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Authors: Patrick Samphire

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BOOK: Secrets of the Dragon Tomb
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“What's going to happen?” Olivia whispered. “Is she going to die?”

Freddie looked serious. “I won't lie to you. The bite of a spider-slug isn't poisonous as such. It merely sends its victims to sleep. The creature wants to keep them unmoving until it's hungry again. It saw Cousin Parthenia as food to save for later. In time, the bite will wear off. But…” He shrugged. “There's nothing we can do to wake her. She won't be able to drink or eat while she's unconscious.” He reached out and took Olivia's hands. “Parthenia is in a great deal of danger. She could die before the bite wears off.”

“Oh.” Olivia's head drooped.

“We mustn't stay here,” Freddie said. “The spider-slug could return again tonight. I doubt we'd see it unless we built a fire, and I'm afraid we can't risk the light.”

“Why not?” Olivia said. “How are we going to signal our rescuers?”

Freddie met my eyes. I sighed.

“We're not going to be rescued,” I said. “Dr. Blood set the crabs on us and crashed the airship. He and his men are looking for us. Sir Titus will have other men on the rescue airships. We have to avoid them.”

“Then…?”

“We'll have to find our own way back to civilization,” I said. “And we're going to have to carry Putty with us.”

*   *   *

As the afternoon turned to evening, we rigged up a stretcher for Putty. We gathered planks and spare blankets from the lifeboat, bark from the smaller trees, and vines.

“You haven't told us how you escaped,” I said to Freddie as I deposited the last of the supplies next to the frame of the stretcher. “You were trapped. The lifeboats were all gone.” I couldn't imagine how frightening it must have been to be stranded there in the dark as the crabs closed in. He must have known he was finished. “We saw the airship fall.”

Freddie selected a strip of bark, flexed it, and started to tie one of the planks to the frame. “I won't deny it. When your lifeboat launched, I thought I was dead. Even if I could have fought off the crabs, I had nowhere go.” He tightened the bark. “Try that.”

I tested the knot. It was neat and firm. “It'll hold,” I said.

“You must have been scared,” Olivia said, leaning toward him and reaching out with one hand that didn't quite touch his arm.

“I didn't have time to be scared. You saw how quickly the gondola fell. All I knew was that I didn't want to die in the wreckage. I jumped off the side. I thought if I was going to die, at least I'd die falling free.” He rubbed his hands on his trousers. “Pass me a blanket, Edward.”

What if I'd been the one up there? I didn't know if I'd have been brave enough to do what he'd done. I passed him the blanket, and he tied it across the planks.

“Thank you.” He looked critically at the stretcher. “This isn't going to be comfortable.” He reached for another blanket.

“What happened?” Olivia said.

Freddie grinned. “Someone told me that a good storyteller always leaves his audience wanting more.”

“A good storyteller is going to get a punch on the nose if he doesn't get on with it,” I muttered.

Freddie laughed. “All right, all right! The moment I jumped from the gondola, I plunged through the flock of pterodactyls that had been following the airship. One of them must have mistaken me for a scrap thrown overboard by the cooks. It tried to snap me up, and I managed to grab its legs.”

“You grabbed a pterodactyl?” I demanded.

He shrugged. “I was desperate. What would you have done? Anyway, I was falling fast, and it was a young pterodactyl. I pretty much knocked it out of the sky.” He grinned again. “Can you imagine how embarrassing it would have been to be found dead in the embrace of a pterodactyl? My poor mama would have expired from the humiliation.”

“Don't joke about it,” Olivia said. She wrapped her arms about her shoulders.

Freddie's grin faded. “Forgive me. This must have been awful for all of you. But don't worry. The pterodactyl was far better at flying than I was. It managed to catch itself, and I ended up dangling from its legs while it flapped along. I started to wonder if I'd ever get down. Pterodactyls can glide for hundreds of miles. Help me with this.”

We held curved branches in place as Freddie lashed them above the stretcher to form the ribs of a canopy to shade Putty from the sun.

