Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the origin of dragons posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might wish to use the previous chapter button above.
The world that lay below us was mostly barren. There were no above-ground oceans, and only a few lakes visible from orbit. The rest was dirt, weeds, sagebrush, and sand. It was like the entire place was made out of the American west. Planet Arizona. I would’ve said Planet Nevada, but honestly, I would’ve loved a planet full of Nevadas more than I could possibly describe.
Um, Tabbris piped up. That’s one of those thoughts that I’m supposed to ignore, right?
“That’s the place, huh?” Beside me on the bridge where we all were, Sands thankfully spared me from responding to that. She was staring at the image of the planet on the viewing screen. “That’s where Psycho McFuckface ran to.”
Haiden inclined his head, grunting slightly. “It’s not where he wanted to go, but it’s definitely where he landed. According to the scanners, the Bell is right…” He trailed off, reaching out to put his hand near one of the nearby consoles. As he did so, the holographic controls popped up, and he brushed his fingers through a couple of them. On screen, the view of the planet zoomed in a bit to one particular spot, close enough to make out more distinct and individual features. I could see what looked like some roads, and a city built along both sides of a massive canyon. There were pipes coming up out of the canyon, which I assumed were bringing water up from far below. That was probably why the town was there in the first place. I doubted this place had many settlements anywhere that wasn’t right next to the few bits of available water.
A few miles to the west of the canyon city, a glowing yellow outline showed where the Liberty Bell had been unceremoniously landed (or, more likely given the heavily tilted state of it, crashed). It was set almost three quarters onto its side, up against a large rock formation with a long trench behind the ship to show how it had come down further back before sliding to its current position. From all appearances, Isaac had a rough time getting the ship to the ground.
Unfortunately, not nearly rough enough unless the crash had somehow ended up killing him.
Jazz clearly had the same thought, because she quickly spoke up. “Is there a body in there?”
“No body, living or otherwise,” Larissa answered. She was looking at one of the other consoles, shaking her head before glancing back to the rest of us. “The ship does show some signs of tracks. It looks like he walked to the town there. From the look of things, he crashed yesterday.”
“Ignosce mihi.” Jokai, turning in the pilot’s seat, spoke up before quickly correcting himself. “Forgive to speaking. Box-talking. Box… talk?” He looked uncertain of himself, before trying again in his much quicker Latin, going off on a fairly long spiel while gesturing to the controls.
He says there’s some kind of message from the planet that’s being broadcast out to some communications satellites, Tabbris translated. And wants to know if he should play it in here.
“Yes,” Haiden answered immediately, while Larissa translated for the others. “Go ahead and play that message. Somehow I’m pretty sure it’s related to our lost little psychopath.”
I was pretty sure that the only bit of that Jokai actually followed was ‘yes’, but he definitely understood that much. Turning back to his controls, the chameleon-man (I really needed to find out what kind of Alter he was) hit a few holographic buttons before a familiar face appeared on the screen, replacing the image of the planet. A familiar very fucking punchable face, at that.
Jazz cursed, taking a step that way before Gordon caught her by the shoulder. “It’s just a recording.” His voice was still fairly calm, unsurprisingly. But there was an undercurrent of anger that even he couldn’t fully suppress. Clearly, the boy was raging just as much as the rest of us.
