Chapter 22

To: Kepik
From: Cronus
Subj: Can’t sleep

The doctors say I should be sleeping, but far too much weighs upon my mind. I also know how dangerous it is to write to you, but I might not get this chance again, and there are things I need to get off my chest.

Against all odds, my little Teal is on his way to save you. I’m not sure how I feel about this. Initially that whole dream of yours left me very motivated… but now I just find myself worried. Did we do the right thing? Is there any chance Teal could actually succeed? If something happens to him, Natalie will never forgive me. I can’t say I blame her.

Speaking of Natalie, by no small miracle she was able to move the rest of my children somewhere safe. She’s livid at the thought of Teal passing through a portalgate, but what’s done is done. I just pray that nothing happens to my little boy. The thought of him getting caught by Zyken’s HIRCs…

No, there is no sense in worrying about it now. I have many other things that require worrying – things I can actually control.

My small army of rebel ambassadors has worked hard to keep the HIRCs away from this hospital, but I don’t know how long that will last. Like so many other things, I feel it’s only a matter of time before this collapses.

The HIRCs are unbelievable – they have become merciless and reckless in the extreme. Zyken has them openly attacking public places almost every day. It’s only a matter of time before someone recovers a HIRC body or sees something they shouldn’t. The mask of secrecy your race has spent so many years preserving is about to disappear because of one Zargansk’s ambition. I feel sorry for your people.

But that is also not something I can control.

My health is not good, Kepik. My mind is constantly muddled and the pain grows exponentially with each passing day. I don’t know what this Zargansk poison is made of, but boy does it work. Whoever invented it should get a raise.

I hope you are in good health. Not hearing from you for several days always worries me, especially given the obnoxiously loud ticking of the clock above my head. You’re down to 80 hours, by my calculations. Halfway there.

Though I don’t really believe in it, I pray for Teal constantly. Maybe you should too. He needs all the help he can get.

But now I’m just rambling.

Be strong, Kepik. There is still hope. If you don’t hear from me again, thank you for everything. You have been like a father to me.

Your son in life and death-

-Cronus


“Eddie, c’mon! Think harder! There has to be a way inside!”

“The Zargansk must have planned for this,” he replied, shaking his head. “There’s not gonna be another way into the tunnels, at least not one we can easily locate. We have to find a way to open this door.”

I couldn’t believe the time we were wasting. Ten minutes had passed with both of us pacing in front of the silver door, pondering ways to break through it. We’d tried bashing it, detaching the handle, removing the hinges. I’d used more magic on it, Eddie had shot it more times than either of us could remember. We’d searched for secret access panels and double-checked every deceased HIRC for a key of some sort. (That was a particularly nasty task.)

Nothing had worked.

“Maybe you could try magic again.”

“I’ve tried it, Eddie! I tried every combination! None of it worked!”

He raised a finger.

“Actually, you haven’t tried every combination.”

“Yes I have! Fire and wind, fire and light, wind and light, none worked. Magic isn’t the answer.”

“That’s still not every combination. Did you try all three of them at once?”

I hadn’t thought of that.

“Interesting idea. Should we go for it?”

Eddie grinned and nodded.

I searched my pockets until I had collected all three silexes. Then I set my two Zargansk pistols in my belt and readied the small stones.

“You might want to stand back for this.”

Eddie ran a ways down the hallway and ducked down, hands over his head.

I stepped up to the door, took a deep breath…

…and prayed this wouldn’t kill me.

Then I closed my eyes and clamped down on the three silexes in my hands.

…but nothing happened.

I released my grip and warily opened an eye. The door was still intact, the silexes still in my hands. Were they broken?

I squeezed again. Still nothing.

I squeezed as hard as I could.

A sudden stream of white, liquid-hot plasma burst from between my fingers. The stygian fluid engulfed the door and with it the surrounding walls. Unspeakable heat swallowed the hallway.

I fell backwards but diligently kept my hands clamped down.

I swear my fingers started to singe. I crushed my eyelids shut but it didn’t help. White light streamed through them, scalding my eyes.

Everything burned.

I held onto the silexes as long as possible. My palms felt like they were melting. My hair smelled like it was on fire, along with all my clothing. My body screamed for relief.

Seconds later and unable to keep the plasma pouring any longer, I released the silexes. The stinging light faded and the pain in my hands ceased.

I gently opened my eyes…

…And a smile crept across my lips.

Nothing remained of the door to the janitor’s closet, or of the walls ten feet in every direction. The plasma had eaten cleanly through all of it, including the floor and ceiling. Moonlight poured through the gaping hole above, reflecting off the crater created by my assault.

The magic had worked.

Down the hallway, Eddie clapped.

“YES! I told you it would work! Now who’s totally brilliant?”

I would have smiled, but I was too busy shaking out my still-tingling hands.

“See, Eddie – I told you I needed you around! We’re a team.”

We highfived, then spent a moment surveying the damage.

The metal door had been completely annihilated. Everything inside the janitor’s closet had also disappeared, and a strange lava-flow-type-jelly steamed at the bottom of the crater burned into the floor.

