Legend has it, Darkness is a stone that holds all the evil of a long-dead alien race. Jayden Pearce braved the Dark Forest that hid the stone for centuries. Not one for curses, he sold it to a private collector. But legend forgot about Light, the sister stone to Darkness and a key to untold rewards. Jayden Pearce forgot about it, too, until his old partner returns with an offer he can't refuse.
“Tell me it’s not true, uncle Saul.”
“I wish I could.” Saul Trubnick sighed and shook his head as he took a seat on the couch, slouching in defeat. His niece was pacing the room in a short pattern that promised to wear a rut into the rare wood floor if she didn’t stop soon. Her short turns and angry stomping adding to the stress he was already feeling. Next to him, sitting in a chair looking pensive and angry, was her brother. He wasn’t pacing, but Saul didn’t think his nephew realized he was tapping the arm of the chair in a nervous, rapid pattern nearly in step with his sister’s stride.
“Chloe, would you please just sit down? We’re all aggravated enough as it is.” David looked at his uncle. “Do we have any recourse at all? The courts? There must be something we can do.”
Saul shook his head slowly back and forth, keeping his gaze on a knot in the wood slats his niece was trying so hard to wear down. “I checked every option, legal and otherwise. Your father really stepped in it this time, I’m afraid.”
“He stepped in it for all of us!” Chloe snapped. She stopped pacing and stared at her brother, then her uncle. “So what do we do?”
Saul pursed his lips and looked at his hands, mentally working out the best approach to what really had no good way to be approached. He could see nothing positive in what little he had to offer them for hope, but it was all he had. It was a chance, at least, regardless of how slim it seemed.
“What is it, Saul?” David asked. “What did he say?”
“You’re not going to like it,” he admitted.
Chloe pressed her hands on her hips, her knuckles digging in to what little padding there was between bone and skin. “What? Is there a chance? Can we get our land back or not?”
Saul held up his hands. “All right, just have a seat, would you? Let’s all just relax and take a breath and I’ll try to explain.”
“Yes, Chloe, for the love of God, sit down.” David pushed a chair with his foot. “This isn’t the first time dad lost the deed in a game.”
Chloe tugged at the seat, pulling it a few inches further away from her brother before sitting down, arms crossed. “But it’s the first time we haven’t been able to get it back.”
Saul took a long, deep breath and rested his hands on his lap. “All right, I spoke with Resnick, and there is still a chance. He won’t sell us back the deed.”
“Of course not, he knows what it’s worth,” Chloe replied.
“Yes, he does,” Saul agreed. “He knows exactly what six hundred thousand square miles of the southern continent are worth, and he has every intention of making that land work for him.” He rubbed his forehead. “But it’s not the land he wants, it’s something else.”
“Like what?” David asked, sitting forward. “How can he not want the land? Resnick is a baron, it would double his stake on this planet.”
“He’s no baron, he’s a mobster,” Chloe replied. “His tenants pay slave’s wages for their land. He’s rewritten Galactic Union law for the cities on his property and no one does a thing to stop him.”
“Yes, yes, but that’s beside the point right now,” Saul replied. “What he wants is even more valuable, at least to him, but I’m afraid it will prove impossible to -- ” He took a breath and tried another angle. “Resnick wants a gemstone, a vary rare and possibly non-existent gemstone, and in order to get it, he’s offered up the deed to your father’s land to anyone who can find and bring him this gemstone.” He sat back against the couch cushions, dismayed by how much more ridiculous it sounded coming from his lips as it had coming from Resnick’s.
“A gemstone?” Chloe unfolded her arms and gestured wildly in the air. “I have a hundred gemstones in my room. It can’t possibly be as simple as that.”
“No, it isn’t,” Saul agreed. He looked up, bracing himself for the inevitable. “Resnick wants the Darkness stone.”
It was David who laughed, surprising Saul for a moment.
“Darkness? Resnick wants the Darkness stone?” David shook his head, his laughter filled with disgust and irony in place of humor. With a slap of both hands on the arms of the chair, he stood and took up the pacing his sister had been coaxed out of. “Everyone knows Darkness is a myth!”
“It’s a legend,” Chloe corrected. “Not necessarily a myth.” She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees as she ignored her brother and looked to Saul. “Is he serious? He’d hand over the deed if we could find that stone for him?”