“Yeah, hi, Mr. Radueriel,” Isaac’s message started. Just the sound of his voice made me tense up, and I restrained the urge to growl. Behind me, Roxa and Gidget both failed to entirely suppress that same urge, while the boy went on over the undercurrent of their quiet snarling. “I bet you’re wondering why I’m not at the meeting point you sent me to so we could handle this in person. Or, you know, why I’m not talking to you in person. Well, funny story, all those instructions you sent me about how to make sure that this ship was free of any traps or sabotage? Yeah, turns out that was total bullshit. Or maybe my ex-teachers are just better at it than you are. Whatever, the point is, this ship is broke as fuck. I nearly killed myself getting this damn thing on the ground, and now everything is pretty much on fire. I’d point the camera toward the main communication system, but I’m pretty sure it fell out somewhere in the atmosphere. So, I’ve gotta use this backup piece of shit. I’m sure you can see where this message is coming from. And if not, just think of the biggest, most worthless asswipe of a planet in the galaxy. This place is full of rocks, dirt, and it’s got some kinda weird fucked up plant that’s like a cactus meets mutant giant venus flytrap, only the needles shoot out with these little vines like a goddamn grappling hook to drag you into the mouth. And if I have to narrow it down further than that, then fuck this entire universe, because if that fucking thing exists on more than one planet we should just set everything on fire and start over again. Because I say again, a giant venus flytrap that shoots grapple-spikes at you. Fuck this planet.”
Sounds like he’s had a pretty bad time on this place so far, I thought inwardly. It was a revelation that made me smile despite myself. I just wished that I could’ve seen whatever had happened.
Tabbris quickly piped up, sounding just as delighted by the possibility as I felt. Hey, if one of those things really hurt that jerk, can we find it and make it an honorary member of the team?
I was fully onboard with that plan, but before I could respond, the Isaac onscreen had managed to compose himself enough to continue. “The point is, you can figure out where I am. So if you really want all this info I’ve got, come get me. And remember our deal. You see this?” He held up his wrist, and I saw some weird tattoo-like symbol there. It looked sort of like a scythe, with an infinity loop encircling the handle. “It’s a deathtrigger. I’m sure you recognize it. From what I’ve heard, it’s usually put onto other people to make them follow orders. But I put this one on myself. See, if you or any other Seosten tries to possess me, all I have to do is think the command word. And you know what’s one thing you assholes can’t stop someone from doing?
“I know that the only reason I’m any use to you at all is because of what I know. And I also know that your first instinct is gonna be to just take me over and get everything out of my head just like that. But now, if you do try to possess me, I will think the command word and kill myself before you get a fucking thing. So just stick to our deal. You’ll get what you want, and I’ll get what I want. We’ll all get to be happy, I swear. Now come to this shithole planet and get me.”
The message concluded then, leaving silence in its wake. Silence that I broke by shrugging. “So, has that idiot just not considered the fact that they might just knock him out and undo the spell while he’s asleep, or…?”
Coughing, Haiden gave me a wink before gesturing. “Let’s just hope we get to him before they do, huh?”
Raising a hand, Jazz hesitated then before asking, “Uh, yeah, about that. How are we gonna get down to the planet? I mean, wasn’t the whole point of having to take portals up to the ship that it can’t land? And now we don’t have your smaller ship anymore.”
“First,” Larissa explained, “take these.” From her pocket, the woman produced a handful of small, three inch wide clip-on badges shaped like octagons with a couple runes embedded in them. The symbols looked like a pair of wings attached to a tornado-like spiral.
After we’d each taken one, with an extra for Gidget, Larissa continued. “These are the emergency exit spells we talked about. Put your hands on them and say, ‘Dorothy’, and they’ll bring you right back to this ship. Remember what we said, if anything goes wrong, you jump out just like that.”
“And as far as going down there goes,” Haiden put in simply, “we’ve got this.” The man snapped his fingers, and a small, wand-like stick about six inches long and an inch wide appeared in his hand. “Little portal-maker. Takes a lot of energy for this kind of distance, but between Dries and the two of us, we’ve been filling it up for the past couple days. How that guy has so much power for these spells, I don’t–” Cutting himself off, he just shrugged. “Point is, should be able to make a portal that lasts long enough to get down there, as long as you guys don’t dawdle too much. We make it, you go right through.”
There was a little more discussion about exactly what we were going to do. The basic idea was that Isaac would have stood out if he went into that city, so we’d go down and see if anyone had seen him or knew where he was. Meanwhile, Jokai and Dries would take this ship as close as possible to one of the solar system’s gas giants, just in case we ended up having any unwanted company. The ship wasn’t meant to get into combat, but it was shielded heavily enough to hang out really close to the gas giant, which should be enough to block any sensors from detecting it.