But most exciting of all, across this circle of destruction the entrance to the secret Zargansk tunnels lay open and waiting. I wasted no time in climbing across the crater and into the smooth metal of the entrance.

After all, we had people to save.

Eddie climbed in behind me, and our trek into the tunnels officially began.

It felt so good to finally be at this point. We’d overcome my most feared hurdle – getting back into the tunnels – so from here, things should only get easier, right?

I know what you’re thinking, and I was thinking the same thing.

Yeah, right.

The slope of the tunnel began to drift slowly downward, cutting off the light from behind us. Fortunately, I was prepared – I pulled out the light silex and squeezed it.

But nothing happened.

I squeezed harder, but it still didn’t respond. What was going on?

Despite the dim light, I lifted the silex to my eye and squinted at it as best I could. What I found could only be bad – the wavy ribbons of light that typically danced across its surface were gone.

Had I broken it?

“Dude, hurry up with the light!”

I squeezed the silex again and again, but the hallways remained caked in blackness.

“I can’t get it to work. Something’s wrong.”

“What? You broke it?”

“Broke it? It was your idea to use all three of them together!”

“But you didn’t have to do it for so long! Man, I can’t believe you broke it! What about the others? Do they work?”

I tried each silex in turn. None of them worked.

This called for some bad language.

Once I was done, I had to accept the fact that using the three silexes together had damaged them, though I hoped this was only a temporary problem. Maybe the damage would wear off after some time had passed.

Meanwhile, my reliable and ever-calm friend was clutching at his head and stomping around angrily.

“Teal! Now what are we going to do?”

“I don’t know! I wasn’t planning on coming down here without magic.”

Precious seconds drifted past, and I felt my mood darkening. Now I had no magic – my one great weapon against the HIRCs. We still had our Zargansk guns, but those wouldn’t last forever and they were useless against anything made of the same silver as the tunnel walls. I also had one charge remaining on the strange time-slowing device (which I still hadn’t told Eddie about), but that wouldn’t do us any good now.

Why did this have to be so hard?

Eddie walked further into the tunnel.

“Where are you going?”

“Well, it’s like you always say: sitting here and waiting won’t do us any good. We gotta find Lee and the others.”

For once I actually agreed.

“You’re right. I just hope we can find them in the dark.”

Eddie nodded and continued into the black depths of the tunnel. I followed close behind.

It took me almost a minute to realize my mistake.

“Eddie! Duh!”

I couldn’t see him turn around, but it was implied by the direction of his voice.

“What? Duh what?”

“Your emergency backpack!”

I pulled it off my shoulders, opened it, fished around until my hand connected, then pulled the desired object out and flicked its switch to ‘on.’

“Flashlight!” we said in unison.

“I gotta hand it to you, Ed – this emergency backpack was a great idea.”

“I’m just glad you remembered there were flashlights in that pack. Wandering around these dark tunnels is unbelievably creepy.”

I nodded in agreement.

With my newfound light, I took a moment to more closely examine our location. We hadn’t made it very far into the tunnels, but I could see the first fork in our path just ahead. The first time we had come through here, the janitor had taken a right at that fork, and after some time he had located the hidden box with the guns and the portalgate-sucking pole – the ‘remeter.’

Which reminded me…

“When we were here with the janitor, a dim red glow lit up the tunnels. Why isn’t it here now?”

“Simplest explanation is that they don’t want us down here. The darkness is probably meant to deter us.”

“If that’s the case, it’s working. I feel deterred.”

Eddie laughed nervously.

“Me too. I thought having a flashlight would make things better, but I’m just as creeped out as I was a minute ago.”

He had a point. The flashlight’s conical beam of light wasn’t as useful as I’d hoped. It was plenty bright enough, and the reflective nature of the shiny silver walls amplified that further by bouncing the light in every direction.

But we were just as lost as we had been in the darkness, and the way the light reflected meant we could be seen from a long way off. If HIRCs were hiding down here, they’d notice us long before we noticed them.

I shared this thought with Eddie.

“Not only that,” he replied, “but how are we supposed to find Lee and the others? I don’t have the slightest idea where they’ve been taken, and if we start wandering around we’re sure to get lost.”

“…Honestly, I’m not even sure I remember the way to the portalgate,” I admitted.

“I remember well enough. I could get us back there.”

I breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing this. That was one problem solved.

Now for the several hundred that weren’t.

“Okay, let’s break this down into smaller problems. The first choice we need to make is whether or not to take a right or a left at this fork.”

“That’s easy – I say right. Unless something crazy happens, let’s stay on the path to the portalgate. That way we’ll eventually end up at the portalgate room, and if we make it that far we can decide what to do next.”

I didn’t really like his use of “if we make it that far,” but I couldn’t reasonably disagree.

“Good assessment. Let’s–”

Just then, a soft clank rang out from the top of the tunnel – from the entrance.

I scrambled to shut off the flashlight.

“Eddie!” I whispered as I smashed the light off. “Move! We have to hide!”

He scrambled ahead of me as fast as possible given our now pitch-black situation, and I did my best to keep up.

The soft clanking continued. Someone was definitely entering the tunnel.

