“I’m confused,” Tam said, staring about him. Jon gripped his brother’s hand in his unmarked one and stared at the mess around them.
Hellin Blackfeather leapt down into the corridor, where Doctor Blackfeather caught her with practiced ease and set her down. She left his arms to gather Ellea and Djaren close to her in a hug. Jon was caught up next, along with Tam, and then the still shaky seeming Professor. “I’m sorry, dears, he was never meant to come here,” Hellin said, breathless. “He won’t bother us again.”
“I’ll make sure of it,” Corin said gravely. He set down a large black antique great sword–not a tool of flame and void–against the corridor wall and grasped both the Professor’s hands in his own. He looked the Professor over, worriedly. “How are you unharmed? I didn’t make it to you in time.” Doctor Blackfeather looked even paler than usual. He grabbed the Professor in a hug, while Hellin caught up Djaren and Ellea a second time. “I am sorry, little brother. I never thought he could find us, find you. I’m sorry, so sorry, Eabrey.”
“I’ve got you,” Hellin told her children. “He’s gone. He’s gone now.”
Ellea buried her face in her mother’s hair. Djaren submitted to the second hug for a moment, but then pulled away, to stand beside his father.
Jon accepted his second round of hugs without complaint, feeling shakier now that he felt safe than he had when everything was terrible. He didn’t want to cry in front of people.
“That was not a rival archeologist.” Tam stated, looking at the mess on the ground.
“No,” the Professor agreed, his voice still shaky. He stared at the pieces of the rotting man.
“I have enemies,” Doctor Blackfeather said. He sounded weary. Djaren looked up at him, and father and son locked eyes.
“Enemies with severe leprosy?” Tam looked skeptical.
“Something like that.”
Hellin was not content until she had examined the Professor herself for bullet holes. The silver armor was entirely gone, leaving no trace of its existence but the ruined bullets on the ground.
“I’m fine,” the Professor assured Hellin. “It was quite a remarkable experience. I think I owe Jon here my life. And he may owe us some valuable information. Whatever did you find in that tomb?”
Jon shrugged, suddenly nervous under so many eyes. He lifted his hand, and the silver lines on his palm lit and gleamed in the torchlight.
Doctor Blackfeather frowned at it. “We’ll look at this later, indoors, and in the light.”
Tam took Jon’s hand and lifted it to have a look. “Does it hurt?” he asked, making a face. “Can you peel it off? We could try soap.”
“It tingles sometimes,” Jon said. “It was on the tomb lid, with an inscription. The writing is still there. I don’t know how to take it off. Will Ma be mad, do you think? I didn’t mean to pick it up. I’m sorry. Are you very angry, sir?” He looked up at the Professor.
The Professor met Jon’s eyes and shook his head. “It chose you. These things don’t happen by accident. And with it, you saved me. I am not angry.”
Doctor Blackfeather frowned and looked over the emblem. “Well, sometimes by accident.” He smiled a little ruefully. “But there always seems to be a greater reason beyond. Regardless, Jon, you saved my brother, and for that, I and my family are grateful to you.”
“Accidents? Oh, the Seal,” Hellin murmured. “We should certainly see that he’s really safe too.”
“He would know about things like this.” Doctor Blackfeather indicated Jon’s palm. “And I need to talk to him about how that got into a body, and found us here,” Doctor Blackfeather looked at the ground with distaste.
“Sir,” Jon said. “Bad things happened to people in there,” he gestured toward the door. “I don’t know if anyone’s . . .” He trailed off.
Doctor Blackfeather met his eyes and nodded. “I will see if there is anything that can be done. Anyone in need of aid will have it, do not fear.”
Hellin looked worried and glanced at the Doctor. He nodded at her, and then disappeared down the dark passageway.
“Let’s go inside, and away from this,” Hellin said, guiding Jon and Ellea before her, back toward the tents. “We’ll discuss this and Jon’s discovery over tea.”
Ellea glanced at Jon. “I think your new thing is very pretty.”
