Copyright © 2013 W.H. Mitchell

The Maycare Estate was an easy walk from the Citadel transmat station. Bentley, Lord Maycare’s butlerbot, greeted me as I arrived. The android walked in front of me with a wobbly gait. He appeared to be an older model, which seemed strange since Lord Maycare could certainly afford a newer one.

“How long have you worked for Lord Maycare?” I asked.
“Since he was a boy, Madam, ” Bentley replied without missing a step.
In silence, I watched the back of his head the rest of the way until we entered a large auditorium filled with seats facing a transparent wall. On the other side of the partition a game, which I believe is called grav-ball, looked to be taking place.
Grav-ball, needless to say, was a complete mystery to me. The two teams wore different uniforms, but the rules they followed, assuming there were any, seemed to entail tossing a ball to a teammate who was then immediately assaulted by everyone else. At one point, as Bentley and I stood there watching, two opposing players slammed against the wall directly in front of me. Even with inches of polycarbonate between me and the court, I could feel the crushing impact. When they moved away, sweat coated the partition and floated as droplets in the gravity-free air.
Men always seem drawn to violence, whether in sports or war. I could only guess what Lord Maycare must be like if games like this were one of his passions.
At the end of the match and, I’m assuming, a quick shower, Lord Maycare joined us.
“Professor Jessica Doric, My Lord,” Bentley formally introduced me.
“Call me Devlin,” Maycare said.
He was a large man, muscular with blond hair and a warm, overtly charming smile. He looked around 40 years old, a decade my elder, but with an air of youthful exuberance. In many ways, he reminded me of the 18-year old athletes I saw at the university, surrounded by an entourage of beautiful co-eds and other dimwits. Remembering this and seeing Lord Maycare now put me instantly on edge.
“Do you go by Jess or Jessica?” Devlin asked amiably.
“I prefer Jessica,” I told him sharply, “or Professor Doric if you don’t mind, My Lord.”
“What university?”
“Formerly at the University of Regalis.”
“But no longer there?” he said. “Why’s that?”
“There was a disagreement about priorities.”
Lord Maycare glanced at his shoes for a moment and then peered at me from beneath his heavy eyebrows. “Actually, didn’t they dissolve your entire department?”
I stammered. “You know about that?”
“Oh, I know more than you can imagine, Jess,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked, feeling more on the defensive.
“Your department of xeno studies was disbanded. In fact, the governing board dissolved it shortly after accepting a sizable donation.”
I felt myself blush. “From whom?”
“Are you familiar with Warlock Industries?”
“Of course. They’re one of the worst mega-corporations in the Imperium, not to mention the largest military supplier. I protested against them last year—” I gasped. “Are you saying they retaliated against me because of my protest?”
Lord Maycare laughed. “Protests like that barely register on their radar I’m afraid.”
“Oh.”
“But don’t take it personally. Actually, it’s the work you do, or rather the subject matter, that drew Warlock’s interest.”
“Xenology…”
“Specifically, xenotech,” he said. “Warlock Industries has a long history of researching, locating, and removing alien technology throughout the Imperium and beyond. Your studies threatened their program. After all, pillaging artifacts from a remote planet is far easier than stealing from an Imperial Museum.”
“So, they thought I’d find the xenotech before they had a chance to take it themselves.”
“Precisely,” Lord Maycare said. “In some ways it’s a compliment to your abilities.”
“I’m flattered,” I said sarcastically.
“But the end result remains the same: Warlock Industries continues ransacking the galaxy while you’re stuck looking for a job.”
The unfairness of the situation dawned on me. I felt sick.
“Cheer up,” he told me. “I have a proposition for you.”
Knowing Lord Maycare’s reputation concerning women, I was dubious to say the least.
“My intentions are honorable, I assure you,” he went on.
“What did you have in mind?” I said.
“Are you familiar with the Maycare Institute of Xeno Studies?”
“Ah, no,” I admitted.
“Well, that’s probably because I just made it up. Even so, I’d like you to run the research and acquisition wing.”
“That’s…amazing…”
“Yes, amazing is something I do quite well,” Lord Maycare quipped without a hint of irony.
After a pause, as the possibilities swam in my head, something occurred to me. “Why do you care about any of this?”
He chuckled and a devilish grin curled around his mouth.
“That’s a very good question,” he said, still smiling.
