WHAT?!” Anya scrambled up, then slide down the slimy walls.
“Calm down, it’s barely any worse than stomach acid. It more or less is really….”
“What?” Anya breathed.
“I think this pit is an open stomach. Animals fall in here, can’t get out, then slowly get dissolved over a few days or so.”
“I-wuh-you said you had a way to get out, right?!”
“Mh-hm.” Gentle as she could, Kassinara pulled the embedded scythe free of the wall. A glob of a light green substance oozed out of the wound. She wondered if the pit-thing was more animal or plant, or perhaps something else entirely. Much like the answer to ‘What would happen if I stabbed it a bunch?’ she could wait for the answer until she was out and away from the acid that was up to her thighs.
“Plan two then.” She muttered, twirling the scythe around by the chain.
For reasons she did not yet understand, this scythe didn’t work like a simple farming tool. Neither did the chain for that matter. Upon release, not only did the scythe sail directly for the tree branch she was aiming for, but it also coiled around and neatly embedded the tip into a chain link, firmly holding itself into place.
“Hold my pack.”
“Why?” Anya raised an eyebrow. It quickly lowered as the girl smirked. “Too heavy?”
“Keep in mind,” Kassinara grunted as she pulled herself upward, “That I wouldn’t….be down here….if you hadn’t fallen.”
Below her, Anya bickered something back. Kassinara paid no mind, focusing hand over hand until she was free from the acid-slime and onto the tree above.
The forest around her was alive with warbled croaks. Inverted, clinging to the bottom of an adjacent branch, a six limbed creature scurried higher into the tree. It hunched, puffing itself up.
“Bwar bwar bwar!”
With big ears and eyes, as well as a messy fur coat the thing was almost cute. Until you knew that the ‘fur’ was actually bristles capable of shooting into predators and causing an unpleasant rash for days. They also possessed fangs and a strong bite to break through the outer layer of what passed as fruit on this planet.
“Pack first!” Kassinara called as she lowered the chain.
“Why is the pack before me?”
“Whose gonna secure the pack if we’re both up here?”
“Forget the pack and-GET ME OUT OF HERE!”
They stared at each other a while before, begrudgingly and muttering all the while, Anya secured the pack to the chain. Kassinara quickly hauled it up, her shoulders beginning to burn, then lowered the scythe once more.
“This thing better not cut me….”
Kassinara huffed. “Just put your boot on it and you’ll be fine.”
Now standing on the ground several feet back from the pit, Kassinara pulled with all her strength, shoulders screaming, back tightening, and legs shaking.
“Don’t….bother pulling yourself….up.” she said through gritted teeth.
“Oh.” Anya pulled herself up the last few feet, her prehensile tail the last thing to detach from the chain.
Kassinara took a moment to recover, stretching and trying to get blood back into her hands that her tight grip on the chain had cut off. Next, she dug through her back, pulling out water containers.
“You’re just gonna pour all your drinking water on yourself?” Anya tilted her head questioningly.
“I’d rather not get digested any further.”
Without a word, Anya pulled off her own, comparatively much smaller and lighter pack, and began doing the same.
After a simple flick of the chain, the scythe dislodged itself and fell allowing Kassinara to neatly tie the chain around her waist. The chain did not so much as clink as it contacted it’s own coils. Next, Kassinara dried and cleaned her wristband. The screen on top of her wrist was about three fingers wide, and unfortunately as an older model, flickered frequently.
“Ezin, how are things going?”
Instead of the dolphin looking boy wearing a fishbowl, she found herself looking into the dull, membrane covered eyes of Ikshon.
“Ezin cannot take your call right now.” she said in a deep, slow voice. “He’s busy cleaning his Enviro-Suit. The fool managed to fall into a pit.”
“Hey!” Anya poked her head over Kassinara’s shoulder. “It’s kinda funny. We just got ourselves out of a pit that Kassinara led us into.”
“That I fell into while trying to save you!” Kassinara corrected, shouldering the other girl out of frame.
“Well, I was following your instructions.” She crossed her arms and seated herself on a rock a few steps away.
Glaring and holding back further arguments, Kassinara took her gaze from Anya to her wristband. “Have you had any luck finding anything?”
“Ktet. Nothing.” While Ikshon and most Drekorin almost always looked to be scowling, she somehow managed to furrow her protruding brow even more. “Are we certain anything is even here?”
“The captain seemed pretty adamant.” Kassinara glanced to the east where she was certain the Naglfar hung in outer orbit. “Keep looking, and stay safe. I’m gonna try Ket.” Two taps on her wristband later, and she was talking with another member of her team. Or trying to. “Ket how are things where you are?”
“Are you okay?” Her connection to Ket’s wristband had been acknowledged, but Ket hadn’t allowed access to his camera. “Ket, if you don’t answer, I’m gonna have to send someone over to-” A chime from her wristband cut her off. A written message appeared on screen.
