“AAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!” I screamed out loud a few minutes later.
Beside me, Shiori provided her own enthusiastic agreement. “AAAAAAAAAHHHHH!”
The two of us yelled out loud in concert as the giant boulder posing as our vehicle went flying over the next sand dune and into the air. The boulder spun wildly, though our own view remained solidly forward. With our joined screams echoing in our ears, we flew a good fifty feet before the boulder came down once more to hit the ground. The impact sent a shower of sand spraying in every direction.
And yet, we weren’t injured. Whatever technology kept the inner part of the orb separate from the actual boulder also protected us from the force of impact. We still had enough sense of motion and g-forces to know they were there, but considering how wild the ride had been I was pretty sure that if we hadn’t had some kind of protection, we both would have thrown up our entire insides. It was insane.
Working together, the two of us each pushed one of the pedals (themselves big enough for both of our feet to fit into) backward. The Elvis’s forward momentum was arrested almost immediately, and we started to roll backwards for a second before lifting our feet up once more so that it rolled to a stop.
A second later, the sound of Purin’s urgent voice came from near the top of the boulder where I saw a few dotted holes indicating a speaker of some kind. “Is the Friends-Flick and Shiori not being well?”
“We… we…” I started, trying to get my breath under control while looking toward the other girl.
Shiori was panting as well, staring back at me with wide eyes. “Oh god. That was… that was… so….”
Together in perfect unison, we both blurted out as one, our voices filling the Elvis. “Awesome!”
“I know, right?” I started again, laughing with exhilaration. “We were like, ‘whooo’ and you were like ‘aaahhh’ and I was like, ‘eeeeeeh’ and then whoosh and oh my god, oh my god, how is there not a Six Flags here already?” My babbling was matched only by Shiori’s as she rambled right back at me.
We were basically talking over each other, yet still following everything the other person said. I’d finish a sentence, then go back and respond to something she’d said before returning to my previous thought, then jump back to what she’d said a moment later. Meanwhile, she did the same thing. It probably sounded like complete gibberish to anyone else (including poor Purin), but we carried on like that for a solid minute or two, complete with sound effects and a probably unhealthy amount of giggling.
Finally, I got myself under control enough to clear my throat. “I mean, uhh, we’re fine down here now, Purin, sir. We’re just great, just uhh…” I coughed. “Putting your machine through a few stress tests. You know, getting the hang of the controls and maneuverability. It’s important to understand how the G-Forces might negatively impact the performance of, uhh, science word, science word, science word.”
Beside me, Shiori squinted, a smile threatening her serious expression. “You realize you didn’t actually say anything scientific, right? You literally just said ‘science word, science word, science word’.”
Leaning closer (which basically put our heads side by side, I stage-whispered, “D’ya think he noticed?”
“I am been noticed,” Purin confirmed over the Elvis’s communication unit. I could see his boulder parked about a dozen yards away, resting just a little up the next dune. “I am being glad that Friends-Shiori and Flick are been enjoyed their K’lecnahn testing. Are you being sure of it controlling?”
With a quick glance toward the other girl, I nodded. “I think we’ve got it, yeah. Thanks for indulging us.” We knew it was important to get to this enemy encampment as soon as possible. Every minute counted, but we’d had to be sure that we could control this thing before we actually got underway.
“Tunnel is being good now,” the Meregan advised. “Then we will not being seen from explorers.”
“Right, not letting any of this Nicholas Petan guy’s scouts spot us is probably a really good idea.”
The tunneling ability of the Elvis was something we hadn’t actually tested. I wasn’t sure how it worked exactly, but Purin began to talk us through it. “Both be squeezing handles and pulling back. When light in K’lecnahn is being blue, it is being still uncovered. When light in K’lecnahn is being yellow, it is being all covered by ground and fully hiding. Stopping squeezing and pulling handle to be make K’lecnahn stop diving and be staying where it is. Be squeezing and pushing handle in to be rising.”
Shiori was nodding. “Squeeze and pull to go down, stop when the light turns yellow, squeeze and push to go up. It’s sort of like a submarine or something. Only under the sand. Which is weird. And cool.”
“So very, very cool,” I agreed. It was easy like this, easy to focus on the fun and interesting stuff. But the thought of what we were going to find once we actually got out there was still kind of terrifying. There was a Heretic who had not only made himself an army out of all different Alters, but he was also probably about a billion times stronger than we were. How were we supposed to fight him if we were wrong about him moving on and he was actually there? What could two first-semester kids do, exactly?
Shutting that aside rather forcibly, I looked toward Shiori. “All right, ready to try out this subsilican?”
“Subsilican…” Shiori echoed with obvious amusement before nodding. “I’m ready. Let’s dive.”
“I will being dive first,” Purin advised. “K’lecnahn will being make tunnel through sand that will be staying for minutes before it will being fall. You will being follow behind through same tunnel. That is been easier and you will being only have to stop when I am been stop. I will being direct you to go.”