I stared at him, thinking he might elaborate, but after a while it became obvious that would not be the case.
Lord Maycare looked genuinely surprised. “Why the hesitation? I thought you’d be thrilled…”
“This all seems very, well, sudden,” I replied honestly. “I don’t like rushing into things.”
“Really?” he said. “Rushing head first is the only way I know!”
“I’m clearly not like you.”
“Not yet.”
“Alright, Lord Maycare,” I said. “I’ll take the offer, but I demand full autonomy.”
“Certainly.”
“And our working relationship must remain strictly professional. I know your history and I don’t want any funny business.”
“But you’ll accept my money I presume?”
“Absolutely.”
The Institute of Xeno Studies turned out to be nothing more than the Maycare library located on his estate. Bentley took me there, opening the door into a room that was more of a great hall with massive fireplaces on either end. The bookcases were built into the walls, the tomes visible behind cabinet doors enclosed with brass wire mesh. It was midday at the time and sunlight entered through Gothic windows set high up, just below the arched ceiling. The Maycare family crest, a charging stallion, was a repeating motif on most of the woodwork. Long, heavy tables ran down the center of the hall with sofas and obscenely comfortable chairs in between. Parquet floor was visible wherever intricately woven rugs failed to cover it.
Bentley left me alone, as I had asked, which gave me an opportunity to browse through the shelves.
Before human settlers arrived in this galaxy and began colonizing, civilizations many centuries old had lived here. But, like a plague, the spread of humanity meant the death of those that existed before it. I had read about the Conquistadors of ancient Earth who invaded the New World and brought an end to the Aztec and Incan Empires. In the same way, the natives of this New Galaxy perished in the wake of the rising tide against them. However, although their civilizations crumbled, remnants remained in the form of books and other artifacts.
 To his credit, Lord Maycare preserved some of that history here in his library. It was an impressive collection: within minutes of searching, I stumbled on a manuscript from the Dahl home planet, Gwlad Ard’un, each page containing line after line of finely crafted script infused with gold. But then beside it, like a predator on the shelf, I spotted the K’thonian Codex glaring at me. An infamous volume, the Codex was bound in the tanned skin of enemies they had flayed alive. They even used the blood as ink.
It became obvious to me that I needed help, so the next day I called my former research intern from the university. He was a grad student, a meek twenty-year old named Henry Rif.
“Thanks so much for getting me this job, Professor!” he said, wiping the tuft of mousy hair that hung over his pasty face. He seemed as awed by the library as I had been.
“Don’t mention it, Henry,” I said, sitting in one of the chairs near the fireplace. A massive mirror hung above the mantle, reflecting the woodwork in the ceiling arches. “How are things on campus?”
“Oh, not great,” he admitted. “There isn’t much demand for a xeno studies assistant now that they closed down the department.”
“No, I suppose not.”
“I’m was sorry they let you go, Professor. I’ve really missed working with you.”
“Thank you, Henry.”
His face brightened and he shrugged his narrow shoulders.
We spent the next few weeks sifting through books, taking each shelf in turn, one by one. The main table in the center of the hall became our headquarters. It quickly overflowed with loose papers, data pads, and fragments of ancient tablets decorated with logograms that nobody had spoken in ten thousand years.
Bentley brought us coffee late at night to keep us awake. He offered other stimulants too, the kind that were illegal for most people who weren’t a nobleman. Henry glanced questioningly in my direction, but I declined on principle for both of us. If typical citizens couldn’t indulge in such things, I didn’t think we should either, regardless of our benefactor. The robot, whose eyes could not roll, attempted it anyway and left us to our work.
In the fourth week, Lord Maycare himself paid us a visit. In truth, I hadn’t seen any sign of him since the first day we spoke. I was leaning over the table, attempting to read a particularly difficult passage of Tikarin abugida, when a broad shadow covered the work space.
“Good morning,” Maycare said in a deep baritone.
“Is it?” I said, completely unaware that I had worked through the night.
“Well, it seems pretty good so far,” Maycare remarked, “although the day’s still young.”
Cognizant that I hadn’t bathed in several days, but not sure how many, I turned. “Can I help you, Lord Maycare?”
“Devlin. Please call me Devlin, won’t you?”
“I’ll try.”
“Who’s your friend?”
