“I’d say this is impossible,” I managed after a solid thirty seconds of staring through the darkness at the sand that surrounded us, “but after the past few months, I’m pretty sure that phrase has become utterly meaningless.” Sighing then, I dug my phone out of my pocket. “Hold on, I’ll call… nobody, apparently. I’ve got no bars. You?” She looked, but shook her head. “Right, guess we’re using the SOS then.”
“It’s not going to work,” Shiori’s voice was quiet, but full of dread. “We’re too far away from them.”
I shook my head at that. “What? No, the emergency signal works from everywhere on the planet.”
“Flick,” she replied weakly, “look at the moon.”
Unsure of where she was going with that, I looked up and found it. Wow, it was big. “Whoa. Wow. Okay, yeah, that’s a big moon. I guess we’re far enough away from pollution and stuff that–”
“Not that moon,” she interrupted, moving her hand over to turn my head ninety degrees. “That moon.”
I gaped, and I’m pretty sure a whine that sounded like a terrified puppy escaped me. For a few seconds, I could do nothing but stare open-mouthed at the beautiful, yet terrifying sight. There was a second moon in the sky. This one was more of a blue color, with a silver ring around it. There was no mistaking it. Shiori was right. There were two moons in the sky. Which meant… “We’re not on Earth.”
Not on Earth. Even as the words escaped me, I couldn’t believe that I was serious. Three months ago, I had been working my ordinary job at the theater, getting ready to go back to school while planning out the bust that put my own boss away for dealing drugs. Okay, so not perfectly normal. But my life had at least been rather firmly set in the ordinary world. Now? Now I was standing somewhere that had two moons. Two. Moons. I wasn’t just part of another world metaphorically at this point, I was literally standing on another world. A world different from the one that I’d been born on. Neil Armstrong was a national hero because he’d walked on the moon. We were… a hell of a lot further away than that.
Shiori’s quiet voice spoke up again, the awe in it matching what I felt. “We’re not on Earth any more.”
The two of us continued to stare at that moon for over a minute, neither of us speaking. We just stared, until I slowly lowered my gaze to the sand beneath our feet. Gradually, I sank down to my knees, pushing my hand into that sand. Turning my hand over, I brought it out with some of the sand cupped into my palm before just staring at it. Sand. It was just sand. And yet it was so much more than that. It was sand from another world. Sand from some alien planet God knew how far away from Earth. Part of me was terrified, screaming in the back of my mind about how much danger we were in. But the larger, far louder part of me was utterly fascinated. And the tears that sprang to my eyes as I looked at that sand, that little part of an alien world, weren’t tears of fear or worry. They weren’t tears of terror about what might happen. No. They were tears of joy. The wonder that I felt, the sheer elation that came from the thought that I was kneeling in the sand of an alien world was stronger than any fear.
I should have been afraid. But right then, all I could do was bring the sand to my face. It felt like any other sand, and made me sneeze when I inhaled some. But I didn’t care. The sneeze was followed by a laugh. I actually laughed out loud, even as tears continued to fall. It probably made me look hysterical or something, but I didn’t care. Why should I care how silly I looked? We were on another world!
Shiori had joined me on her knees, her own hands buried in the sand. She pulled them out, gazing at the sand in her palms as well with a look that was probably similar to my own. When she spoke, the awe in her voice was even more apparent. “Flick, is this real? Are we… I mean, are we on another planet?”
Blinking a few times to clear the dampness out of my eyes, I nodded slowly, my voice weak. “Uh huh. W-we have to be. Look at the sky. There’s no other explanation. We… we’re on another world.” Just saying it out loud, no matter how many times it came, made me want to scream. What kind of scream? Joy, terror, elation? All of the above and more. The emotion I felt was as confusing as it was overwhelming. I was happy, but I was also afraid. I was ecstatic, but I was also worried and confused.
Letting the alien sand seep back through my spread open fingers, I watched it drift to the ground like any other sand. Whatever else happened, whoever or whatever had brought us here, they had shown me at least one thing. I needed to join the Explorer track at least for a little while. Yes, I had always wanted to be an investigative reporter, and being in the Investigation track was still the best way to see that through. But this feeling I had right now while I was kneeling in the sand of another planet, that was something I’d never, ever felt before. The pure joy was almost overwhelming. The thrill of discovery, of being somewhere completely new, I’d never really thought that much about how it would feel.
Swallowing, I continued in a quiet voice while continuing to suppress that urge to scream out loud. “I don’t know how we got here, or who brought us, but yeah. We are definitely not on Earth anymore.”
Shiori’s head snapped in my direction then, her awe replaced with panic. “What if they heard us? What if the teachers overheard what we were talking about and now they’re getting rid of us? What if they—”
I put both hands up to stop her. “Shiori, wait. Just stop. I don’t think so. I mean, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t want to hold hands and sing Kumbaya if they did hear what we were saying, but think about it. Do you really think their reaction to hearing that would be to send us away? I’m still figuring this stuff out, but I’m fairly confident that ‘teleport the enemy away’ isn’t high up in the Heretic playbook.”
