Despite the fact that we had succeeded in rescuing the prisoners, the mood as we prepared to get the hell off this planet was somber, to say the least. My peers and I might not have known Tribald Kine that well, but I had still liked him. Hell, he was the one who had originally sent me to check out the photograph in the Crossroads hallway that gave away the fact that my mother had once attended there. He set me on this whole path, in a way. And the others… Deveron, Klassin Roe, and the Dornans had all gone to school with him. He was one of their oldest friends (and teammate, in some cases). Kohaku and Tangle had both known him as a child. They taught him. They–god damn it. Now he was dead, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
I couldn’t even summon his ghost. I tried, wanting to bring him with us. But there was no response. I even had the others boost me, and the adults made a small portal back to the prison camp. It was too tiny for anyone to get through, and in an out-of-the-way spot, just enough that I could find a connection to his ghost if it was back there. But it wasn’t. It should have been, but it just…. wasn’t there. Nor were any other ghosts, despite the fact that I knew for a fact others had died. It was like someone else had gotten there first, which…
The point was, I couldn’t summon him, which made this entire thing even worse. I felt like a failure as we carefully wrapped his body up and put it in one of the separate magical storage bags. He would stay safe there until we got back home so he could be buried properly.
No. No, he wouldn’t be safe. He was dead. The correction blared in my mind as I closed my eyes tightly and turned away from the sight of the Dornans carefully putting the bag in the truck. On the other side of the clearing, I could see Tangle and Kohaku talking to the conscious prisoners, getting them organized to get on the truck so we could leave before the Eden’s Garden people showed up and turned this into a brawl again. I was done fighting for the moment. Hopefully for a long moment. There had been more than enough of that already.
Avalon stood beside me, quietly speaking up. “I thought we made it without losing anyone.”
“So did I.” As my voice murmured that, I found her hand and squeezed it. “We were close. And he would have been happy that we got the prisoners out.” Even as I said that, the words felt hollow and empty. Of course he would have liked that. But he also would have liked it to get out of there with his own life. And now I couldn’t even summon his ghost? This sucked. This whole thing was just–I wanted to leave. I really, desperately wanted to leave and never see this planet again. Between Heretics enslaving innocent people, fighting for my life repeatedly, and giant monsters fueled by blood sacrifices or whatever the fuck, if I ever saw this planet again once we left, it would be too soon.
And yet, even as I had that thought, something made my head turn to look into the nearby trees. Nothing. There was no one there. If the Eden’s Garden people had found us, all the adults here would have reacted. They weren’t that distracted. But they just kept going about their business, getting ready to leave.
“What?” Avalon asked, her gaze shifting between me and the woods where I was staring. I could feel her tense a bit beside me, clearly getting ready to call out a warning.
“Nothing,” I started, before correcting myself. “I mean, I don’t think it’s anything. Just the same feeling as when we were going through the woods earlier. Like someone or something is watching. You don’t feel that?”
There was a brief pause as the other girl considered before her head shook slowly. “No. I felt it before, but nothing right now. You still feel it?”
A slight grimace found its way to my face before I sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m just making it up in my head because I’m paranoid at the moment. Maybe part of me just wants there to be something else to fight so I can stab something. I just–” Swallowing the thick lump in my throat, I set myself before starting to walk. “Come on, let’s check it out. Don’t worry, we’re not going to disappear into the forest, I just want a closer look.”
The twins joined us as we moved that way, and a quick consultation revealed that Sands didn’t feel anything, but Sarah did. Although she was just as unsure as I was about whether this was a real thing or just paranoia. The four of us got closer to the trees while I tried to determine where the feeling of being watched was coming from. A glance toward Sarah was met with a helpless shrug. She had no idea either. And yet, we could both still feel eyes on us. It was a creepy feeling, to say the least. Especially considering the other two didn’t feel it. Between that and the fact that we still didn’t know if it was real or just a product of our imagination… yeah. Walking toward those trees wasn’t the most fun time I’d had. I felt my stomach twisting a little the closer we got. It made my breathing instinctively get faster and deeper, like when I used to sneak peeks at scary movies as a kid when I wasn’t supposed to. The hair on the back of my neck kept standing up, and it felt like every step could result in the ground falling out from under me. I could almost hear the agitated violins in the soundtrack growing closer and closer to a terrible screech. Everything else had disappeared. I couldn’t think about the rescued prisoners, poor Tribald, or even about the fact that we had to leave before the Garden people counterattacked. I was barely cognizant of the others walking with me. The only thing that mattered, the only thing that existed, was whatever it was in that forest that happened to be staring at me.