“Who? Oh, Henry! Yes, this is Henry Rif, my assistant. I hope it’s alright that I took him on with me — I needed the help.”
Henry stared wide-eyed, possibly in horror.
“Of course, Jess,” Devlin waved his hand dismissively. “Whatever you need is perfectly fine.”
I nodded. “Good, but I really prefer Professor Doric.”
He ignored me and scanned the incomprehensible objects on the table. “How goes it then?”
“Goes it? Well, fine I guess.”
“Have you come up with anything promising?”
“Actually, yes,” I said, and looked for a document hidden somewhere in the mess. It was a printout from an expedition log. “Ah, there it is.” I gave it a good pull, dislodging it from beneath a book of Necronean Death Cantos, and displayed it in the air like a treasure map.
“Yes?” Devlin asked, clearly interested.
“Back in the year 652 Imperial Standard,” I began, “a survey team landed on a world called Hekla VII. They were looking for worlds suitable for future colonies, but all they got was a dead planet of ice and snow. However, they did discover an abandoned temple there at the base of an active volcano. Before leaving, they took holovids of the hieroglyphs written on the temple walls.”
“Has anyone been there since?”
“Um,” Henry stammered in a voice just above a whisper, “I did a search for flight plans and there hasn’t been a registered visit to that planet since the survey team. That’s 48 years.”
“Thank you, son,” Devlin said.
“I mean, not that you couldn’t have done the math to know how many years it was.”
“Indeed.”
“I mean, I didn’t mean any offense, Your Lordship.”
“Of course not.”
Henry managed a tortured grin that seemed to disappear between his shoulder blades.
“So why is this place so important?” Devlin turned back to me, a pained look in his face.
“As a matter of fact,” I continued, “the survey team also recorded several energy readings. The data didn’t match the protocols they needed for a new settlement, so they simply filed it and forgot about it. However, looking at the readings now, I’m convinced they’re caused by xeno tech somewhere in that temple.”
“Hmmm,” Lord Maycare scratched his head. “How sure are you?”
“Well, to be honest, it’s more of a hunch,” I said.
“A hunch?”
Now it was my turn to shrug, but Devlin wasn’t bothered at all. Much to my surprise, he became unexpectedly exuberant.
“That’s all I need to know!” he said excitedly.
“But—” I started, only to hear my voice instantly submerged beneath Maycare’s booming bark.
“Bentley! Where are you, Bentley?”
The butlerbot peered through the doorway. “Yes, My Lord?”
“Call the star port and have my ship prepared for launch!”
“Of course, sir,” the robot said as he disappeared again.
“No, no,” I said. “My findings are just preliminary. I mean, they’re based on readings from nearly 50 years ago. We have no way of knowing what they really mean or even if there’s anything still there…”
“I can’t count the number of adventures I’ve launched on nothing more than a hunch,” Devlin said. “Now gather whatever you’ll need. We’ll be leaving by lunch time at the latest. Also, you may want to shower while you’re at it…”
“Oh!” was all I could muster.
Within a matter of days, Maycare’s yacht, the Acaz, was penetrating the thick cloud cover enveloping Hekla VII. Watching through the windows as the ship descended into the atmosphere, I stood behind the captain’s seat where Devlin sat at the controls, Bentley next to him in the co-pilot’s chair.
After minutes of nothing but curtains of gray, we broke through the clouds. In keeping with the survey team’s report, the terrain was nothing but bleak snow and jagged, granite cliffs. Eventually, as we skimmed along at a few thousand feet, a peak came into view. From the crater at the top, a constant discharge of ash fell across the surrounding heights, giving the mountain a dark outline against the white landscape.
Lord Maycare followed the coordinates I had given him, which led us to a grouping of stone objects at the base of the volcano. From their shapes, the objects were clearly man-made, although I doubted man had actually made them. Devlin slowly set his ship down, sending a whirlwind of flakes swirling around the cockpit windows. Three of us, Lord Maycare, myself, and even Henry, donned winter gear for the frigid temperatures that awaited us outside. Bentley elected to stay aboard to look after the ship.
“I don’t care for the cold,” he droned.
A ramp in the belly of the Acaz lowered, letting in a wind of biting ice crystals. I winced at the pain and pulled my fur-lined hood down a little tighter over my goggles.
“Ready?” Devlin shouted over the gusts.