“Luckily, a pterodactyl isn't used to carrying such a heavy weight,” Freddie said. “It tried to shake me off, of course, and once, it attacked me with its beak.” Freddie touched the long scrape across the left of his brow. “But it couldn't fly and attack me at the same time. Eventually, it had to land, and I set off to search for you. I was lucky to find Edward at the crash site. This is a big wilderness, and you didn't have the decency to come down anywhere sensible.” He stepped back from the stretcher. “There. We're done. This should carry Parthenia.” His expression grew serious. “We have to get her to safety quickly. I don't know how long she's got left.”

*   *   *

Our trek through the wilderness was sweaty, exhausting, and painful, filled with biting insects, thorns, and dry earth that kept crumbling beneath our feet. I'd never walked so far and for so long in my life, and I had blisters within hours. If Freddie hadn't known how to find water in the wind-carved rocks, we'd have run out within hours.

At the beginning of the third day of the trek, we finally came over a rocky ridge covered in twisted bushes and half-trees. Beyond it, red grasslands replaced the thick undergrowth. Heat haze shimmered above the grass. No matter how hard I peered, I couldn't see how far the grasslands stretched.

Freddie stopped beside me and lowered Putty's stretcher. We'd developed a routine over the last two days. Two of us would carry the stretcher, Freddie taking the front end and Olivia and I taking turns at the back, while the other found the easiest route through the brush and kept an eye on our back trail in case anyone was following. Three times, we'd had to huddle motionless while the hunter tripods strode past.

We hadn't spotted anyone since yesterday evening, and I was starting to think we were safe. Putty hadn't woken, though. She just lay on her stretcher looking like she was asleep. She couldn't eat, and I'd managed to get only a few sips of water down her throat. Every time I looked at her, I started to panic. She looked so small and helpless, and the wilderness went on and on.

“It's going to be hotter down there,” Freddie said.

“Hotter?” Olivia said. “Is that even possible?” She was sweating heavily. On the first day, she'd done her best to wipe the sweat away with a silk handkerchief, but by the middle of the afternoon, she'd let out the kind of curse I'd never guessed she knew and torn away part of her long gown, revealing her legs up to her knees. She'd fixed a shocked-looking Freddie with such a challenging gaze that I'd been surprised he hadn't turned tail and run. After that, she'd stopped worrying about the sweat and had even removed her petticoat.

“I'm afraid so,” Freddie said. “The Lunae Planum starts on the far side of the grasslands. It's the true desert. There are hundreds of miles of sand and rocks between here and the Martian Nile.”

“That's unfortunate,” Olivia said. “There's not much more clothing I can take off.”

Freddie immediately blushed, and if I hadn't known better, I would have sworn a smile twitched Olivia's lips.

“How are we going to cross the desert?” I asked.

“There are ways across,” Freddie said. “Ways with shelter and water. Not everyone can afford airship fares. The native Martians have their own routes.”

“Do you know where they are?” I asked.

Freddie gave a one-sided grin. “Not a clue, old boy.”

*   *   *

We were a couple of miles into the grasslands, pushing through the stiff, shoulder-high grass, when Putty's breathing changed. She gave a dry gasp and shifted on the stretcher.

I set her down and touched her face. “Putty?”

She didn't respond. Freddie took her wrist. After a moment, he shook his head.

“Her pulse is getting weaker.”

“What does that mean?” Olivia said.

“It means she's dying,” Freddie said. “She's running out of strength. Without water, out here in the wilderness … She doesn't have long.”

I pulled out one of my water bottles and tried to get some past her cracked lips. After a few drops, she coughed weakly. I wasn't sure any of the water got down her throat.

“We need to keep moving,” Freddie said. “We have to get her help and out of the sun.”

“We should signal an airship if one passes over,” I said. “We have to risk it.”

Freddie rubbed his eyes. He looked exhausted. “Fine. If we see one, we'll try to get its attention. But in the meantime, we keep moving.”

I grabbed the back of the stretcher and we hurried on, pushing through the grass. Even though he'd carried the stretcher through each day and taken half of the night watches, Freddie didn't slow. The stretcher's poles were rubbing my hands raw. My arms felt like they were slowly burning from the inside out. My feet dragged and I tripped over loose stones hidden in the grass.