A hand caught my arm, stopping me in place. Only then did I consciously realize that Avalon had been repeating something for the past few seconds. I had somehow completely tuned out her voice. Now, she yanked me around, speaking louder. “Flick. What are you doing?”
“Huh?” Blinking a few times, I looked around. We were much closer to the trees than I had planned on getting. Nearby, Sands was holding Sarah quite similar to the way Avalon was holding me. It looked like the other girl was snapping out of whatever she had been under too.
“I–” Swallowing once more, I shook my head. “I don’t know. It just felt like I had to keep going. I wasn’t paying attention. I wasn’t–” Cutting myself off, I gave an uneasy look over my shoulder toward the trees. The feeling of being watched was still there, but it had lessened. Now it was more like idle curiosity. Which was still enough to make me shiver a bit. “Come on, let’s get back over there. We need to get the hell off this planet.” The words ‘while we still can’ tried to emerge, but I forced them back down. No way was I going to curse us like that.
The four of us made our way back over to the others, where Deveron was waiting. The man clearly had a lot to deal with. I could see the emotions in his eyes even as he pushed them back to focus on the matter at hand, asking what happened. So, we explained the whole thing, starting with the fact that we had felt something watching us as we walked through the forest on our way to the prison, and now what had just happened to Sarah and me.
Taking that in, Deveron frowned and looked past us toward the woods. His eyes scanned it as though he was trying to determine if there was anything dangerous, before the man sighed. “I don’t know. I don’t see anything, but–we need to leave.”
“That’s what I said,” I murmured before adding, “I wonder if what we are feeling has anything to do with that monster in the prison cave.”
Deveron blinked at me, frowning. “What monster in the prison cave? Wait, Jasmine and the others were talking about some big fight down there. What was that?”
Wincing, I gestured. “It’s kind of a long story, and we don’t have a lot of time, do we?”
“I have no idea how much time we have, but let’s err on the side of caution,” he replied before giving a sharp whistle, raising his voice to be heard through the clearing. “Everyone on the truck, we’re getting out of here! We’ll sort out details once we’ve got some distance between us and this damn place.” Even as he said that, the man was already walking that way, waving for the rest of us to follow.
Before going anywhere, I gave the woods one last glance. Whatever was in there that had been watching us, whether it had something to do with the monster we had killed or not, I wasn’t willing to just dismiss the whole thing as a figment of our imaginations. We had definitely felt something. But it seemed like a mystery that would go unsolved, given we weren’t going to be sticking around any longer. And I, for one, wasn’t quite so obsessed with learning the truth that I would be willing to change that. If there really was something in those woods that kept watching us, it could just go ahead and stay there.
So, we all loaded onto the truck. There wasn’t quite enough room for all of us plus the conscious prisoners in the living area, given it hadn’t been intended to hold this many people. But we were able to shift the supplies in the main area around and drop a few crates. The supplies were intended to provide water and food for the whole prison for a few weeks, So we weren’t losing much by leaving a little bit behind. It allowed us to get more room in there for everyone, which became a bit more comfortable once we took some blankets and pillows out of the cupboards and laid them down over the floor.
Two of the prisoners who were awake and moving around were trolls, so they took up a large portion of the space we cleared out. They looked bewildered by everything that was going on, but tentatively friendly enough. They also didn’t seem to speak much English or Latin, but followed instructions cheerfully enough when they were accompanied with hand gestures. One of the other conscious prisoners, an orc who introduced himself as Teragn (terrain), said that the Heretics had simply referred to the trolls as three-oh-oh-two and three-oh-oh-three. Or just Two and Three for short. Whether they had any actual names or not nobody knew, but they responded to those names for the moment. And, again, we really didn’t have time to get into details just yet. We mostly just pantomimed at the two trolls for them to sit, and gave them a large ball of cheese and a ham from one of the boxes. They really loved that and immediately proceeded to start making ham and cheese sandwiches. Which, in their case, meant using ham as the bread and cheese in the middle.
Soon, we had all of them on the truck. Including the still-unconscious Eden’s Garden Heretic who had apparently turned traitor. Kohaku had gone over the man with a fine-toothed comb to find any tracking spells or devices, but came up short. Still, they were keeping him secured with those cuffs and magically asleep, lying on a cot in the living area so we could talk to him later.