I nodded and stomped past him down the ramp. When my feet touched the planet proper, I felt the gravity increase slightly compared to the artificial Gs of the ship. Bentley had attempted to acclimate us by slowly increasing the gravity on the Acaz during the journey, but I could still tell the difference now that we were actually here.
Devlin told Bentley via a hand comm to close the ramp after we had safely cleared it. Seeing our potential avenue of escape slowly creep shut left a pang of unease in my stomach. I was sure we were safe, but I would have preferred to keep the ramp open a little longer.
“Alright,” Devlin said, “let’s get going.”
This time he passed me and tread toward the stones. Before long we came to a set of steps, each a single slab of volcanic rock. Even with the drifting snow, we easily followed the stairs as they wound up the short hillside, the mountain dominating our view just beyond. When we got to the top, the knoll flattened into what must have been the temple at one time. Now only a few wind-worn columns remained, some of which had crumbled across a floor of more stone slabs. A little farther on, not more than twenty or thirty feet, I spotted a low altar of some kind.
“This must be a couple thousand years old,” Henry offered.
“I’d say at least five,” I corrected him.
“There’s something coming out of the ground,” Lord Maycare pointed at a spot just in front of the altar. “What is that? Smoke?”
I came closer. One of the pillars had toppled over and severely damaged one of the slabs. From between the cracks, threads of vapor flowed out before quickly dissipating in the wind. “No, I think it’s steam,” I said.
The three of us stood over the cracked stone in a semi-circle.
“I wonder what’s under there…” Henry said, his voice trailing off.
“One way to find out,” Devlin replied.
He lifted a sizable piece of lava rock and, before I could stop him, dropped it heavily on the point where the steam percolated up. It made a hollow thud.
“Wait!” I yelled, but it was fruitless. Even if he heard me, I doubt Lord Maycare would’ve listened.
He pounded the slab again and then a third time. The crack widened into a crevice while clouds of hot moisture billowed from the hole.
“I think I see a stair case,” Devlin said, discarding the rock fragment and crouching down on one knee. He reached into the fracture and pulled on the slab with a heave. I was impressed by how strong he was.
“Can you give me a hand, Henry?” he asked.
“Well, ah…” my assistant hesitated.
“Just let me will you?” I said, getting down in the snow next to Maycare. “I’m stronger than him.”
Without looking behind me, I knew Henry was probably blushing, but I couldn’t let bruising his ego deter me.
The two of us tugged on the slab and lifted it out of the way. Devlin was right, there was a stairwell, although I couldn’t tell how far it went. It definitely headed in the direction of the volcano.
“If we go down there,” I said, “I doubt we’ll be needing these winter coats.”
“You think it goes all the way into the mountain?” Maycare asked.
I pulled my scanner from a pocket and quickly picked up the same readings the surveyors had found 50 years previously. The readings also seemed to grow stronger down the stairway.
“I think whatever is creating this power signature must be somewhere in the mountain and this looks like the easiest way in,” I said. “Unless you want to climb those cliffs…”
At that moment a puff of smoke belched from the top of the volcano, followed seconds later by a slight tremor beneath our feet.
“On the other hand,” I went on, “it might not be safe underground if the ceiling collapses.”
Devlin smiled. “You know just how to win me over,” he said and began removing his gear.
Leaving our cold-weather equipment at the top of the stairs, we descended into the darkness. At the bottom, Lord Maycare lit his flashlight and sent the beam down a long corridor. Like the temple above, the walls and ceiling were constructed with stone slabs.
“Look at the chisel marks on these stones,” I remarked.
“Yes?” Devin asked.
“Well, they weren’t carved with lasers or anything sophisticated. The power readings I’m getting are nothing a primitive society could produce…”
“So you don’t think the people who made the temple are the same ones who built the power source?”
“Well, if they were,” I thought aloud, “they must have lost the knowledge of that technology at some point.”
“Could they have found the technology, Professor?” Henry wondered. “Maybe it’s from a different race altogether?”
“I suppose,” I said. “It’s even possible they found it and considered it a gift from the gods. That would explain the temple.”
Devlin, apparently impatient with the academic turn of our conversation, interrupted. “I guess we won’t know until we see what’s at the end of this tunnel!”
Maycare set off down the corridor, not waiting for a response. I followed close on his heels with Henry right behind me.