Both of us agreed, and then watched as Purin’s Elvis rolled directly in front of us. A moment later, the boulder started to roll in place, not actually going anywhere. It just spun faster and faster for a few seconds before gradually sinking into the ground. As we watched, the giant stone vehicle dug its way under the sand until it had completely disappeared from sight, leaving behind a hole that was quickly covered by more sand that fell in over top of it, leaving the other boulder completely hidden from view.
“Well,” I shrugged. “Here goes nothing.” Closing my hand around the handle, I squeezed. It… stayed in place. Flushing, I put both hands up on it. “Okay, jeeze, this thing doesn’t wanna move, apparently.” It took genuine effort from both hands for me to actually fully squeeze the handle and pull it back.
The other girl, meanwhile, looked at me for a moment before reaching up to squeeze her own handle with a single hand, completely at ease. It obviously didn’t take much effort at all. “Huh, that’s not hard.”
Coughing at that, I nudged her with my hip. “I think we just figured out what one of those Alters gave you. Probably the orc thing, if I was gonna guess. I dunno, just seems like that’s where it’d come from.”
Together, Shiori and I squeezed the handles and pulled them back. Our own Elvis started to spin around us, and it slowly sank down through the sand. Blue lights come to life around the edges of the monitor as the sand rose around us. We were sinking straight down in this boulder that suddenly felt smaller.
Finally, the lights around the monitors turned yellow, and we stopped pulling the handles, letting them return to their normal position. Above, I pictured the sand falling into place, covering us entirely. We were underground. It was about as close to actually being buried alive in a grave as I ever wanted to be.
“All right,” I announced a second later, feeling like my voice was louder than it should be. “Let’s do this.” Slowly, the two of us started to push the pedals down and forward, just a little bit to start out.
Rather than immediately rolling forward, I saw what looked like a collection of tiny dots of laser light shoot out through the sand in front of us. There were six of them. Six little dots of energy that started in the middle, then grew while spreading apart to create a hole directly in front of us. They held the sand out of the way, essentially creating a forcefield that revealed Purin’s boulder waiting a few feet away.
As soon as we had revealed him, Purin’s voice came over the radio. Or whatever it was. “That is being good now. We move, you will be following. It is being a long trip, over three nipuns before arriving.”
“Nipuns?” Shiori echoed, frowning slightly in thought. “How long do you think that is in Earth hours?”
“Let’s find out,” I suggested. “Purin, what we call one full day is one rotation, one light and dark cycle. It takes twenty-four of what we call hours to get all the way through. It takes sixty of what we call minutes to reach one of those twenty-four hours, and sixty of what we call seconds to reach one of those minutes. A second is this long. One second, two seconds, three seconds. How many of our seconds like that, one second, two second, three seconds, would it take to make one nipun?”
It took the big man a few seconds to respond as he worked all of that out in his head before answering, “Ninety of your seconds would be making one of our tinel. Thirty tinel would be making one nipun.”
I thought that through briefly. “Okay, ninety seconds is a minute and a half. Each of their tinels are a minute and a half long, and it takes thirty tinels to make one nipun. So ninety times thirty, which is… oh, duh, twenty-seven hundred. Two thousand, seven hundred seconds in one nipun. Divide that by sixty and it’s… hold on…” It took me a few seconds to work that out in my head. “Sixty goes into two thousand seven hundred… forty-five times? Yeah, forty-five. So one nipun is forty-five minutes. Three would be around two hours and fifteen minutes. Right, guess we better get settled into for a long ride.”
“Company’s not bad though,” Shiori offered, her voice a little shy as she glanced at me from the side.
I nodded in firm agreement. “Absolutely. Not bad at all. All right, Purin, let’s head out. We’re right behind you.”
As the boulder ahead of us began to roll, we applied pressure to the pedals, pushing them down and forward, gradually picking up speed to keep up with the Meregan. I could see the little laser forcefield thing of his Elvis packing away the sand, but ours just followed in his wake. Behind us, I could see in the second monitor, the sand stayed in place until we were past it, then collapsed a second later.
We’d been rolling along for a few minutes in pleasant, comfortable silence, both of us lost in our own thoughts. Then Shiori spoke up. “So what do you think we picked up from those Strangers, besides the strength from the orc?” When I glanced to her, she blanched a little. “Err, I mean Alters.” Then she blanched even more a second later. “Wait, we probably shouldn’t use that term back at school, right?”
“Right,” I nodded. “I’m pretty sure calling them Alters in front of people at Crossroads would be bad.”
Swallowing hard, Shiori fell silent for a moment. When she spoke up, her voice was quiet. “It feels morbid to talk about ‘ooh, what kind of powers did we get from those living beings we killed.’ Yeah, they tried to kill us, they obviously weren’t on our side or innocent or anything. It was totally self-defense. But still, they were… alive, and now part of them is with us. We basically Highlandered them.”
