The Guardian

On any other planet, the archeological discovery made under the lot on the corner of Corek and Lucuo streets in Eishen city, Corrone, would have been snapped up by the government immediately and commissioned to the best scientific team to be found. Perhaps, if the bureaucrats were feeling decent, they would even pay the owner of the warehouse laying over it, but not necessarily.

But this was Corrone, newly settled world of goals and dreams and business transactions. Bureaucrats did not interfere, and the owner of the lot on the corner of Corek and Lucuo made out very well. The find was quietly announced, the site perimetered with barbed wire, and then the whole was quietly auctioned, bid upon by several collectors and treasure hunters in the area. Scarcely a week later, the winning bidder moved in the first of her supervisors, followed by five crews of twenty slaves each. Tunnels were dug, and the excavation began.

All of this history was common knowledge, and even a source of some pride among the enslaved laborers at the site. Not many of the kids sold in Kiritin market wound up uncovering treasures buried for centuries, after all. There was a sort of romance to the work, even if you weren't doing it under a government who would put these things in museums with your name beside it on a plaque, or a boss that would pay you.

Pride, unfortunately, did not do much for you when you were kicked awake by the boot of an overseer to your belly an hour before the sun came up.

Savar curled over his bruised ribcage and slowly opened his eyes a crack.

"Slept through the siren again," the supervisor muttered. "How do you do it?" He shook his head with something like wonder.

None of the awakening slaves—and Savar was far from the only one to sleep through the morning bell—bothered to reply. After a moment, he dared to uncurl, and when no punishment was forthcoming he rose from his sleeping sack to join the line of slaves at the door of the barracks. The canvas roof flapped overhead, letting momentary glimpses of star-specked sky shine through. A bit closer to earth, yellow bulbs flickered from their wiring on the tent's support poles. By their light, Savar and the other slaves took out their equipment—oil lanterns, oil can, leather bag for findings, chisel and three matches—and followed the supervisor into the night.

His name was Quero, though it was never said aloud; he was 'sir' to subordinates and 'hey you' to peers. The only person he didn't consider a peer, his boss M. Agentin, had never met him and probably didn't know he existed.

Among the slaves, he was 'Q', or 'Mr. Q' if they felt the need to stress his name a little bit more. Like now, when the boy behind Savar—no more than a kid, really, must be new—whispered, "Where's Mr. Q going?"

Savar jumped and looked around almost guiltily; he hadn't even noticed they were heading into a different part of the site. Deeper, by the look of it. The barbed fence was almost lost in the morning dark.

"Must be a new shaft," he said.

The kid seemed to take that for an answer, but the more experienced slaves marching around them exchanged glances. New shafts could yield anything, and none of them had been at the site long enough to tell what outcome was more likely than the other. There was an air of unease around them that didn't cease by the end of the march.

"Okay, then," Quero said as he looked around, swinging his arms. The mouth of the new tunnel gaped behind him. "Orders from the boss—she wants separate routes."

Even the new kids showed no reaction, but each of them felt the uneasy energy in the air increase until it seemed their every hair from arms to ankles was standing on end. To the bosses, of course, splitting up made perfect sense—more ground covered, more treasure found. But when a guy was told he had to walk into the darkness of a new shaft alone, well…nobody would want to complete that sentence.

Savar slipped a hand in his pocket and fingered the object there. It was a good-luck charm of sorts; a pyramid-shaped die of some black-flecked purple stone. The figures on each face had been carved and filled with white clay, most of which had fallen out by now. To an archeologist, the script would have been a clue as to whose ruins these were; to a boss the stone die would be worth two dozen lions at the Tieriet Auction. To Savar, it was his treasure, one of the first things he had found and the only one he could keep, and he dreaded the day the holes in his pocket became too big for him to carry it with him anymore.

"You." Quero pointed at a boy near the front of the line. "First fork right. You," to the next, "Second fork right. You, third…" It continued as each of the sixteen slaves was assigned a route to take. Savar's was fourth fork left.