After a few hundred feet, the corridor opened up into what appeared to be a natural lava tube running left to right.
“Which way now?” Devlin asked.
I pointed my sensor in both directions, but the readings were definitely more pronounced to the right. “That way,” I said.
We followed the tunnel for several minutes, the air becoming drier and progressively hotter with every step. The incline also became steeper, headed downward.
“It really stinks in here,” Henry coughed. “Like rotten eggs.”
“The sulfur from the volcano,” I said. “We should be under the mountain by now.”
“I see light up ahead,” Devlin gestured, turning off his flashlight. The lava tube glowed orange in the distance.
As we drew closer to the light, the heat became more intense. My hair was tied up in the back, but I could feel the sweat accumulating in the strands and dripping down my neck.
Finally, we came to the end of the tube and entered a domed cavern laced with rivers of molten magma. The lava, churning between dark and bright red, lit the ceiling above with flickering shadows of hellish brilliance.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” I said.
“Me either,” Lord Maycare replied. “Could they have carved all this?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “This room must have been part of a larger magma chamber at one point. I can see more lava tubes farther up the walls.”
“I see a path to the other side,” Devlin said. “We could walk across.”
“It looks dangerous,” Henry remarked doubtfully.
“Where’s your spirit of adventure?” Devlin asked him.
“I’d rather read about it in books,” Henry confessed.
“It’s alright, Henry,” I said. “You can walk back to the entrance if you’d like.”
“Alone?”
“Lord Maycare and I can go on without you,” I suggested.
My assistant grimaced, imploring me with his eyes. “No, I want to go too,” he said, but clearly didn’t mean it.
“That’s a good lad!” Devlin shouted, his voice reverberating off the rounded roof.
“Not so loud,” I said. “No telling how sturdy the ceiling is with all these tremors.”
Devlin shrugged off the danger and started heading toward the center of the room. The path was little more than a bridge of solidified basalt that had cooled enough to become rock again. The liquid kind still flowed beneath it.
About halfway across, I heard an audible warble from inside Lord Maycare’s pants pocket. It was Bentley on the communicator.
“Lord Maycare?” I heard the robot’s voice over the speaker.
“What is it?” Devlin asked.
“There’s a ship in orbit,” Bentley said. “It won’t answer my hails and I detected a transmat signature a few moments ago.”
“You better take off and wait in orbit until you hear back from me,” Devlin said, his voice growing serious.
“What’s going on?” Henry asked.
“I think we’re about to have visitors,” Maycare said while putting away the comm.
Right on cue, a man’s voice pierced the perpetual twilight of the room, although it sounded like he was floating well above the floor.
“Hello down there!” he bellowed.
Looking up, I saw three men standing at the lip of one of the lava tubes about ten feet off the ground. The man in the center had both hands on his hips and smiled behind a dark beard. The other two, larger and more menacing, carried blasters pointed in our direction.
“And who are you, sir?” Devlin asked, acquiring the official tone of a nobleman.
“I might ask you the same question,” the stranger replied.
“I’m Lord Devlin Maycare.”
“My apologies!” the man said. “I didn’t recognize you in such dim light. Perhaps you could step out a little farther?”
“I’m fine where I’m standing, thank you,” Devlin said. “Have we met?”
“I’m Agent Skarlander,” he said, “from Warlock Industries.”
“Ah yes,” Devlin shot me a glance. “I guess I’m more familiar with your work than your face.”
“My reputation precedes me,” Skarlander bowed slightly. “And who is that with you?”
“Why don’t you come down and meet her in person?” Devlin said.
“I’m fine where I’m standing as well.”
“I’m Professor Jessica Doric,” I said, tired of the niceties, “of the Maycare Xeno Institute.”
“Maycare Institute of Xeno Studies, actually,” Devlin corrected me under his breath.
I rolled my eyes. “Whatever.”
“Yes, of course,” Skarlander said. “I’ve read some of your papers from the University.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Your findings were amateurish, but your grammar was impeccable.”
“Son of a —” I started.
“What do you want here?” Devlin interrupted.
Above us, Skarlander leered down.
“The same as you, I imagine,” he said. “There’s a power source somewhere in this volcano and I intend to claim it for Warlock Industries.”
“Well, you can’t!” Henry shouted.
“Oh, I’m quite sure I can,” he said dismissively. “For example, we brought guns.”