“I know what you mean,” I agreed. “A few months ago, I couldn’t stand to stomp on a mouse in the theater I was working at. Now I’m… just… killing these things. Yeah, they’re attacking me first, but still. It makes me wonder if there’s something else in the Heretical Edge. Something that makes us less resistant to killing. I mean, the power comes from the blood of a Hangman right? They’re obsessed with death. So wouldn’t it make sense that if we combine them with our own genetics, we’d get some of their… affinity for killing and all that? They feed off it, they seek it out. I’m pretty sure there’s something in there that explains why we’re not as freaked out about the killing thing as we should be.”
We fell silent for a few seconds, both of us thinking about what that meant. The idea made me shiver, and I wondered what other alterations it might have made to my mind and instincts or those of my friends, or the rest of the Heretics. Maybe all of that had something to do with why it was so hard for them to believe that not all Alters were evil. Maybe accepting that ran against that genetic programming. The thought made me feel a little sick to my stomach, though I realized that the programming, if that’s what it was, couldn’t be completely unbreakable. After all, my team and I had moved past it. Even Sands, for the most part, was getting the idea. So if there was anything to this theory, it wasn’t so much programming and mind control as something like… mind nudging, maybe?
Shaking that off, I changed the subject. “Anyway, besides your strength, I’m not sure what else we picked up. I feel like I can move more sand than I could before, and I’ve got a little more control. That’s obviously the sand-goblins—err.” I addressed the tiny holes where the speaker was. “Hey, Purin? What are those Alters we fought called? The little ones that turn into sand and fly around a lot.”
“They are been known as Harabeold, Friend-Flick,” the big guy replied easily. “They are been pests.”
“Harabeold,” I echoed, sounding it out. “I guess pest is a pretty apt name for them too.” At least now we knew what they were actually called instead of just relying on the name sand-goblin. “What about that ugly guy that was made of wood? What are those things called, Ents or Dryads or something?”
“We have not been hear of these Ents or Dryads,” our Meregan responded slowly. “This ‘wood man’ you fought is being called Relukun. More than one together are being called Relukae.”
“Relukun and Relukae, got it.” I nodded before looking back to the girl beside me. “Guess we’ll find out what sort of gifts they give eventually. Kinda hard to test them out in here. But in the meantime,” I added slowly, “we should pass the time by playing a game. I spy with my little eye, something…”
“Is it sand?” Shiori asked dryly, one eyebrow raised rather pointedly while a smile played at her lips.
“… we should probably play a different game,” I conceded before giggling slightly in spite of myself.
Shiori just smiled. “I’ve got a better idea. Why don’t you umm, tell me about you? I mean, we already talked a lot about my… situation, and your thing with your mom and all that. But tell me about you. You know, what you like where you’ve gone on vacation, what’s your favorite food, your favorite movie, all that stuff. Tell me everything about Flick.”
I coughed at that, flushing slightly. “That might take awhile.”
Her response was a shrug. “Like the guy said, we’ve got three nipuns before we get there.
“Might as well spend it listening to something interesting.”
A couple hours later, the Elvis we were in opened up to let us climb out. Purin had parked us near the base of a massive hill that was supposed to overlook the encampment where Nicholas Petan’s army had been the last time the Meregan were awake.
“It is being a few nens away,” Purin warned as we hiked up the hill. He was holding out what looked like a pair of binoculars to us that were so big we could each have used one of the lenses like one of those old pirate spyglasses. “You will be need using this to see Enemy-Nicholas Petan’s camp.”
“Uhh,” Shiori announced a second later from her spot a few feet ahead. “I really don’t think we will.”
Purin turned his attention that way before freezing, and I took a couple more steps to see over the top at what they were looking at.
We were indeed far above where the enemy camp should have been. But there was no camp down there. Instead, there was an entire city. Massive sandstone walls surrounded the place, rising what had to be at least sixty feet up, with manned guard towers every fifty feet. As high as we were, I could see into the city itself. There were buildings everywhere, even roads. I saw what looked like a market of some kind toward the front, and in the middle there was a massive fortified tower that stood at least two hundred feet tall. From the looks of it, the tower itself was bristling with weaponry.
“They’ve… uhh, improved their camp,” I finally managed to say, rather dumbly.
“No way they’re going to be able to break in there to save the kids,” Shiori responded, her own voice sounding weak.
I was quiet for a minute, looking toward Purin, who looked stricken at the thought that his people wouldn’t be able to save their children. Finally, I cleared my throat. “So we get help. We don’t fight them directly. Purin, can your people distract the army those guys can send out? You don’t have to win, you just have to keep them busy. Make them chase you.”
“We can be doing this,” he agreed slowly. “But Friends-Flick and Shiori cannot be finding Meregan children all by themselves in such a place. It is being too dangerous.”
“You’re right,” I agreed. “But your teleportation thing, the emergency beacon. It pulled us off our own world. Could it do the same thing for others?”
“It could be doing,” he confirmed with an uncertain tone. “But why would we be doing that? Friend-Joselyn Atherby is still missing and not found.”
Nodding, though a slight flinch went through me at the reminder of my mother, I pushed on. “Nope, not my mom. I’ve got other reinforcements in mind.
“It’s time to bring in the rest of my team.”