There was, of course, what they’d apparently done to try to keep Fossor off of Earth (not that it had actually worked), but I was under the impression that that had been less Plan A and more Plan Z.
“But if it wasn’t them,” Shiori objected, “then who was it? Where are we? How did we get here?”
“Well,” I pointed at myself, then at her. “I don’t know, and you don’t know. So asking each other is pretty pointless. We need more information, and we can’t call home to get it. And the SOS signal–”
“Doesn’t work on other worlds,” the other girl confirmed quietly. “Aylen’s in the Explorer track. She talked a lot about all the special gear they need to communicate back and forth from other worlds.”
Wincing inwardly, I forced down the urge to panic. Shiori was already close to freaking out. Me losing my cool wouldn’t accomplish anything. “Right. If we can’t depend on anyone finding us, I guess the only way to get out of here is by getting more information. Only way to do that is by looking around.”
Shiori turned in a circle, then took in a long breath before letting it out. I saw her shaking hands gradually settle as she forced herself to calm down. “Okay. I… I wish Aylen was here though.” Glancing toward me, she explained, “Sovereign can let her see what he sees when he’s flying.”
Grimacing, I nodded. “You’re right, that would’ve been pretty useful. As it is…” I turned around, looking one way, then another. “I think we just have to pick a direction and hope it leads somewhere.”
“What if it’s the wrong way?” the other girl pointed out with a doubtful look. “And what happened to whoever… or whatever brought us here in the first place? This didn’t just happen for no reason.”
“You’re right,” I agreed. “Someone brought us here for a reason. But I don’t see them here, and we don’t know if they’re friendly or not. Our best move is to get more information. To do that, we have to move away from here. Look, it’s dark right now, which means it’s probably going to get really cold, really fast. We need to figure out what’s going on before we sit out here in the desert and freeze to death.”
It was good reasoning, and I tried to convince myself that my choice to start moving was all about that and had nothing to do with how badly I really wanted to explore this place. Frightened as I was, as worried about how we’d gotten here and what was going on as I still felt, this was an alien world. I wanted to look around and find out everything about this place, especially if there was an actual civilization. I wanted to know what had brought us here, but I also wanted to know more about ‘here’ itself. Maybe that was crazy. Maybe I was being really stupid. But I couldn’t help it. I was curious.
“And if we pick the wrong way?” Shiori pressed. “What if we go that way, but it’s three thousand miles to anything that might help us, but if we went that way, it’s only two miles? How do we choose?”
It was a good question. I frowned, looking around for any sign of light in the darkness. The air was already getting chilly, and I knew we needed to pick a direction and get moving. But the other girl was right. How should we choose which way to go when there weren’t any obvious markers or signs? Salvation and rescue could be a twenty minute walk away, or weeks of walking until we died.
“Okay,” I started after thinking about it for a minute. “Those moons are bright enough that we can see pretty well. I think if we set up some kind of beacon or something with the enchantments that we–”
“Shh,” Shiori interrupted, putting a hand up to stop me as her head turned a bit to the side. Her voice dropped to a barely audible whisper as she stared intently off into the shadows. “Don’t you hear that?”
I listened, but shook my head silently after a few more seconds. I couldn’t hear anything out there.
She glanced at me before making a face as she tried to explain in a quiet voice. “It’s like a whirring noise, almost like a fan or something. But it’s moving. It’s coming closer.” She pointed. “Right the–”
That was as far as she got before the girl abruptly caught my arm and yanked me out of the way with a cry of warning. The two of us went tumbling over one another while something shot through the air right where we had been, coming so fast that I never would have been able to dodge it on my own.
Now I could hear what she meant. The ‘fan’ noise was probably the best way to describe the sound. As for what it looked like, the best way I could describe it was a tornado made of sand that was horizontal rather than vertical. It was sand, completely separate from the ground beneath it, whirling in an angry sideways funnel cloud that shot into the area where the two of us had been a second earlier.
Picking myself up from where Shiori had dragged me out of the way, I stared at the thing as my stranger-sense began to scream at me. So this wasn’t just an attack or some kind of weapon, it was a Stranger itself?
The thing, whatever or whoever it was, took a second to orient back on us before shooting forward again. That whirring fan noise was even louder and more violent. I still had no idea what the thing was, but its intentions were clear. As fast as the thing was spinning, the sand would probably rip the flesh off our bones if we gave it a chance to hit either of us. At the very least, it would do a lot of damage.
This time, however, I was ready. My staff came right out of the canister on my belt, and I pointed at the incoming sand cloud while charging it up. An instant before the sand tornado would have struck us, I triggered the kinetic blast. It tore into the tornado, sending pieces of it flying in every direction.
“Okay,” I started. “I think that–” Before I got any more words out, the sand tornado reformed, pulling itself together. I was pretty sure it was spinning even more angrily at that point. But rather than shoot toward us again, the thing spun faster and faster, gathering more sand into itself before a distinct shape began to form. Even as I charged the staff again, the form became less tornado and more… creature.
