With a belly full of sea bug and cave carrot, Nick followed his would-be killer-turned-hostage/tour guide/supervisor back into the mountain. Since the way up was sort of out of commission for unknown reasons that were totally in no way his fault, they had to settle into a ground floor room. The main problem was there was no room on said ground floor. None that were viable, at least. The membrane started on the first story, while the area below that would expand into the rooms and halls was still solid, but refined, rock. There were small chambers further back, closets and warehouses to store wagons and tools, but they weren’t a suitable place for rest, not for one such as herself.
Truly, it was one of the tougher challenges they had to face, though Nick gave her an easy way out. He didn’t have to stay in the same room as her. He didn’t need sleep. He told her this thrice as she contemplated how she would handle the situation, which meant all three times it fell on proud, deaf ears. Now, growing agitated, tired, just downright cranky, Nick was getting more entertainment out of watching her trying to find a solution before her biological clock shut her down for her. He could hear music escalating as she scoured for ways to possibly make a way up to the upper floors for him, having exhausted all other options.
Well, almost all other other options.
At last, time was up. She ran into her wall, both figuratively and quite literal. It wasn’t much of a crunch; more a smack, ebbing on splat, meaning those scales were mostly for show. But it was how she hit it that really made Nick’s night. He reminded her of a chicken with its head lopped off over the last hour, finally culminating into her doing a sloppy pirouette, trying to stop herself, missing the wall but still trying to lean on it, finishing with her head smacking into it, bouncing on the ground, giving two more spins, and finally splaying out on the stone... What could he do but clap. Marvelous; truly marvelous showing. She didn’t stir at all; nobody stirred as he gave that thunderous accolade, meaning he was back in business.
But what to do about her? Would he simply leave her there, on the ground, all night? He could, but then he wouldn’t have the smug satisfaction of what he did instead. Come morning, she groaned, stirred, winced as she held her brow, soothing away the pain of her break-dancing the night before... only to realize after a few rubs that she was in a basket. She sat up, slowly, and saw that she was still in the entry, sat before the archway, resting inside on of the extra baskets that were in the first storeroom on the left going down. Nick was surprised just how far the path delved, but he couldn’t go too far. Not because he couldn’t see, no, but because he had to be back in time to enjoy his just desserts.
He leaned against the archway, the other side so as to let her have as much light as she could... and so she could see his smug, smirking, gloating face as she finally blinked and rubbed the last of sleep away. Oh, how she glared at him, shooting out of the basket, making it teeter dangerously in her wake. From there, he didn’t even have time to tell her morning as they set out for their task for the day. Which was fishing. Because of course it was.
They were the first at the lake, though he was confused. They didn’t bring any tools, no rod nor net to be had. Instead, they both had a spear and a lot of fire. While she stretched and grumbled, Nick knelt to the lake, taking a bit of the soft blue water in hand, and gave it a taste. Indeed, it was salt water. Incredibly salty salt water. He wondered if it was on par with the Dead Sea, though he had never been and only heard tales of beanpoles even being able to float in it. Though there was also a reason it was called the Dead Sea; nothing should be able to live in this level of salinity, yet he tasted the giant shrimp last night and saw them fishing up others the day before. That still didn’t answer how they were sustaining their population, though. Especially when it seemed to be the main source of food in the a-
“Alright. Get in there,” Bren finally said, and shoved him into the water. He only managed to gulp half a breath before he was under. His eyes stung from all the salt, the hole in his chest screaming at him. The blood that had dried on his shirt was revitalized, pulled off, leaving a purple mist in his wake as he swam forward. There was no current in that lake, as still as the grave, but he had a revelation as soon as he was able to see:
It was far deeper than what he expected.
He wasn’t even a quarter of the way out into the lake when he could no longer see the bottom, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t see. Further down, he could see faint yellow lights, illuminating the alien landscape, a labyrinth born from centuries of water eating through it. And, with that light, he could also see shadows of things far larger than what he had saw being taken out of the lake, which was such a confidence boost.
Nick was afraid to even to continue beyond the threshold, but he saw Bren continue into it unimpeded, undaunted. He would have been fine with just saying good on her and being done with it... however, after yesterday’s showcase, what sort of person would he be if he ran off in the face of death. He already spat in their face once (twice, technically), so what was the threat of being mauled to death by a primordial fish or drowning compared to being stabbed through the chest? That, though, was another reason he dawdled. He was still wrapped in that purple cloak, a dinner bell for anything truly hunger enough to want a nibble... and, given the size of what could, it wouldn’t be a tiny one.