Once everyone was onboard, Deveron hauled the heavy doors shut. He gave a quick glance to the clearly still terrified and confused prisoners sitting around, before speaking as gently as possible. “It’s okay. I know you don’t have much reason to believe this, but you’re safe with us. We’re going back to Earth, then you can do whatever you want from there. We’ll… we’ll talk about it on the way. Right now–”
“They’re on us.” That came from Kohaku, who was looking at what looked like an ordinary smartphone. There was a slight grimace on her face. “No more time for explanations, we need to jump now.”
With a muttered curse, the man immediately darted to the control board on the wall. You could also initiate the jump from the cab of the truck, but this was quicker right now. Opening the panel revealed a keypad where the coordinates were supposed to be put in, and a lever to activate it. That was how it looked normally. But now there were eight glowing little gemstones attached to the console as well. The stones were essentially magical batteries, storing a bunch of power we’d brought with us from home. And now they were plugged into the teleportation system.
The truck abruptly started to jerk backward, as if a large hand had grabbed onto it. Several people cried out, but Deveron simply shook his head. “Not today,” he muttered before yanking on the lever.
And with that, we were gone. Whatever hand or power had been trying to pull the truck was left behind as we instantly transported off the planet. In my imagination, I could almost hear the Eden’s Garden people screaming as the truck vanished right in front of their eyes.
Instead of letting go of the lever when the jump happened, Deveron shoved it up into the default position, gave us all a look, and then yanked it down a second time. We jumped again. Of course, we weren’t dumb enough to make a single jump and allow them to track us. Each time the truck transported, two of those initial eight gemstones went dark. It allowed us to make four rapid jumps, each one bringing us slightly closer to Earth.
By the time the fourth jump happened, the truck was shuddering and making unhappy noises. Plus the transport console was giving off a little smoke. I’d asked why we couldn’t just make every jump we needed to go straight back home instead of only going slightly over halfway, and this was the answer I’d been given. The truck could only stand up to so many transports at one time, even with extra power. Four was apparently pushing it, and no one wanted to see what happened if we went for five. It wouldn’t do us any good to push so hard to get home, only to blow up or materialize in the middle of empty space with a broken transport system.
We also weren’t going to their normal jump points. Instead, Athena had given us a list of habitable moons along the way, and those were the coordinates we used. Just for fun, those first three jumps had been to a desert moon, an ice moon, and a forest moon. Just so those chasing us could have the full original trilogy Star Wars experience.
Once the truck settled a bit and we were all certain it wasn’t going to catch fire on us, Deveron breathed out and nodded to Tangle, who was standing by the main door. At his nod, she unlatched it and hauled the door up, to reveal… rocks. Lots of enormous boulders all around us.
“Look, Herbie,” I announced while hopping down onto the gravel-covered ground. I had the heroic stone in question in my palm already, turning in a circle so he could see. “It’s your homeworld.”
As planned, the place we had landed looked like a large quarry. And in this case, large meant the size of a full city back on Earth. The rocks varied in size from pebbles all the way up to boulders the size of skyscrapers. According to Athena, there was some sort of special material within the rocks that would help block scanners if our pursuers actually made it this far. Which was doubtful to begin with, but being extra careful didn’t hurt anything.
Tangle and the Dornans stayed with the conscious prisoners back there to tell them exactly what was going on, and who we were. Meanwhile, Asenath, Twister, Shiori, Jazz, Gordon, and Doug worked with Klassin to check on the unconscious prisoners and try to see what we could do for them.
Which left Avalon, Sands, Sarah, and me to talk to Kohaku and Deveron about exactly what we had seen down in that cave. The six of us walked a little bit away from the truck, standing near a rock that was a good thirty feet tall and almost as wide. There, we carefully went through the whole story. We told them about the carvings we had seen and about the big hole in the floor that had clearly been covered with a forcefield at one point. And, of course, we told them about the way those tubes had clearly been draining blood from the prisoners into the hole.
When we got to the part about the giant monster and began to describe it, I could see a flash of what looked like recognition on both their faces, before they smothered it and told us to go on. They clearly knew something, but weren’t willing to get into it just yet. Not until we told them the whole story.
The others obviously noticed too, because when we finished, Sands folded her arms and focused on them. “You guys know something about that thing, don’t you? Come on, we killed it, you can at least tell us what the fuck it was.”
With a heavy sigh, Kohaku shook her head. “That’s the problem, you probably didn’t actually kill the main thing. Just one of its… extensions.”
“Extensions?” I echoed that, frowning. “You mean like the whole Nuckelavee thing? Like how they’re extensions or… or creations of that Lotan monster under the ocean?”