Then it was time to go. Haiden used the wand to draw a glowing green line on the floor. As he triggered it, the line expanded upward, creating a doorway that flickered and crackled with unstable energy.
“Go,” he ordered, gesturing to it. “It ain’t gonna last long, so get through fast.”
We moved. Larissa went first, followed by Roxa and Gidget. Then Sands followed. I went next, with Jazz and Gordon behind me, while Haiden brought up the rear.
My first impression, as we emerged from the portal, was that the air was hot. And not just hot, but hot and dry. My throat immediately felt parched, and I could taste sand on my tongue.
We’d come out just outside of town, and as I looked that way, I could make out the buildings a bit better. They seemed to be made of some kind of tan adobe mixed with a dark red metal. None were higher than a couple stories, and there were a lot of awnings and umbrella-like structures covering the stone streets. Rickety-looking wooden bridges ran between most of the buildings’ roofs, connecting them. I didn’t see any vehicles, but there were animals that looked like heavy-set six-legged horses roaming within a couple pens or tied to a building here and there.
“I don’t see any people,” I spoke slowly, looking around. “Where is everyone?”
“I don’t know,” Roxa muttered, sniffing a couple times. “But I can smell Isaac. Not close, but he’s been here.”
Larissa glanced to the girl, carefully asking, “Can you tell which way he went?”
Nodding, Roxa gestured before starting to walk into town. The rest of us followed suit, carefully watching all the buildings on the way. Yet there was no trap. Nobody appeared. The whole place seemed like a ghost town, aside from the six-legged horses that had clearly been used fairly recently.
Glancing through windows as Roxa led us deeper into town, I could see plates full of uneaten food on tables, food that had clearly been left for awhile, but not for that long. It was like the whole town had gotten up and walked away from what they were doing just the day before. There was also some signs of panic. Items were on the floor, some glasses were tipped over, a door here and there was left open to swing in the very slight, warm breeze.
“Yeah,” Sands muttered, “Definitely have a bad feeling about this.”
Eventually, Roxa stopped. Turning to a nearby building, she gestured. “He went in here.” Her head tilted a little. “He’s not there now, but… that’s the last place he went.”
Haiden went first that time. The man gave the door a little kick, stepping in with his sword drawn. A moment later, he called back that it was clear. So we followed, into what looked like some kind of general store. There was a counter ahead of us with a heavy-duty lockbox, while various food items, rope, and other tools I couldn’t understand at first glance lined shelves along all of the walls. Another shelving unit had clearly been in the middle of the room before being knocked aside and tipped over.
“He was in here,” Roxa insisted. Slowly, she walked through the store, the floor creaking under her feet with each step. “Right here. He was right…” Stopping, the blonde girl lowered her head, frowning at the floor.
“Here.” Larissa spoke quickly, stepping that way. “There’s a tunnel,” she explained, clearly having used some kind of X-Ray power to see through the floor. Gently urging Roxa to step aside, the woman reached down. Her fingers found some kind of lever or switch, and a moment later a large section of the floor slid aside. Beyond it was revealed a set of stairs that led into a tunnel.
“Whoa.” Jazz stared that way along with the rest of us. “A secret tunnel?”
“Tunnels,” Larissa explained. “I can’t see all the way through them, but it looks like they run all the way down to the bottom of the canyon. There’s dozens of them. It’s a maze.”
Before any of us could say anything else, a sudden sound from outside drew our attention. Footsteps. Lots of footsteps. And voices. Moving quickly to the window, we saw what was going on.
Troops. So many troops. There were glowing portals that had appeared all the way up and down the street, and soldiers were rushing out of them. Some took up defensive positions while others immediately started searching the nearby buildings.
The Seosten had arrived.