“There's something ahead,” Olivia called back. She had pushed on past us. “The land dips and the grass is getting shorter. And … Oh.”

“What is it?” Freddie said.

“It's the desert,” Olivia said. “I can see the desert.”

The last of the strength drained from my arms. Freddie, too, seemed to despair. For the first time, he stumbled and had to catch himself to keep from losing his grip on Putty's stretcher.

Beyond the grasslands, great, scree-laden red mesas rose like giant walls, and the jagged valleys were filled with drifts of fine Martian sand.

I'd imagined the desert would be all sand, enormous dunes of it stretching away to the horizon, but this was worse. We'd never make it across all those miles of rock, stones, and sand.

I just couldn't take it anymore. “Why?” I said in despair. “Why is Sir Titus doing all this? Why put in all this effort and hurt so many people for a stupid old tomb? How can money be so important?”

“It's not the money,” Freddie said heavily. “I mean, the money is important to him. Sir Titus isn't the kind of man who would tolerate being poor. But it's more than that. It's about his pride. Imagine. People thought he was a hero. He'd found three dragon tombs, and he was still a young man. No one else had ever done that. The whole of good Society looked up to him. Then the truth came out. He'd stolen the locations of the tombs. He was disgraced. When he visited people, doors were shut in his face. There was even a warrant out for his arrest. He
needs
this tomb to restore his reputation and his pride. He'll do anything for it.”

It was just too much. We had nowhere else left to go and no way to escape the desert, and all because Sir Titus had hurt his
pride
. I didn't know what to do.

Something brushed against my face. I frowned, then shook my head. The heat was getting to me. I was imagining things.

“Edward?” Olivia said. “What's wrong?”

There it was again. The air against my dry face had felt damp.

My stomach leaped inside me. “There's water ahead,” I said. I was sure I was right.

“Water?” Olivia said. She threw a worried glance at Freddie. “Edward…”

“Yes,” I said. “Can't you feel it?” Now that I knew it was there, it was easy to feel.

Freddie broke into a grin. “A canal!”

“A canal?” Olivia said. “In the desert?”

“Of course! I was hoping we'd find one. The Ancient Martian Empire built canals across the planet, joining their cities. The native Martians still use them to cross the desert. If we can build some kind of craft, we can sail to one of their supply posts. We'll have plenty of water.”

I looked down at Putty. She was pale and thin on the stretcher. I didn't think she would last long enough to reach help, but what choice did we have? There was nothing else out here.

We hurried down the slope, toward the hidden canal. But we'd only gone a dozen paces when Freddie looked back and his face dropped.

“We're too late,” he whispered.

I followed his gaze. The hunter tripods had appeared at the top of the slope. They were only fifty yards away, and they'd heard us. They sprang into motion, charging down the incline, their long arms cutting through the air.

“Run!” Freddie shouted.

We plunged through the grass. Thick stalks whipped against my arms and face. I ducked my head and kept running. Grass crunched as the machines' metal legs cut the distance. Hot, dusty air burned in my throat. All the coolness I'd felt a moment ago had gone. My legs were weak. My knees wanted to give way. The only thing that stopped me from simply falling was knowing that Putty would drop to the earth, helpless.

The ground dipped again, and I spotted the canal. It divided the grasslands from the desert beyond. It curved into sight from the left, emerging from behind a jutting ridge of rock.

It was too far away. The hunter tripods were too close. Their metal feet thumped the hard ground, and I heard the stalks of grass being smashed aside. We half ran, half tumbled down the slope toward the canal. Putty bounced violently on her stretcher. If she hadn't been strapped on, she'd have been thrown to the ground.

Olivia raced ahead of the rest of us. She scrambled and leaped down the slope. Her elegant boots, which had become torn and ragged during the hike, spun from her feet. But these last few days had changed my sister. She kept running, her soft feet scraping on the rough earth.

Dislodged stones rattled down onto me from behind. I ducked. A metal arm snapped past my head. I lost my footing and the stretcher knocked into Freddie. He tripped and lunged face forward down the slope.

BOOK: Secrets of the Dragon Tomb
5.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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