There was a pause while everyone lit his lantern, silent except for the scratching of matches and an occasional low curse when a finger was scorched, then they entered the shaft in an ordered single file. Each boy turned at his assigned fork. One, two, three, four to the left—Savar's branch was straight for as far as the lantern light went, with a smooth floor and walls made of mostly whole gray bricks. Forty steps down the passage, he realized that he was walking in a narrow street or back alley, in a part of the ruins buried below what was probably the Central Bank. Rumors had reached the corner of Corek and Lucuo about hollow spaces beneath the vaults there. It appeared they would finally be confirmed—by himself, he realized with a rush of discoverer's pride.

Savar looked up. One of the first mysteries of the site had been how the courtyards and lanes hadn't been filled with rubble when the city was buried; its answer was plain in the light of his lantern when he looked up. Only a handbreadth above the flat roofs of the single-storied buildings, something dark and ashy formed a seal as smooth and hard as poured concrete. Some scientists had wanted to get in to study that stuff, he remembered, but the boss hadn't let them. There wasn't treasure in it, so nobody else bothered.

He wondered if he could chip through the walls of a house to see inside, and imagined what he might find in there. No bodies of the city's inhabitants had ever been discovered. It might be impressive if he could find one. Or maybe there would be a completed game set in some buried lounge room, and he could have a full set of dice…

The floor of the alley began to slope down, even turning into a flight of stairs at one point, and he saw something strange ahead: what seemed to be a carved archway that spanned between the houses on either side of the street. The top point of it was buried in the ceiling, but just below the ashy conglomerate was a weathered bust that peered down at whoever passed below. Savar studied it back, unsure if it was even a man or a woman, and wondering if it were a crown of leaves on its head or wild hair, so preoccupied that he forgot one of the first things kids learned at the site: always look down.

Whatever road once lay past the archway had fallen out, and Savar lost his footing barely a step beyond, sliding down a fan of rubble.

The lantern was shaken loose from his hands and hit the bottom before he did. It shattered, oil spilling from the core to flare briefly in flame.

Then it went out.

"Oh, hell." Whatever space he was in, it was too small for his curse to echo; instead it fell rather flat. The leather bag's strap had caught on something on the way down, and Savar realized that it had been sliced almost entirely through. He still had the matches and the can of spare oil inside the sack, but without a lantern and wick they were both useless.

He put his head in his hands and realized with some surprise that it made the room darker. Savar uncovered his eyes and tried to track the thread of light. It grew stronger as he watched, and he followed it to a crack in two bricks of a wall. He made his way carefully across the rubble-strewn floor and pulled it out.

It was a gem, the size of his palm, pale blue and oval-shaped, with faceted edges so keen he sliced the pad of one of his fingers handling it. He sucked the blood away and watched as the light continued to grow, glinted from the facets of the gem. Strong enough to move by, he thought, and maybe strong enough to climb up the rubble with. But the sharp edges made it hard to handle, and he wanted to see if there was more in this lower level. If not, well, a glowing gemstone was more than good enough for one day. But if so, it would be shame to miss the other treasures. Especially if there were more gems this big.

Unfortunately, there didn't seem to be any direct way deeper into the ruins. The walls surrounding him were all solid, seamless, without a gap or an alley in sight. That would make things harder, but not impossible. Savar reached for the leather bag and pulled out his chisel. The only gap between bricks wide enough to place it was where he found the trinket, and as he wedged it in he thought he heard a noise on the other side of the wall. Had the chisel knocked against something?

The bricks came out much easier than he had expected; he lay the gem and chisel down beside him and began to pull them out with his bare hands. Clouds of dust rose, making his eyes water, and the light from the jewel seemed to be lessening. All the same, as soon as he made an opening large enough to crawl through he picked it up—careful of the facets—and wiggled inside.