‘I am fine.’
‘Have not found anything.’
‘I do not like the upside-down flying things.’
Kassinara grinned. Ket might not have liked communicating, but at least he had a recognizable way of sending messages.
“Alright. Stay safe, and good luck.”
She disconnected and turned. Her grin widened into a full smile.
“What?” Anya growled.
“You look like a wet cat.” Kassinara laughed.
“I’m not a cat!” Anya shouted, quickly wrapping her tail around her waist. “And you don’t look all that fantastic yourself.”
“Sorry! Sorry!” Kassinara held up her hands defensively, her smile gone only to return a moment later. “I wasn’t talking about your tail and genes, I just meant that….you looked so grumpy. It was funny. I thought.”
“Yeah, well,” she wrung water, and a bit of acid, out of her long hair, “I am grumpy. Can we hurry up and find whatever we’re looking for so we can leave?”
“Absolutely. Let’s-” Kassinara’s wristband chimed.
She grinned once more. “Let’s go this way. I think I hear water.”
They walked only a short way through grayish-green underbrush and thickets, but it was long enough for Anya to break out into her usual bickering.
“If the captain really wanted to find something, why doesn’t she come down from her ship and look herself?! She acts like she saved us and is doing some huge favor, but none of us asked to be orphan adventurers!”
Kassinara merely muttered agreement as she took the lead. There was nothing for her to say that she hadn’t said a dozen times or more.
They emerged into a small clearing around a gently trickling creak. Kassinara hurried to the water’s edge, then crouched low to study the water. Clear enough to see the bottom at least a few feet deep, and a very slight decline leading into the deeper middle. No trace of any sort of organism.
Behind, Anya was impatiently opening and rifling through Kassinara’s pack.
“Hurry up. All this walking is making me thirsty.”
“All the talking is making you thirsty. And what makes you think you get any?”
With a pouch and a clear tube in her hands, Anya froze, then scowled. “Is this because I called your pack ‘stupid’?”
Kassinara took the tube and dipped the receiving end into the creak. “Admit that I’m right to always be prepared, and I’ll let you have some. Also, that I’m cool and you’re grateful to have me as a friend and leader.”
“I’d rather die in an unmarked grave, on thi unnamed rock in space than say those words.”
Kassinara shrugged. “If that’s how you want to be.”
Huffing and puffing, Anya still held the water pouch. Both knew Kassinara would let her have a drink, but only after some thorough teasing and perhaps some lecturing to boot.
Abruptly, something under the water caught Kassinara’s attention. She squinted her eyes to reduce the surface glare of the planet’s sun and leaned closer. When she took a step into the water, Anya flinched, dropping the pouch and lunging to grab the back of Kassinara’s shirt.
“Its fine.” Kassinara reassured, “Its just-look.” She pulled her arm out of the water, her hand firmly grasping a blackened horn affixed to an elongated skull.
Color drained from Anya’s face. “Is that a dragon?!”
“I think it’s a sheep.” Kassinara stepped back out of the creak. “A ram maybe?”
From a safe distance, Anya studied the skull. “I thought sheep were supposed to be fluffy.”
“Fluffy things can have horns. Like, um, cows.”
Anya scoffed. “Cows don’t have horns.”
“Well….” Kassinara tried to conjure an image in her mind. She’d only ever seen cartoonish drawings of the subject. “Bulls! Bulls are cows! I’m pretty sure anyway.”
“But bulls aren’t fluffy.”
“I don’t know!” Kassinara shouted in frustration. “Maybe some kinds of cows have horns and some don’t! The point is,” she held up the horned skull, “this doesn’t match any known species on this planet. Maybe if we follow the creak it could lead us to something.”
Anya shrugged and followed Kassinara upstream. They maneuvered up steep banks and around crowded brambles until they came to an odd bend in the stream. From the West, the river snaked against the side of a hill before the hills angled South and the river followed, but in the angle where hills and river changed directions, there was a strangely straight streak that seemed to cross the river. To the South-West, it appeared that a wide, but shallow, canal had been dug, wherein the river had spilled into and created a flooded plain whose surface was strikingly still and unmoved by the creak’s natural flow. Crossing the stream directly opposed to this strange flooded area was a cave dug into the hillside. Rocks spread in heaps around the mouth and trees seemed to be unnaturally rooted above and to either side of the cave.
By the light of the sun, the two girls were granted only a brief glimpse into the cave as it seemingly swallowed illumination. What they could see set them on edge. A scattering of bones led into the cave, several skulls of the same creature they had found in the creak.
In the moment before Kassinara could tell Anya to remain quiet, she noticed a silence she had not asked for. Not solely from her partner, but from the wilderness around them. The croaking of the bristled creatures kept their distance.