He surfaced, sighed, and took the biggest breath he could before diving back under, following after into those surprisingly clear depths. For being as salty as it was, he expected it to be cloudy, but then he only had the Dead Seas to really compare it to, a body of water that did not move, locked into itself. Sea was probably right, but how could it be attached to it this far in-land? There was no way it attached under the continent, could it? For one, that would be geologically impossible. A continent was a solid sheet of rock, formed over millions of years, pushed up by shifts and contact until it became a solid enough landmass. If water could run “under” it, then there were several issues and other questions to ask, piled on top of hundreds of others. It could be the possibility that these were old magma tunnels, but magma doesn’t simply go away. The planet doesn’t just stop moving, changing, and, if it had, then that was a major problem.
But the facts remained. This lake was attached to something, something far away and far, far underground. It could easily be old magma tunnels, sure. Maybe the planet shifted enough for it to go someplace else, but it would still have to had opened a tunnel between that body of water and this location, and even then this location would have to exist in the first place. Being this close to the ashen mountains, he wondered if, maybe not even ten thousand years ago, this lake was a lava pocket outside it, that it was meant to be another mountain but failed to rise.
Regardless, it was there, and he was plunging into it. Not as far as Bren, of course. He was still only human, after all, and not even the most apt human to swim. For the most part he stayed close to the entrance to the underground, but even there he was getting plenty of attention. Not the kind he wanted, either; being living bait had its pro and many, many cons. For starters, he couldn’t exactly see through it if he sat still, but if he moved too much it would clout all vision. Which, given the... “creatures” that have shown interest, he needed as much visibility as he could.
Nick didn’t dislike the ocean. He didn’t dislike sharks nor the idea of being near them. Since arriving, he had seen giant snakes that would make a great white blush, and they were living in fresh water, feeding on tiny fish. In fact, he should have known from those snakes what to possibly expect from ocean life, but nothing could have prepared him for what hunted him. He originally lazed at the entry, wading, waiting there, but after those... things emerged from the purple haze, he dared not sit still again. Shiny, black appendages, splintered and frayed at the ends as if they were hands reaching out and wanting to wrench at him; there were four in all, attached to a spiny, cone-shaped jewel of darkness the size of a small car that gleamed as he swam back from those pervading tendrils. It had four eyes, one on each side of its thick body, all seeming to shine when they focused on him, smacking its beak loud enough to send ripples through the water. It wasn’t the only one, either, as another tried grasping at his shoes, then another at his back. But, all at once, they dispersed, fleeing with such haste that Nick decided it was time to surface... and, possibly, sit awhile. He couldn’t make it too obvious, though. He couldn’t simply race towards the surface and shoot towards the land. No, that would make him far too enticing to whatever made those things run off. Besides, he wanted to at least see what they were running from, what he was wanting away f-
He wished he hadn’t.
Gone were his sensibilities. Gone was his need to keep composure. He screamed, shrill even against the water that kept it incomprehensible, made to be understood by the sheer fear in his voice. Every part of him jetted him through the water, rocketed him to the surface fast enough to fly out a good three feet before splashing back down, but he wasn’t the only thing that did. He could feel it just behind him, just out of reach of his shoes, of his life, and he didn’t stop kicking and paddling until he was at the mountain’s edge, trying in vain to claw up it to get away from that beast. He dared not look back, dared not to see if it stayed at the water, hoping, praying to God that it did, but that didn’t stop him from continuing to claw at the rock until his fingers bled. He even tried to stab it with his spear, use it to prop him up, trying to cling higher, but to no avail.
Nick didn’t dislike the ocean. He didn’t dislike nor fear sharks... but that... thing... He would never go back in the water again... One good thing came of it, though: His clothes were completely soaked in water... and other fluid. Mostly water, though, and he knew how to strain water from it, so he could at least get some to drink. The bad news was that meant he was down a pair of boxers and a tunic; the latter was easy to replace, but the former was going to be... awkward to explain. Especially then, around beings who didn’t wear clothes to begin with.