“That’s great,” Roxa muttered, staring through the window of the little building while troops continued to emerge from the portals. “They just couldn’t wait a few more minutes, could they?”
Within seconds, there were dozens of armored soldiers that varied in size from barely a foot tall, all the way up to massive figures that stood a good twelve feet in height. And there was more than just humanoids. I saw several centaurs and other figures with four (or even more) legs. There was even one that looked like some kind of giant centipede with a rhino-like horn at the top of its head. As it raised the front third of its body up from the ground to look around, a dozen mouths opened up all the way down its exposed front, revealing hundreds of tiny, razor-sharp teeth in each. Worse, from each of those mouths, a long, prehensile tongue emerged and wiggled around as though tasting the air. As I watched, one of the tongues shot toward a lizard that was skittering by. The tongue stretched out at least five feet or so, wrapped around the poor, surprised lizard, and yanked it back into that particular mouth. It was, in a word, yuck.
“Temudancs,” Haiden muttered, sounding just as disgusted as I felt. “Those things get more gross every time I see them.”
“They’re gonna keep coming,” Jazz spoke up from behind me, adding a descriptive and physically impossible curse. “They’ll get down into those caves and find Isaac before we can.”
“No, they won’t.” Haiden looked over to Larissa after making that announcement. The two of them conferred silently for a moment before he nodded firmly. “We’ll slow them down.”
“And by we,” Larissa herself added immediately, “he means him and me. We’ll deal with these guys. The rest of you get down into those tunnels, find Isaac before the Seosten troops can, and then use the emergency teleport spells we gave you to get back to the ship with him.”
“Wait, what?” Sands’ head jerked that way, her eyes widening in alarm at that. “N-no, no. Mom, there’s too many soldiers out there. Look at all those guys. And that Radueriel creep is probably gonna be down here any second! I mean, if something happens to you now, after everything–”
“Sandoval.” Larissa faced her daughter, putting both hands on the girl’s shoulders. “Remember what we said? No arguing with orders. You promised.” Her voice softened then. “It’s okay. We’ve been doing this for quite awhile now. Haiden and I know what we’re doing, and how to get away when we need to. Trust me, sweet girl. You and the others get down there, find Isaac, and get him back to the ship. We’ll deal with these troops. And then we’ll all get out of here. Okay?”
I could tell that Sands really wanted to argue with that, despite what she had said earlier. In the end, however, she heaved a long sigh. Glancing out the window toward the troops who were already quickly flooding the city, she nodded. “Okay, Mom. We will. But be careful, please?”
Larissa leaned in, kissing her daughter’s forehead. “I promise. And you guys be careful too. Whatever Isaac absorbed from all those kills, he won’t have had time to really come to terms with it yet. But it’ll still make him very dangerous. Just take this.” From her pocket, she produced another of the little badges with the emergency transport spell on them. “Put this on Isaac and activate it. He’ll be transported back to the ship into a special cell that Dries has got set up.”
“And what if he uses his cyanide spell rather than let us take him like that?” I asked, pointedly.
“Get the badge on him,” Haiden replied, “and it won’t just teleport him up to that cell. It’ll knock him out cold too.” He winked at me. “Just a little something extra I added onto it after you pointed out his mistake. He’ll stay asleep for hours, plenty of time for us to disable that rune.”
“Now go.” Larissa touched Sands’ cheek, glancing to me briefly. “All of you stay together. And be safe. Find Isaac and get out of here before this place is completely overrun. We’ll keep them off of you for as long as we can, but…” Biting her lip, the woman finished with a simple, “Hurry.”
With that, she and Haiden looked to one another again, nodding together before both of them disappeared in twin flashes of light. A second later, we could hear shouts come from the troops out in the city itself as the two of them clearly made their presence known immediately.
“Right.” Pivoting on my heel, I moved to open trapdoor, and the stairs beyond that led down into those deep, winding tunnels.
“Let’s go grab that fucking coward.”