Two blooms of yellow light burst through the semi-darkness, lancing the lava rock on either side of us.
“Hold your fire, Skarlander!” Devlin roared. “We’re unarmed.”
“My point exactly!” he yelled back.
My vision still dotted with images of the blaster strikes, I was slow to realize that the magma around us was bubbling suddenly. Realizing what was coming, I grabbed Devlin by the shoulder. “We need to get out of here,” I said in his ear.
“Of course,” he replied. “They’re going to kill us.”
“No, you don’t understand—” I started, but the ground heaved upward as the whole chamber shook. My balance failed and I landed on my side as the violent tremor rattled the loose rock around me. I expected the quake to die down quickly, but it went on seemingly forever, sending pieces of the ceiling falling into the magma below in great splashes of liquid rock.
I heard Devlin’s voice, but it was lost in a noise like an avalanche tumbling down a mountain. I peered upward, only to see sheets of white. Snow from outside was flowing through the holes in the ceiling like a waterfall. When the cold deluge hit the magma, a sound like a hissing scream erupted around me. I tried flattening myself against the ground as the torrent of hot steam washed over me.
Lord Maycare grabbed my arm hard.
“Time to leave!” he shouted, rudely pulling me to my feet. The shaking had lessened, but I could barely see anything in the churning froth of fog.
“Wait!” I said and stretched my hand out wildly. “Henry!”
Henry’s shape became a dull outline with poor posture. I grabbed him and, while Devlin tugged on my left hand, I clutched my assistant with my right.
“We’re going the wrong way!” I said, thinking we should be heading back the way we came.
“No, we’re getting the power source,” Devlin barked over his shoulder. “Come on!”
He was insane, I thought. We were lucky to be alive and I didn’t think an alien artifact was worth dying over. At the same time, I was shaking more now from the adrenaline than I was during the earthquake. The sensation surging through every fiber of my body, I had to admit, was probably the feeling Maycare kept talking about.
I didn’t struggle as he led me along. In some ways I felt satisfied with it all, but immediately scolded myself for thinking that way. I didn’t want to be someone’s justification for adventure, no matter how exciting it was, and I certainly didn’t want a man leading me while doing it. It’s wasn’t ideal. Not at all…
“Can we stop now?” Henry asked in a low, plaintive whimper. In truth, I had forgotten he was still trailing behind me, my hand still holding his.
“Okay,” Devlin halted.
The steam had started to thin and I could make out walls around us. We had apparently wandered into another tunnel, although this one was not a lava tube. I could see stalagmites jutting up like strangers milling in a crowd.
Both Henry and I collapsed, trying to catch our breath. Lord Maycare remained standing, surveying the surroundings.
“I hate this place,” Henry gasped.
“Agreed,” I said.
“It was a lucky break, that earthquake,” Devlin reflected. “But I’ve always been lucky…”
“Well, I hope it doesn’t run out while I’m around,” I said.
Devlin grinned. “Fortune favors the bold.”
“Does it?”
“It’s even on my family’s crest.”
“I prefer ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’.”
He laughed this time. “Nobody’s ever confused me with an angel…”
“When can we go home?” Henry interrupted.
“No!” Devlin replied. “We’re here to find that thing Jessica won’t shut up about.”
“Wait, what?” I said, my cheeks reddening.
“Let’s get a move on,” Devlin said, “before Skarlander figures out where we are.”
I checked my scanner to make sure it was still working. The energy readings were stronger than ever.
“Actually,” I said, “he may go straight to the power source.”
“Good!” Henry cheered. “We can just avoid them altogether.”
“We’re not leaving until we find that xenotech,” Devlin said. “I’m not letting Warlock Industries get another artifact.”
“What do you have in mind?” I asked.
“No idea!”
Using my scanner to guide us, we crept along the cavern tunnel. Not knowing where the others were, however, we tried to use our lights at a minimum. With the uneven ground and occasional aftershocks, our progress was slow and treacherous.
I felt a sharp pain as I stubbed my toe against a loose rock. In the dark, I was too busy cursing under my breath to notice the next rock a few inches away. I tripped and fell. I assumed I’d greet the sharp edge of stone when I hit the ground, but instead landed on something soft and terrifying. I stifled a scream at the back of my throat.
In the glare of Devlin’s flashlight, I saw strands of white fur all around me. For a second, I thought it was still alive, but the musty odor quickly told me otherwise.