So he did just that. He went to the market. It was completely unattended, but there was a blanched out tunic sitting at one of the stalls, a forgotten relic of when someone actually did arrive. He slipped it on as he slipped off all but his loafers, and went to gather buckets, using that very stall as his desalination station. That part, too, was easy; he saw buckets in the storeroom last night, and managed to grab four before anyone questioned. They were asking the very wrong questions, at that; they interrogated him on why he wasn’t with Bren, why was he away from his post, and what those dangly bits were in between his legs.
He answered them as how they treated his opinion anyways, and they yelled after, demanding an actual, vocal answer. He had other pressing matters, one of which needed answered sooner than later but both pertained to thirst. Bringing attention to his anatomy did not help his case, and he needed to keep pushing. Yet they kept following, and it wasn’t any of the others he had met before. It wasn’t the welcoming party, it wasn’t Bren; it was a literal who, a young man with nothing better to do than to question.
Thankfully, though, his questions finally started aiming at the right points, but at that point it was too late. He already had the buckets set up. The sun was shining upon the soaked fabric fully, and it wasn’t long before it started to condensate. The soft pattering echoed through the ghost market, stifled a moment as he slipped his hands under it, gathering enough to quench his parched throat. From his shirt, of course; it would take several rotations before he could consider the buckets currently under his boxers.
He slurped down that meager bit of water, eyes closing, enjoying the little thing that was so essential, and the world around him seem to fade. As he lowered his hands, let them rest on his thighs, squatting before those buckets, he finally realized it wasn’t only him and the boy. Bren arrived some point during his nirvana, glaring at him and looking... worse for ware. To say the least. She was about seven to ten pounds lighter than the last he saw her, and now favored her left arm. Solely.
“What are you doing!” She exclaimed, gesturing to the cloth, to the buckets... to him. “What is this? What are those!”
“What? You had it covered,” he said, groaning as he stood. His knees popped, back echoing it, shooting off like a line of fireworks, answered in turn by his shoulders as he pushed off the bar of the stall and leaped over it, standing before her. Yet her eyes continue to leer downwards, following, as if mesmerized... Making him feel incredibly... uncomfortable. “That was a bit too much to ask on my first day of the job. Just... just saying... C... can you stop staring?”
“B... what are those?”
“More trouble than they’re actually worth. SO, catch anything worthwhile. Hopefully something worth the price, though you did get it half off. At least you didn’t have to give up a leg, as well.”
He chortled, which finally brought her gaze up to his face-
And she slapped him.
“You abandoned me.” She stated. “I trusted you to have my back, and, when the time came, you were gone.”
“Again. Asking a lot on my first day, especially after trying to kill me.” That, however, didn’t shake the feeling of guilt from him. The one thing he always prided himself on... and he failed to live up to it. He failed her, and how she had to live with... “Huh. That’s neat.”
“What? What betraying me is neat!”
“No. Not that. Just... hold on.” He gripped her right shoulder, steadying her as he watched her left and how it... bubbled, how it squelched and blossomed out. He could see the beginnings of bone forming, muscle reaching out, grasping, hooking it to the clavicle before continuing downward. “Awesome.”
“Are you saying humans can’t regrow limbs?”
“That depends.” Given the curiosity in her voice, he knew exactly what she had in mind. In truth, he couldn’t blame her for wanting to, either, but he sort of needed them. For now. He let her go, then gestured to the buckets and his old clothes. “I had other matters. I can’t drink your water as it is, so I made a way to make it into mine... I’m sorry for leaving you in your state. I’ll make it up to you and everyone here... I’m indebted to you, now.”
“It means I am in your service... I owe you.”
“Ah... Very well. Then tomorrow, do I have plans for you.”
She walked away... but not before chancing a look back, and Nick knew exactly what she was staring at... and understood how women felt back on Earth when men simply... looked at them. It was not a good feeling being sized up like a meal or a cow to be slaughtered, and being treated as such was unbelievably dehumanizing.
Especially since it wasn’t gender-specific.
“What are you still doing here?” Nick barked at the young man, his eyes fixated on one spot.
“I-I’m sorry,” he said, shaking his head feverishly, and looked up at him. “It’s just... I’ve never seen anything like you befo-”
“Yeah yeah. New animal to stare at... What’s your name?”
“Diresh. I’m Nick, and I’m already in a bad enough mood. Unless you want to be a part of an experiment, I suggest you run off. Now.”
“W...what’s an ex pair eh ment?”
… Nick didn’t tell him. Instead, he very much showed. He had to know just how much they could regenerate, after all, and it was... cathartic.