“Something like that,” Deveron confirmed. “Deep-Walker is just one of the names it has. No one knows very much about it, but from what I’ve heard, the thing basically… infects worlds. You know how Seosten possess people? This thing possesses planets. It produces monsters a lot like that thing you fought, and killing one of them doesn’t hurt the Deep-Walker any more than killing a Nuckelavee hurts Lotan. And… and they’re usually even stronger than that. I think you managed to get what amounts to a baby.”
“If that was a baby,” Sands managed weakly, “I really don’t want to run into the adult version.”
“No,” Kohaku agreed firmly, “you don’t. Nobody does. Which probably means that was what was watching us in the woods. The Deep-Walker infests planets and then controls every aspect of them. Well, eventually anyway. It takes time for it to get control.”
“But what was it–I mean what were they–” Cutting myself off, I made a noise deep in the back of my throat. “Were they feeding it?”
Sarah spoke up then. “Taming it.”
Deveron cursed several times loudly, before nodding. “You know, I think that’s exactly what that stupid son of a bitch was doing. Kyril Shamon had that mountain mined out specifically to find those tunnels and then built that place to feed blood into the–he’s trying to tame and control that fucking–it’s a world-ender and he’s trying to make it his fucking pet!”
He and Kohaku stepped aside for a minute, conversing quietly with each other. Which left Avalon, Sands, Sarah, and me by ourselves. I looked at Sands. “Do uh, do you have any idea what you got from that thing?”
She didn’t. Fortunately, I had a Tabbris on-call. As I used our connection to let my little sister know that we had successfully escaped with the prisoners, and about our single casualty, she projected herself to me. Not a full recall. We didn’t want to pull her away from the station for that long, not when she had her newly-arrived siblings to spend time with. But she could at least temporarily project to me.
Sorry about Mr. Kine, her voice spoke hesitantly in my mind.
Me too, I agreed. Can you tell the others back there so they… so they know? Is my mom–
She’s not back from her thing yet, came the response. But somebody will tell her, I… maybe Abigail?
I nodded a bit. That’s not a bad idea. Or Deveron when he calls to check in. I think–anyway, we made it. And we’re bringing his body back. With that, I gave her a quick rundown of what had happened, with the other girl reading my mind to fill in some of the blanks. Then I asked, Sands doesn’t know what she has, so…
She agreed to help, and I asked Sands for permission to possess her. Once she had given it, I took her offered hand and disappeared. It only took a minute for Tabbris to reach through her connection to me and scour what Sands was capable of, then report back to me.
Oh, she announced once I stepped out of the other girl, um, I think Spark needs some help.
Go, I urged, shaking my head at how guilty she sounded. It’s okay. Thanks for the help. We’re safe now. We’re out of there, and we’ll be home in a few days. I’ll check in later too.
If… if you’d really needed me back there, with that monster, you would’ve let me know, right? Tabbris sounded hesitant, like part of her still felt guilty for not coming along in the first place.
Of course, I assured her. That’s the fun part of having the whole recall thing, right? Now go have fun. Or whatever. Help your other sister.
Her presence faded from my mind before I looked back over to the expectantly-waiting Sands. “Well?” she pressed, practically bouncing on her toes.
“Well,” I echoed, before leaning in to whisper in her ear.
Taking in everything I said, Sands gave a double-take. “Are you serious?” When I nodded, she flashed a short grin before gesturing. “Back up. Everyone back up.”
The three of us did, with Avalon and Sarah giving me a curious look. Once we were out of the way, Sands cracked her neck. She had to focus for a few seconds, finding the right… trigger or whatever. Even though I’d told her what she could do, it still took a bit of time to figure out how to do it. In the meantime, I called a warning over to Deveron and Kohaku, who turned to watch.
But, after a few seconds, she found it. Instantly, Sands grew in size until she stood a solid thirty feet tall. She was gigantic and could apparently take an absurd amount of damage, even considering the size. Not quite as much as the monster in the tunnel, but still a lot.
“Okay!” Sands spoke, voice booming out. “I think I can get used to this.”
“Better not get too used to it!” I shouted up at her. “I’m pretty sure you won’t fit in the truck like that!”
Fitting in the truck was definitely something she had to do. We might’ve had to stop to let things recharge, and there were the prisoners to deal with, both of the conscious and unconscious variety. Not to mention the fact that we had to keep an eye out for pursuers. There was plenty of work to be done. But what mattered right now was that we… most of us anyway, had gone into that prison, saved the people we went there for, and got out. Now it was time to go home.
And for Asenath and Gordon to officially be reunited with their fathers.