Something shifted beneath his feet. It must have fallen from the gap, he thought, and bent to pick it up. It was another jewel, this one purple, square-shaped, and even bigger than the first. Savar realized with a pang that neither of the gems could be real—anything that size would only be chemical grown or glass. If the first, they were still worthwhile, but otherwise… The purple gem wasn't glowing. He lifted it carefully and realized that he had nowhere to put it. He had left the ripped sack outside, and his threadbare pockets certainly couldn't carry something this heavy or sharp. In the end, he kept it in one hand and the blue gem in the other. Its light was growing again, and by it he could slowly make out the place he had entered.

The room was empty, but an arched doorway waited in front of him. He went through to another empty room, and another, and another, until he wondered if he could remember the way back. Sometimes he thought he heard something far off in the chambers ahead, but dismissed the sensation as nerves or settling dust.

After what felt like an entire shift's worth of walking, he spotted an arch down one hall that he knew had to lead to something. The bricks in and around it had been carved in an arabesque, and the carving filled with red, blue, and yellow enamel, the only signs of color in this entire gray labyrinth. There was another staring bust, too, but he ignored it and instead watched his step as he entered the room.

Despite the elaborate entrance, the interior was plain, and bare except for a waist-high slab of rock and the woman who lay on it. Savar swallowed a yelp and cautiously came closer, studying her by the blue stone's gentle light. Perhaps he had panicked needlessly—she was as motionless as the busts on the arches.

She was wearing a cloth-of-gold outfit that either never covered much or had disintegrated in too many places over time, though it reveled little but pale skin stretched over bones. The remaining material was covered with embroidery and even—Savar looked closer to confirm—tiny gemstones. Her face was human enough, but not one seen often in Corrone; her eyes were wide apart and deep-set, her nose and mouth small, her chin pointed. Her hair was barely long enough to cover her ears, and the gem's light made it a strange color. There was another jewel, large and golden, hanging at her neck. After a moment's consideration, Savar dropped the purple stoneand reached for it.

At the clatter as the trinket met the floor, her eyes opened.

Savar yelped and jumped back only to hit the brick wall—the room was smaller than it seemed. The woman didn't glance at him, but rubbed at the golden gem. After a moment, it began to glow. By its light, she looked at him finally and said something in a grieved tone.

He shook his head. "I don't understand."

After a moment, she spoke again—slowly, but in a language he recognized. "What kind of person would steal from a Guardian?"

"I—ah—what—er…" Savar looked down at the jewel in his hands. He had cut himself against it again sometime during his exploration, but hadn't noticed until now. "I just found this."

"I know that," she said. She spoke Corronian fluently enough, but strangely—another dialect, maybe, or in the way it might have been spoken years ago. "I was the one who put it there. It was glowing from my touch when you found it."

"Oh," Savar said. He couldn't think of any further reply.

She sighed and rubbed at the shiningjewel. "I had hoped somebody would just take them and leave."

"Just take them?"

"Yes." She looked at him oddly. "They've never done my people any good."

"But they give light…"

"Oh, yes." She laughed, and the sound of her laughter echoed through the ruins. Savar shivered. "When we found them here, some of our scientists decided to put them to some use.

"Some." He looked at the glowing gem. "So your people didn't make these?"

"No. We only found them."

"Then who did?"

She pulled her legs up on the block and wrapped her arms around her knees. "What is your name?"

"Savar," he said, unsure why it mattered, unsure if he should ask.

"Savar. I must rely on you before…the end." The woman rubbed at her pendant again. "We think these gems don't belong here. We think they're from…some other place. The Isjat—oh, I don't know how to say it—the rules, the way things work? These stones don't follow them. They don't follow the laws of magic as our magi knew them, or the laws of science as our scientists learned. Ah…" She gasped. Savar could see the outline of her ribs as she breathed. "I am weakening. It is this—" She tapped her gem. "That is doing it to me. It attracts the power of its maker, and that one…doesn't like living flesh."