“What is it?” Henry asked.
“A dead animal,” I said, running its hide between my fingers as I dusted myself off again.
“Big, too,” Devlin remarked. “Must’ve been dead a long time. It’s all skin and bones.”
“Look at the skull,” I pointed. “It’s like a bear of some sort.”
Maycare took the hide from me and gave it a shake.
“You’ve got enough bear-skin rugs, My Lord,” I said.
He dropped it and started flashing the light around as if searching for something. The light stopped when it brightened a small stalagmite. Devlin gave the pointed column a sharp kick with his boot. The tip of the stone, about six inches from the point, broke off. Maycare picked it up and went back to the skin. He handed me the flashlight and started jamming the sharp edge of the rock into the belly of the creature’s fur.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’ve got an idea,” he said.
“Okay…”
“It probably won’t work—”
“No?”
“—But I’m going to try it anyway.”
Another hour of sneaking through tunnels finally led us to the source of the power readings.
I peeked around the corner and saw another cavern, smaller than the one from before but still laced with streams of flowing magma. In the center of the chamber, with his back to me, Skarlander stood atop a dais of stone slabs where a crude altar had been built. Nearby, his two bodyguards loitered near a grav sled hovering a few feet off the ground. I assumed the sled was to carry the xenotech in case it was too heavy to lift.
Skarlander, slowly turning his body, revealed something cradled in his arms like a newborn. It was a huge sapphire, the size of a pineapple, that glowed with a radiant, blue light. Skarlander’s blazing eyes basked in the glow.
 I felt Devlin press up behind me so he could get a better look.
“Good,” he said, leaning back.
“How is this good?” I asked.
“They’re not expecting us.”
“True,” I admitted. “They’re definitely not expecting this…”
Devlin, hidden beneath the white animal skin, charged into the room. Seeing this bear-like creature rushing at them, the two guards glanced at each other momentarily before running in the opposite direction toward one of the lava tubes on the other side of the chamber. Devlin pressed his advantage by chasing after them as he howled like a wild beast.
Skarlander, astonished by the bizarre spectacle disappearing down the far lava tube, failed to see me dashing towards him. I jumped onto the stone platform and struck him across the head with the piece of stalagmite Devlin had broken off earlier. Skarlander dropped the sapphire and fell to his knees while holding the side of his face.
“Get the crystal!” I told Henry.
Turning back toward Skarlander, I half expected to see him cowering on the dirt, but to my surprise, he had already recovered and was looming over me. He tightly grabbed my wrist, sending shafts of pain shooting up my arm. I dropped the stalagmite at my feet.
He glared at Henry who, somewhat to my surprise, had actually followed my instructions and was holding the crystal in his trembling hands.
“Give it to me!” Skarlander shouted.
Henry hesitated. “I’d rather not,” he said.
“Do it,” Skarlander threatened, “or I’ll dump her into the lava!”
At this point, I saw Devlin returning at full speed without the animal skin and with the two bodyguards close on his heels. Their weapons drawn, one of them fired, narrowly missing Lord Maycare. I ducked, pulling Skarlander down with me, but heard Henry scream in pain.
I yanked my wrist away and looked at Henry holding his left shoulder.
“You idiot!” Skarlander cursed.
My eyes traveled from Henry to the platform, but I couldn’t see the crystal. I got up and saw a blue glimmer reflecting off the molten magma flowing a few feet away.
“I dropped it!” Henry admitted.
Everyone, including Lord Maycare and the two bodyguards, stopped and watched the crystal bobbing along the top of the lava.
Skarlander quickly pushed me away and knelt beside the running stream of burning rock.
“Help me!” Skarlander begged, leaning as far out as he dared, straining to reach the sapphire.
His two men stood by helplessly, unable to do much more than keep their superior from falling in.
“No, no!” he said, but the crystal, now nearly half submerged, started changing from an icy blue to a pulsing red.
The near transparent quartz, quickly disappearing in the lava, started to pulse.
“We need to get out of here, sir,” one of the guards said.
As the artifact dipped completely below the surface, the viscous magma began bubbling violently.
Devlin was suddenly at my ear. “Get on the grav sled,” he said. “Quickly!”
“Henry needs help,” was all I could think to say.
“I’ve got him, now go!”