After another second or two of that, the tornado of sand was gone, and a living, flesh and blood (I was assuming on that part) being was standing there. It was only about four feet tall, and looked sort of like a sickly yellow-red goblin with four arms instead of two. Its face looked like rough leather, with wide, incredibly intense amber and obsidian eyes that looked like they belonged to an owl. A very angry owl.
Before any of us could say anything, the goblin-creature, whatever it was, opened its mouth and howled like a wolf. The almost painfully loud howl echoed out over the desert. And a moment later, there was a return howl. Then another, and another. Six, seven, eight howls replied to the first.
I swear the damn goblin-sand-thing smiled at us then. It had called in reinforcements, and they were on their way. Worse, the howls had been coming from every direction, so there was no best way to run.
“Son of a bitch,” I muttered under my breath before glancing toward Shiori. The other girl already had those discs of hers in both hands, which were also now covered by the gloves that were part of her weapon set. She looked nervous, but still ready as I met her gaze. “We can do this,” I assured her. I hit the button to charge my staff before starting to spin it to build it up faster.
Shiori nodded, flipping the discs in her hands once. “We can do this.” There was obvious nervousness in her voice, a clear sense of fear. But there was also certainty. She was afraid, but she was also ready.
Which was a good thing, since three more of those sand-tornados shot into view, joining the first as they shifted into their goblin-state. Together, the four of them gave a combined, almost deafening howl to the rest of their incoming pack, tribe, or whatever they were. Then they attacked together, springing straight at us. In mid-leap, they shifted back into their tornado-forms, shooting in our direction.
Shiori moved first. Taking a quick step forward, the Asian girl threw both of her discs. They shot out, whistling as they flew through the air. Just as they crossed into the path of the two funnel clouds that were furthest apart, Shiori held her gloved hands out. A line of electricity shot out of the crystals in the palms of both gloves, toward the flying discs. At the same time, more electricity shot from the discs to one another and back to the gloves, forming three separate arc lines that all crackled with power, capturing all four of the sand-tornados in at least one arc. The discs landed somewhere in the sand, but the damage was still being done. The tornados shifted form back into goblins, howling as they twisted and writhed.
Behind us, more of the sand-goblins had arrived. They gave a scream of rage at the sight of what was happening, and began to launch themselves our way.
But I was ready by that point. Pointing my staff at the ground, I expended enough power to shoot myself straight up into the air. Flipping over at the apex of my arc, I looked down at the creatures beneath me, which had stopped their lunges to look up. The poor bastards were all clustered together.
“Hi, boys,” I called before starting to plummet. While falling, I brought the staff straight down in a hard swing. At the last second, I triggered the last of the charge I’d built up.
It was like a bomb going off. The concussive force blew not only through the gathered goblins, but through the sand itself. My vision went wild as sand went everywhere. I was falling, tumbling into a hole beneath blown-apart sand even as a rush of embarrassing euphoria filled me, that familiar gold glow illuminating the darkness. I landed hard on my side and made a noise that was half-pain and half-unbelievable pleasure. Landing hurt, but killing those Strangers still made me feel deliriously good.
I was just starting to recover as Shiori slid down into view. She was still wobbly, her skin just starting to fade from her own crimson glow. I wondered, briefly as I lay there in the hole I’d made, what the different glow colors meant, if anything. Mine was gold, Shiori’s was red, Avalon’s was green…
“Are you okay?” the other girl scrambled over to me, breathing hard.
I nodded faintly, picking myself up with a groan. “Are they dead? I…” I turned my head to look up, eyes widening. “Holy crap, that’s a big hole.” I hadn’t meant to make a crater this deep. The slope went up a good twenty feet to the top. Though it was angled, I’d tumbled all the way down, slipping and sliding end over end. No wonder I felt dizzy. “Whoops.”
“They’re dead,” Shiori informed me, pointing the other way. “But look.”
I turned, blinking at the sight in front of us. There was a building there, clear as day. It was obviously made of some kind of chiseled stone, and had been buried in the sand until my overcharged kinetic blast had blown part of it away, leaving this massive hole and half of the building’s entrance uncovered.
“Look,” the other girl added a bit breathlessly. “Just beside the entrance. It’s a… statue?”
She was right. There was a large statue of some kind just beside the building entrance. Most of it was covered by more sand, but there was enough exposed to tell that it was a deliberate figure of some kind.
I felt something then, a connection to the sand around us. An urge. Slowly lifting my hand, I pointed at the half-buried statue and concentrated on what I wanted. I felt my own will reach out, a foreign sensation that almost made me stop. Yet something kept me focused. I forced my will into that sand… and moved it.
That was all it took. I pointed and thought about it, and the sand tore away from the building, exposing the rest of the entrance, as well as the statue beside it. That all by itself, moving the sand just by willing it to move, should have been my last surprise for the day. It wasn’t.
“That looks like a human,” Shiori breathed, staring as it was revealed.
She was right. A statue of a figure was standing there, weapons raised against an unseen incoming threat. It was a protective statue, I realized a second later. The kind of statue that you give to a hero, a champion.
“That’s not just a human,” I said quietly, staring at the uncovered stone figure that had been buried in the sand on this alien world.
“That’s my mother.”