"If it's so bad, why did they bury you with it? Did they bury you?"

"I am the Guardian," she said. "They buried me when we first struck earth for this city. I was to awake and guide it when my protection was needed…but I did not. They buried me with this trinket because they thought it was an honor. We didn't know so much about them, then. The gem—or its maker through it—saps my power, and it delayed my awakening. These stones might have been tools, once—but not for us, for your kind or mine, to wield. My people learned that the hard way. I dreamt of their downfall, I saw them place the jewels here, in this chamber with me, thinking I could protect them. In the end, I saw them bury the city and flee, leaving me in the sleep of the Guardians. Only now have I managed to awake." Her speech was slow, punctuated by gasps for air, and at the end of it Savar could not think of a thing to say.

He placed his free hand in his pocket and fingered the die.

"You have something of ours there," she said.

"You mean…this?" He held the die up. "How did you know? Did you see…?"

"Dreaming." She rubbed at the pendant again. Savar realized that the golden gem's light had almost gone out. "I see so many things in dreams. Thank IsheakI still have the power. If I didn't, I'd be useless as a Guardian, outdated…" She shook her head. "Maybe…maybe it isn't enough to have you find the gems. You'll only give them to your master, and she'll only sell them, and then, perhaps, their curse will spread. There are more," she whispered. "Look behind my couch."

He did. There was a case there made of dark wood, large enough almost that he could crawl inside it, though when he lifted it he found it surprisingly light. Many things shifted inside.

"They need to be in good hands," she whispered. "And they must be taken somewhere…one place, beyond the reach of any of our kind. Anything human…and most others."

"I can take them," Savar said, surprising himself. "Bury them on a moon, or let them drift into space, or drive them into a sun…But I'm only a slave." He frowned. "I don't know how…"

He felt a gentle hand on his arm. "There are things I know," she murmured. "Ways to move without being seen—and ways to keep others from being seen. I can hide you as you leave this place. Run into the city…"

"I'll find a spaceport," he said.

"Yes. Take these—" She ripped at one of her sleeves almost violently, and offered him the jewel-covered golden cloth. "They are real gems—sapphire, ruby, emerald. They should be easy to sell. You can hire whatever or whoever you need. When you're rid of them…do what you will. Is this enough? Take more." She pulled more gems from the cloth and shoved them at him; he slipped them in his pockets and prayed the fabric would hold. "The die…is just a toy. Keep it."

"Thank you," he said, though he had doubted she would demand it back.

"Go quickly," she said. "The spell I will use to guard you is hard to maintain, and…" She gasped for more breath. "I am dying."

Savar didn't know what more to say. He opened the chest and put the blue and purple gems inside it. They lay among the others—red and green and blue and in every shape imaginable—but he snapped the cover back without looking too closely. The woman took the golden stone from her neck and hung it around his. "For light. Take it off as soon as you can. May Isheak go with you," she murmured. "I was a poor Guardian, but I will use what strength I have left to aid you however I can. You must do the rest."

"I will," he promised.

She rubbed the gem one last time, where it rested over his heart. Then she lay back on the stone, eyes closed, breathing heavily.

"Goodbye," Savar said. He held the pendant up and left the room, guided by its light.

The way out was easier than he had feared; the way up the rubble slope was smoother than he remembered. He got outside quickly, and started across the site in the evening sunshine. No one looked at him, but the gate opened at his approach. As soon as he passed through it he started running. The gold gem bounced on his chest. He would find his way to the spaceport, and there he would find a ship—in Corrone nobody asked questions from people carrying the treasures he did, and something the Guardian must have done made him unconcerned for his own safety—and then he'd destroy the gems or put them somewhere nobody could ever find them in. Then, if he had anything left, he could live. Free, thanks to the Guardian's gift.

Nobody stopped him, and he continued running for a long time.