“We’re not going in there,” Anya squeaked, “Right?”
“The sooner we go in, the sooner we can get off this planet.” Kassinara replied. She tapped on her wristband until she was connected to all her teammates. “Guys, I think we found something. I’ll send you our location. Anya and I will scout it out.”
“Be there soon!” Ezin said. Nothing from Ket’s end. Perhaps he’d send a message, but Kassinara didn’t think she’d stop to read it.
She pulled a light from her pack and attached it to the strap on her left shoulder. “Let’s go.”
Careful not to trip on bones, the two slowly strode into the cave. The skeletons were not stacked or organized in any way, but neither were they mangled or gnawed on. Kassinara’s mind wandered as she tried to figure out why they were all hear. Not for food, not for decoration, so what then?
She stopped so suddenly that Anya nearly bumped into her.
“What is it?” the tailed girl asked, poorly masking her panic.
Kassinara stooped to grab something, then stood. In her hands were two blackish oval’s with brown and gray stripes, held together by a hing like a book. When Kassinara tried to close the ovals, they snapped apart.
“What is it? Is it an egg?!”
Kassinara held the ovals together, then parted them. “I think it’s a shell.”
“Oh….” Anya said, both relieved and annoyed.
“Sheep didn't come from eggs or shells.” Kassinara muttered to herself, “And I’m pretty sure they were herbivores. So what’s with the shells?”
“Figure it out while we walk.” Anya gently shoved forwards, “I wanna get outta here.”
Onward they traveled, now absent of all sunlight. Anya had produced her own light and the two girls began to notice large stones, carved and intentionally stacked to form pillars. A stone wall soon guided them to the left where they found a tall arched door. Here, they hesitated. In this place absent of light, it seemed somehow darker beyond the arch.
“I don’t wanna go in there!” Anya drew close behind Kassinara, her tail wrapped around Kassinara’s ankle. “It’s gotta be haunted. That place is SO haunted!”
“I’m sure it’s fine.” Kassinara reassured with a dry mouth. “You can stay here if you want, but I’m gonna go a bit farther.”
She took a step before stopping and looking back.
“Sorry.” Anya said in a small voice, her tail uncoiling.
Slowly, Kassinara crossed the stone archway. The temperature dropped here, not helping was the sweat breaking out around her forehead. With only the sound of her shaking breaths, she plunged onward, the stone halls taking sharp angles left and right. Her light grew dimmer and dimmer until she was certain her battery would drop. She checked. Seventy-three percent power. Atop a dark staircase, she swallowed and took took another step.
Her foot slipped and her heart nearly leapt out of her chest. Certain she was falling to her doom, Kassinara crumpled to the ground, trying to protect her head as she fell end over end. Slowly, she opened her eyes. The realization made her cheeks burn. A mere stumble from stepping on a bone. At most, she’d fallen four steps. A deep, quivering breath to steady herself before she stood.
Another short series of steps was below her, but before she could move, here eyes caught a glimmer in the dark. He hand flew to her hip and the scythe as she waited for movement. None. Only the faint glimmer. Something was reflecting her light.
Crouched low, cautiously taking each step, and a hand still around the scythe, Kassinara descended. At the bottom, the stone beneath her was nearly ice cold. All around were wicker baskets, clay vases and bowls. First, she followed the glimmer to the corner. Spears and shields in immaculate condition. In the bowls, perhaps a hundred of the shells she’d seen on the way down. Here, they were unopened.
It was on a stone altar that she found what would certainly be of use. Scrolls and papers. Some of the letters she recognized, many, she did not. A hollow pyramid, an unfinished ‘F’, what looked to be an upside-down ‘U’. Perhaps the captain could decipher them. Some of the papers had artwork that she glanced over. A crowned bearded man dragging a naked woman by the waist. Depictions of animal sacrifice. That would perhaps explain the bones.
Satisfied, Kassinara closed her pack and headed for the stairs.
She stopped when her hairs stood on end. The inescapable feeling that she was being watched. She spun. In the corner. Her light barely could light up a pair of long legs leading up into a white dress or cloak.
Kassinara scrambled up the stairs on hands and feet. At the top, she bolted, weaving left and right around corners, stumbling occasionally on shells and bones. When she burst through the stone archway, she barley slowed to acknowledged Anya.
The girl did not need to be convinced and soon overtook Kassinara on the way out.
Kassinara would later recall that she smelled tulips the moment she saw light at the surface. She would deny that she’d heard a voice.
When Anya stumbled near the mouth of the cave, Kassinara hooked an arm under one of hers and they burst out of the cave together and fell to the ground panting.
A glass bowl soon blocked out their view of the sun. Inside was a flat faced dolphin looking boy with large eyes.
“Uh. You two okay?”