Jon blinked at her. She slipped her small hand into his, and together they processed back to the tents, and tea.
* * * * *
Kara lagged behind, unsure, still looking at the scattered remains of the rotted man. Djaren stayed too, until the others were a little further on.
“Why didn’t he kill me?” Djaren asked her, softly. “He could have. He just talked to you.”
“How should I know?” Kara said. “Whatever he thinks, um, thought, I don’t know him. I’d remember.”
“What do you think he meant, he’d find you?”
Kara shivered. “He was a crazy dead man. What do you think he meant about plans for you?”
Djaren frowned, and suppressed a shiver himself. “He was probably just crazy. And um, sick. Father, who was he?”
Kara glanced up, alarmed, to see that the burning-eyed beautiful dark angel-turned-nobleman was standing near, a little too tall and too pale for a human, even in his current form.
Doctor Blackfeather laid a hand on his son’s shoulder. Kara kept her distance from the Doctor, circling him slowly, looking for where he kept his wings. He might be pretty, but he wasn’t right.
“That is some unfortunate man who surrendered his will to an evil,” Doctor Blackfeather said. “What spoke to you was something else.”
“But who was he?”
Doctor Blackfeather frowned. “An old evil that should no longer be in this world. I had hoped he could never bother us. He has learned some new tricks.”
“Will he come back?” Djaren asked.
“Not if I have anything to do with it,” the Doctor said. His face was grim. Kara caught the glint of unearthly green fire in his eyes.
“And what are you?” she asked him.
He paused, and considered her carefully. “What we all are; whatever we make of ourselves.”
“That’s not a full answer.”
“It’s the answer I am giving you.”
“Back there, there wasn’t anyone to save, was there?”
He shook his head sadly. “The healers have arrived, but I do not think their skills are equal to the task they have. They will try.”
“To help tomb thieves,” Kara was skeptical.
“To help the people whose past we have been allowed to uncover. We are here by permission of the people. Without the people’s good will, we lose all we have done here. I do not want the ill will of the village. Tonight’s tragedy serves no one.”
Kara frowned at the ground. “You’re not supposed to care,” she muttered.
“Because if we care, you might need to?” Djaren guessed.
“Shut up,” Kara told him.
Ahead, the others had paused. “Come along,” Hellin called, “Let’s get everyone inside and cleaned up.”
“Look,” Kara said. “It was strange and everything, but I’m leaving you freaks and your enemies.”
“Not until after you’ve had some tea,” Hellin called back. “Corin, do enforce that, will you?”
Kara looked up at the pale avenger dubiously. She couldn’t outrun something otherworldly with wings. She hesitated, looking from adult to adult with distrust.
“You saved all our lives,” Djaren said quickly.
“You did,” Anna added, coming back to smile at Kara, “and we’d never have made it through that passage without you.”
“Then we owe you a reward,” Corin Blackfeather told Kara.
“What kind?” Kara looked at him with suspicion.
“Let’s start with tea, and talk about it from there.”
“Don’t you have anything stronger?” Kara asked, falling into step beside him.
“We made rather a mess of the tomb, Father. I’m sorry,” Djaren said.
“Oh dear,” the Professor said, overhearing, as they caught up to the waiting group.
“I would rather have you in one piece than all the treasures of the Ancients,” Doctor Blackfeather said.
The camp was stirring as they returned, disturbed from their night’s rest. Harl and Mama Darvin met them anxiously, and pulled Anna immediately into a mix of hugs and scoldings for not coming home for dinner. Brief explanations were given, and a late tea was assembled in the sitting room. Jon thought of the rotting man and was unsure he would ever have an appetite again.
Doctor Blackfeather placed the battered black great sword back in the weapons case and took a seat across from Jon. “Let me see your new ‘shield’ closer in the light.”
Jon extended his hand, palm up. “I don’t know how to put it down, sir. I keep trying.”
The Professor sat nearby and leaned over Jon’s hand again, fascinated. “This is the craftsmanship of the Ancients, certainly, and in perfect working order. It is unlike anything we’ve found, though.”
“It seems to have fused with you,” Doctor Blackfeather said. “Try willing it out.”
Jon tried, uneasily. Nothing happened. “I don’t know how to work it.”
“It may only work when you really need it to. With practice, you may learn to guide it with your thoughts,” Doctor Blackfeather said.
“But I can’t keep it!” Jon said. “Not in my hand. This is a priceless artifact, isn’t it? You just said it was work of the Ancients, and unlike anything you’ve seen.”
The Professor looked thoughtful. “I can’t think of a worthier bearer for it. If it chose you, then I cannot argue with its choice.”
Doctor Blackfeather met Jon’s eyes. “You will have to keep it a secret. And it may attract unwanted attention. This will be both a gift and a responsibility for you to bear.”
“The rotting man knew I had it,” Jon said, worried.
“Then we will protect you,” Doctor Blackfeather said gravely. “Regardless, you will be safe from that particular danger in Shandor. There are borders that it can’t cross.”
“But sir, I want to be an archeologist. I want to see places, and find things.”
“I think you have a gift for that,” Doctor Blackfeather said. “If you do not object, I would be honored to have you and your brother stay under my care and protection next summer. You have a gift for languages, for mysteries, for seeing, that would be a great asset to us, here and wherever we dig next.”
“Do you mean it, sir?” Jon could feel a wide smile on his face.
“He’s willing to face ancient evils, endure heat and dust and tomb thieves for a chance to dig up pot shards and old letters.” Hellin smiled. “He must be one of us.”
Tam sighed. “Well, you know I can’t let you do all that without me looking after you. I promised Ma I would. Though how I’m going to explain about the thing you got stuck in your hand, I don’t know. I’ve been scared half to death all night. Is this really what you want, Jon?”
Jon nodded, looking from his brother to Djaren and Ellea. “I like it here. With you.”
Kara, caught trying to pocket a crystal brandy decanter, snorted. “Weird happy family. Good for you. I’m leaving.”
Hellin took the decanter from her, patiently. “I don’t like thinking of you out there with no one to look after you.”
“You’re the people the walking dead are after,” Kara said. “I’m safer by myself, thank you.”
“But what he said,” Djaren objected.
Kara shot him a warning look. “I don’t need your band of freaks to call attention to me. I have a life.”
Doctor Blackfeather looked at Kara. She looked back suspiciously.
“I would like to buy a watch from you,” he said.
Hellin reached into a vase near her elbow and drew out a bag of coins. “And the statuette in your sleeve please. I’m rather fond of that one, and you’d never get a fair price for it in town.”
Kara glanced from one of the Blackfeathers to the other, and emptied her pockets, grumbling. The contents were rather amazing, and included the Professor’s pocket watch, Tam’s bag of coins, a silver-edged bookmark of Jon’s, a comb of Anna’s, and a bracelet Jon had seen a while ago on Ellea.
“Keep the bracelet,” Ellea said. “I dropped it for you, because you’d lost yours.”
“Did not,” Kara grumbled, pocketing the bracelet again.
Hellin handed Kara the bag of coins, and Kara glanced into it, surprised. “What kind of trick is this?”
“My bad habit of mothering,” Hellin said, handing Kara a clean handkerchief and a hairbrush from a nearby table. “Do stay for dinner.”
Kara gave Hellin a confused and dubious look. Djaren grinned, trying not to laugh.
“Shut up,” Kara told him.
“You may keep the dagger too,” Doctor Blackfeather told her softly, on the way to dinner. “You choose a dangerous path. If you need help, my family owes you a debt.”
Jon grabbed Kara’s hand and squeezed it. “Thank you for helping us.”
Kara shook him off. “Don’t get that thing on me.” Her look said something nicer than her words, and Jon smiled, answering that.
Text and illustrations by Ruth Lampi. Originally serialized on World of Shandor.
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