Saul nodded. “To you, or anyone. He’s opened up this challenge to any and all interested parties. Darkness for that deed.” Saul glanced at his nephew, who’d stopped pacing only long enough to change direction. “One fabled gemstone, for a quarter of the southern hemisphere.”
“And an open cattle call to all the treasure hunters of the galaxy to beat us there?” David finally stopped pacing. “Did he at least limit the offer to this planet only?”
“Well, no, not so far as I can tell,” Saul replied. “But it stands to reason only those on this world will have a chance. It’s not something you announce if you’re in the race yourself. And Resnick’s in no hurry. While we all run around the dark continent searching for a tiny little black stone that might not even exist, he’s got your father’s land. He can govern the cities, change the laws, develop the Churling Forests, whatever he’d like. There’s more profit to be made on that land than even we can fathom.”
“So the sooner we find this stupid thing, the sooner we get our land back.” Chloe stood and looked at her brother. “We shouldn’t just stand here and waste time, then. What do we do?” She turned to Saul. “Do we even know where to start? Legend has it the Darkness gemstone is on the dark continent, but that’s a massive swath of unexplored land.”
Saul stood and walked to the table in the center of the room. He pulled a map from his back pocket and spread it out as his niece and nephew came closer. The spark was there, tingling in the back of his gut. The tiny rush of excitement and smell of adventure permeating his senses as the smell of the old worn leather map hit his nose.
He cleared his throat, trying to hide his rising excitement and remain objective and grounded. “According to legend, the dark continent of this planet was central to the religion and culture of the extinct native species that once inhabited this planet. They’ve found more ruins and evidence of the aliens there than anywhere else on this massive world.” He pointed to the land mass in question, furthest north on the map. It was a small mass in comparison to the entire Jupiter-class planet, but one of few with settlements large enough to call cities.
“Now, Ember City is here, on the coast, where none of the artifacts were found.” Saul planted a finger on the map, then pushed upward. “The jungles begin a few thousand miles this way, and then over here, the canopy creates an entirely new sky when looking up from below.”
The map didn’t give justice to the sight Saul had witnessed only a few times himself. Trees that grew so tall and thick, their branches intertwined, forming a canopy above so solid, even radar and biometric sensors had trouble penetrating. From below, the sky was blackness, even at high noon when the blazing sun was bathing Ember City in temperatures in excess of eighty degrees on the Fahrenheit scale.
Beneath the forested canopy was a jungle, sweaty and dank, filled with swamps and unpredictable rivers prone to changing their path in the middle of a season. Roots grew above the sandy ground as often as beneath, making any trek a treacherous venture.
“Now, the largest of the ruins are here, in the center of the Dark Forest,” Saul tapped the leather map. “Archeologists have explored about a third of them, they estimate. Partly because of the sheer number of ancient buildings and catacombs, but partly because the buildings are just that -- catacombs. Men have been lost for months in the mazes, many of which travel deep under ground.”
“You’re painting a lovely picture here, Saul,” David said. “But I think we all knew this gemstone wouldn’t exactly be mounted and dangling around a high society lady’s neck. Just how in the hell are we supposed to find it in there?”
“By dissecting the legend, of course,” Chloe replied for her uncle. She leaned over the map and touched the dark northern continent with a finger. “Now, what I’ve heard was that this stone – Darkness -- is a black Utopian diamond, darker and deeper black than any other. And the story says the aliens who once called this world home worshipped it, and kept it in a temple somewhere here in the Dark Forest.”
“Oh, well, there you go,” David replied. “It’s in a temple.” He gestured toward the map. “In one of a thousand temples, only ten of which have even been touched by archeologists in the past two hundred and eight years.” He threw his hands up, then crossed his arms and shook his head. “It should be easy, then.”
Chloe straightened. “Look, at least I’m trying, all right? Are we going to just sit around here and complain, or try and do something about this new level of hell our father saw fit to deal us?”
Saul looked up at his brother’s children. They both had their mother’s fire, dark eyes and black hair, and her athletic build, thank the gods. He’d worked hard on his own physic through the many years, fighting against the familial tendency toward sloth and debauchery that his brother had given in to without a struggle.