The river, like an incoming tide, erupted from its banks, spewing waves of churning liquid like thick, glowing molasses.
I climbed onto the back of the grav sled, which was nothing more than a floating platform the size of a mattress. Heat and acrid smoke burned my eyes, filling them with tears, but even with my blurred vision I could see Lord Maycare dragging Henry in my direction. Skarlander’s bodyguards were doing the same with him, although he cursed at them to let him go.
By now the floor was nearly flooded with lava and the level seemed to rise with each boiling burst of energy from the artifact.
The grav sled dipped as Henry jumped on beside me. Devlin began pushing the sled until he ran out of clear ground and clambered on with the rest of us. I lost track of Skarlander and his men. I assumed they left through one of the tunnels, but I couldn’t be sure.
Behind us, a swell of magma sent the grav sled lunging toward a random lava tube. Like a raft shooting the rapids, our little barge jetted into the narrow passage and the darkness within. Although I was blind, I still sensed we were moving incredibly fast. My ears started popping, which either meant we were heading up to safety or down deeper into the volcano. I could never admit this to Devlin, but I was utterly terrified.
And then I was blinded again, but this time by light.
Like a cork from a champagne bottle, we burst from a vent in the side of the mountain. I screamed despite myself as the grav sled rose a dozen feet off the ground, the lava spouting below us. Then our weight shifted and the sled veered sharply to one side, spilling the three of us into a snow bank. Our raft crashed on its top close by.
It took me a moment to realize I was still alive before sitting up. When I did, I saw lava pouring from the vent and continuing down the slope away from us.
“Is everyone alright?” I said.
“I think so,” Devlin’s voice came from the other side of the drift.
“Henry?” I asked, looking around.
“I think I need a doctor,” he finally spoke, standing up with his arm clearly bleeding from where he was shot.
“Hold on, buddy,” Devlin said, pulling out his communicator. “Bentley?”
“Yes, My Lord?” the robot’s welcome voice came from the speaker.
“We’re on the surface and we need you to pick us up.”
“Right away, sir,” Bentley replied. “Also, it seems the other vessel has left in rather a hurry.”
“Did you detect a transmat?” Devlin asked.
“Indeed.”
“Alright, then. Just get down to our position as quickly as possible.”
“Right away, sir.”
“Did Lord Maycare just call me buddy?” Henry asked, bewildered.
Utilizing the sick bay aboard the Acaz, we managed to bandage Henry’s injury and give him a heavy sedative, which he seemed to appreciate greatly. Once back home, he spent a few days in the hospital until the wounds had healed enough for his release.
As for me, I returned to the library on Maycare’s estate and continued my duties at the Xeno Institute. A few days later, Lord Maycare stuck his head in to see how I was doing.
“Fine,” I said, looking over the table once again covered in papers and data pads.
“Will your friend be joining you soon? Devlin asked.
“Henry? Yes I imagine so. I’ve convinced him that we probably won’t be having another adventure like that one for quite a while.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure.”
I glanced at him sideways. “Really?”
“There’s hundreds of alien artifacts scattered out there,” Devlin said, “and I doubt Skarlander and Warlock Industries are going to just let them go unclaimed.”
“No, I suppose not,” I said, frowning. “But isn’t there something you can do about Warlock?”
“Me?”
“You’re a Lord, aren’t you? Don’t you have clout you can use?”
Devlin chuckled in a way I found, as usual, insulting.
“A mega-corp like Warlock Industries is practically a government in itself,” he said. “They also spend lavishly to gain favor with the other royal families and the Imperial Senate. They’re nothing to be trifled with.”
“So you’re powerless?” I remarked, hoping to hurt his pride.
“Well, I wouldn’t say that,” he said, seeing my intentions and ignoring them. “But what I can do is be a pain in their side with every xeno device I steal out from under them.”
“I guess that’s better than nothing.”
He slapped his leg. “Exactly!”
“By the way,” I went on, “how many researchers does Warlock have looking for artifacts?”
“Hundreds, I assume.”
“And how many do you have?”
“Just you,” he smiled.
“And Henry.”
“Well, we’ve doubled the number already!”
He turned and swept out of the room, leaving me alone in the library until Bentley dropped by a short time later.
“Can I get you anything, Professor?” he asked helpfully.
“Coffee, please,” I said. “Lots and lots of coffee.”