As we stumbled ahead, I spared a glance backwards. The edge of a light source was moving down the tunnel, and once the person – or thing – with the light reached the bottom of the slope, it would have a clear view of us.

We needed to move faster.

Eddie suddenly smacked head-first into the back wall of the tunnel’s fork. Though it sounded painful, he wisely kept any foul language to himself.

The clanking behind us didn’t change pace, but the light it carried loomed ever faster toward us. We had to pick a branch of the fork, and we had to do it quickly.

I hated choices like this. 50/50 chances of death, and that was making the optimistic assumption that we could avoid detection by picking the path our visitor didn’t.

Eddie darted right, I darted left. We realized what happened, then both switched and smashed into each other.

The light flickered at our feet.

I dragged Eddie down the left branch with me. We quietly crept away from the intersection and both sucked in our breath. The odds of this working were not good, but after everything we’d endured I had to believe we could find a way out.

I placed two shaking hands on my Zargansk pistols as Eddie raised an alien rifle to his shoulder.

A large, shadowy form stepped out from the fork, light emanating from its right hand.

My trigger finger twitched.

“Wait! I know you’re there! Please don’t shoot!”

This was the last thing I’d expected to hear. We kept our guns steady, and after some quick thinking, I leveled out my aim and spoke as menacingly as possible.

“Make it quick, HIRC.”

The figure halfway around the corner raised his hands in a clear gesture of innocence. His glowing fist cast eerie shadows across the hall.

“I know where your friend is.”

“Which friend?”

“The girl. Kyralee.”

My stomach flipped.

“Is she okay?”

The HIRC rotated to face us and nodded. To his credit, his hands stayed high and clear.

“Yes. If you spare my life, I will lead you to her.”

Eddie and I traded suspicious glances.

“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. You guys have been trying to kill me for four days now – so why should I suddenly trust you?” I asked, no longer bothering to hide the disdain in my voice.

The HIRC paused, then pointed at himself.

“My name is Rogi. You are Teal, aren’t you.”

He said it firmly, and I realized he wasn’t asking a question – he actually knew who I was. This shouldn’t have surprised me, but my heart involuntarily revved as I gulped nervously.

How was I supposed to respond? Maybe it was my racing heart, or my mental stupor upon hearing him say he’d lead us to Kyralee. Maybe it was my sudden rationalization that I couldn’t lie my way out of this one.

Either way, my mouth moved before I could think up a reason to stop it.

“Of course I’m Teal. Who else would be down here, holding a HIRC at bay with two stolen Zargansk weapons?”

The HIRC shrugged.

“You really are as bold as they say, young Teal. How many HIRCs have you destroyed so far?”

I started tallying up an exact number when Eddie elbowed me.

“Teal! Don’t talk to this guy! Shoot him!”

The HIRC named Rogi spoke again, his voice shockingly calm and level.

“I do not intend to harm you, Eddie. My promise to take you to Kyralee is genuine.”

I thought about this, then glanced over at Eddie, who frowned and shook his head violently.

I’d be lying to claim I wasn’t tempted by the HIRC’s offer. Anything seemed better than blindly wandering around these ridiculous tunnels.

“I’m willing to believe you, HIRC – er, Rogi. But first you need to answer my question. Why should I suddenly trust one of your kind?”

He thought for a moment. I could hear Eddie audibly panting.

“Don’t panic,” I whispered. “Let’s hear what he says.”

Eddie scowled but his breathing seemed to slow.

“Teal,” the HIRC replied, “I realize this sounds suspicious, but it’s not safe for me to talk here. The explanation you require must be done in a secure location. The Zargansk can easily monitor us here, and if we are found out we will be in great danger.”

Wait a minute – why was he talking about the Zargansk as if he weren’t part of them?

“Then answer me this, Rogi – are you a HIRC?”

Rogi shrugged.

“That is a complicated question.”

“Yes or no would suffice. That doesn’t seem too complicated.”

“In theory, I suppose the answer is yes. I am a product of Zy–”

He paused, rethinking his words. Was he going to say Zyken?

“I am a product of the HIRC laboratory. However, I am no longer employed by the leader of the HIRCs.”

Er, what was that supposed to mean?

I turned to Eddie.

“I say we listen to him.”

“What? Why on earth would you suddenly listen to a HIRC? Have you lost your mind?!”

“No, I haven’t lost my mind. I just think the odds that this guy is lying can’t possibly be higher than the odds of us getting ambushed or caught as we wander through these stupid tunnels.”

I knew this was a terrible over-simplification, but it was good enough for the moment. There would be plenty of time for thinking as we followed Rogi to a more secure location.

“Fine,” Eddie grumbled. “But when this… thing leads us into an ambush, remember that I warned you.”

I snickered at his melodramatic response.

“Okay, Rogi. We’ll give you a chance. Lead us somewhere safe and don’t do anything dumb. As you apparently know, we’ve already taken out tons of HIRCs – so I won’t hesitate to blow you away if you try anything.”

Rogi nodded.

“I will keep my hands in the air. Please follow me.”

And then, almost as an afterthought, he added, “the closest safe place also happens to be the location of your friend. