“You look pretty gloomy for a guy who’s about to sleep in a real bed for the first time in a month.” Mafalda cradled her chin in her hands as she peered up from the floor.
Slouched in his hammock, flipping through a book and glaring at it like it had done him a grievous personal injustice, the Continent’s most wanted man sighed. He snapped the book shut and tapped a restless finger to its spine, looking down at her.
“It’s just bad timing, Maf.” Nuso slouched back into his heap of sheepskins and pillows, the motion swaying the hammock gently. “A break’ll be nice, but any other time would have been preferable.”
“Funny man.” Mafalda yawned, stretching out on the lasma hide she lounged upon. The thick brown fur had a weirdly comforting musky aroma now that she’d slept on it so many times. She’d grown used to it. The smell made her tired by association.
“I’m funny because I’m annoyed we can’t keep working?” Nuso sounded more amused than affronted.
“Funny man to assume Fortune gives a fart what’s convenient for us.”
Nuso of course didn’t believe in Fortune, or any of the other quasi-gods or goddesses honored the whole island over. That was a debate he and Mafalda had wrestled through many a time over their years together. So she wasn’t surprised when he just grunted at her and let the subject drop.
On the subject of timing he was, of course, correct. The timing was terrible.
For most of the past month, they’d been exploring a series of burial sites in and around the Teag Range, a series of low, treeless brown mountains heaped like dung on the northern edge of the Flats. The mountains themselves were terribly uninteresting, but they possessed the most important quality mountains could have in Nuso and Maf’s eyes: they were riddled with holes and caverns.
Following yet another of Nuso’s mysteriously-acquired ancient maps, they sought a rumored back entrance into a sprawling Meduese tomb complex. Rumors of secret passageways and air shafts and concealed doors were a dime a dozen at any tomb excavation—in the decade or so Mafalda had done this work, she’d heard dozens of stories but only ever found one such chamber—but this particular hillside bore some intriguing signs.
Just six days prior, they’d broken into their most promising chamber yet, a lichen-dappled limestone atrium replete with carvings and signs of human occupation. Their team had documented everything as-was, then come upon an old cave-in that looked like it might conceal a passageway. Considering the atrium was home to no remains, Maf could only guess where that passage might lead. They’d labored intensively to clear it, but nature had chosen to chase them from their campsite prematurely.
Riders had arrived at camp that morning, informing them that the annual scorpion migration had begun across the Flats. Hundreds of thousands of scorpions would arrive in less than two days’ time, a great teeming blanket of them. Maf had never attempted to work during scorpion or tarantula season before, but she’d heard the stories of those who tried—scooping arachnids from boots by the handful and losing laborers by the dozen to bites didn’t sound like a winning strategy.
“I hoped we’d have a little more time, is all.” Nuso stared up at the rocky, torch-lit ceiling, his expression morose.
“We will.” Mafalda pushed herself up off the rug, knowing if she stayed much longer she’d doze off. “We’ll have all the time in the world once the scorpions have passed by.”
White-yellow like the salt flats where they laid their eggs, the scorpions in question were about the size of a thumb and venomous as all hell. Mafalda did not plan on sticking around long enough to see a single one. She wasn’t an arachnophobe—such a thing was more or less impossible for a tomb crawler—but there was a particularly sickly quality to the Flats Scorpion that made her stomach churn. They were gross.
Which is why she’d ordered her crew to construct a big wooden gate for their dig site. Hopefully the little bastards would all skitter right over the top without considering making a home of their cavern.
“Gonna go check on the construction,” she announced. “You want anything from downstairs?”
Nuso stayed relaxed where he was. He swished a hand toward her, a gesture that could have meant anything.
“Nah,” he finally said. “Unless you spy any wine down there.”
Mafalda chuckled and left him to his sulking. Their loft was a flat patch of rock with hammocks for sleeping and a listing desk all ringed in by assorted warped wooden furnishings that functioned almost entirely as book storage. They’d boxed up everything worth taking home and carried it down to the doors already, so when Mafalda climbed the ladder down into base camp proper, all looked pretty bare. The wagons outside bulged with cargo, but if she knew Nuso he’d manage to fit another half-ton in somehow.
Ambling through a narrow, greyish-white tunnel that glittered with veins of quartz, Maf strolled up a gentle slope and followed the distorted echoes of saws and hammers. Every member of their fourteen-man team who wasn’t securing artifacts in the wagons was working on the gates, and as Mafalda stepped through to the worksite the scent of freshly-sawed evergreen brushed her nose like a cool wind. She enjoyed a couple pleasant sniffs, then sought out her foreman.
“How goes it, Blitt?” she asked, leaning over a hefty figure who lashed skinny tree trunks to a frame of wooden planks.
Blitt rose up and dabbed at his sweaty brow with a sleeve. The man had a face like a dropped pie, ravaged by burn scars. That long-ago trauma had melted his features to one side, though his unmarred right eye observed Mafalda with a weary, competent intelligence.
“Ahead of schedule, if you’ll believe it.” Blitt grinned, only half his mouth moving.
“Fuck off.” Maf squinted at him, waiting for the other shoe to drop. But it didn’t. He clunked a boot against the wooden frame, pointing downward.
“These larch ain’t much to work with, but if we saw ‘em in half we reckon the gaps are narrow enough to only let a few scorpys through. And we’ll lash blankets to the backside too.”
The harsh winds and lack of adequate topsoil in the Teags meant that trees were hard to come by. The crew had scavenged a day’s ride off and found a few groves of scraggly larch, evergreens with trunks that were barely as thick as Blitt’s forearms. Proper planks would have left a much more airtight campsite, but in the field, you took what you could get.
Maf puckered her lips at Blitt. “I could kiss you,” she said.
“Aye, and then who would build your next gate when my wife puts me in an early grave?”
She wondered all the time if Blitt’s wife was really as hardcore as he liked to joke. Must be some woman. But that sort of banter could wait for the long wagon ride back to civilization. Maf told the crew to keep up the good work, then skulked off toward the wagons to steal a bottle of wine for their pouty crew leader.
Hour by hour, they packed up the last month of their lives and stowed it all away. Everything nonessential was left behind. Camp now reminded her of the ghost towns she’d passed through in her studies, traces of old civilizations left behind. Except their buckets were new and their latrine still stank and hopefully they’d all be back to work in a few weeks.
Nuso dallied far off in the darkness, snuffing out the last of their torches and lanterns. She watched his distant silhouette, the way he moved through camp with slow, soft steps. He got this way when he didn’t want to go, a sort of whole-body reluctance to his every action. Eventually, he satisfied himself with the state of things and turned back her way.
She considered him as he neared her. He was still the same old Nuso, albeit a few inches taller and a little leaner than when they’d first met all those years ago. He still wore his hair long, still dressed like a man worth a fraction of the illicit wealth he held claim to.
Maf had never thought he’d looked like an outlaw. His eyes were too soft. He smiled too much. Maybe that’s why she found it so easy to work with him, to run the digs and turn a blind eye to his other enterprises.
“Come home with me,” she said once he was at her side. “It’ll do you good.”
Nuso reached back over his shoulder, untying and then re-tying his ponytail. His face always scrunched up when he did it, like securing his hair took the entirety of his mental energies.
“No can do,” he said. “They’re a bit hot for me down south.”
“We could smuggle you through like last time.” Mafalda knew it was a losing battle but kept at it anyways. “You know my mother would love to see you. She asks about you every time.”
“Your mother is a lovely woman,” Nuso said dutifully. “But I’ve got business in the opposite direction. And I’ve already organized transport up the river.”
Blitt had told him once that back in the day, in the early formation stages of their smugglers’ gang, Nuso’s nickname had been Asnoto. The older hands still called him that sometimes. It took months for Maf to gain their trust, and only then did someone let it slip that the moniker meant donkey in Sunnish. Due to the boss’ stubbornness, of course, Blitt had informed her with a polite cough.
Maf knew she couldn’t force Nuso to do anything he didn’t want to do. But it was a shame, how he couldn’t appreciate time off for what it was.
“You’ll regret it if you don’t take an honest-to-gods break soon,” she said, heaving her knapsack up onto her back.
They stepped through the gate, which stood complete and reinforced with woolen blankets and tarps up the back. Maf curled a fist and knocked a pattern on it for luck, grinning at the doors as they stepped through. Her team had done her proud. The gate itself was built far enough back into the cavern that it wasn’t visible from the outside. If they had to clear some scorpions out of the tunnel before it, fair enough. A small price to pay for protecting the majority of the dig.
The desert sky was the hue of fresh spring lavender as they stepped outside, a powder-purple twilight. Crossing the Flats during the day was brutally hot, so they planned to caravan by night.
“Such a shame,” said Nuso, turning back to regard the cave’s opening for a moment.
From where they stood, it looked like an innocent crack in the stone, no signs modern or ancient of what waited within.
“We’ll be back,” Maf promised. “And then it’ll only be a few days before we crack that passage wide open.”
They ambled toward their wagon, Nuso shoving his hands in his pockets.
“What do you think is down there?” he asked.
“Haven’t a clue.” Maf grinned excitably. “But I’m certain there’s a tunnel of some sort. I can feel it in my bones.”
The weird thing was that she wasn’t even joking. Standing down near that heap of collapsed rock, Maf had felt the strangest sensation. A flicker of intuition, the way your scruff rose up when you walked past an unfriendly dog. Only instead of warning her off, it felt almost like it was beckoning her in.
Nuso feels it too, she thought. That’s why he doesn’t want to leave. He’s paranoid someone else will find this place before we can make it back.
Yet Maf was oddly certain that wouldn’t happen. She had her share of pragmatic worries about any excavation, but she hadn’t fretted over that in the slightest when they’d packed down camp.
As they hauled up into their wagon and got comfortable, sharing flasks around with the gang and settling in for a long ride, Maf felt it in her gut like she’d already swallowed the truth. They’d be back. They’d crack that passageway open like an oyster and see if anything glittered.
Whatever waited inside would be theirs. And Nuso wouldn’t have to fight his way through a hundred thousand scorpions to get to it. The best of both worlds.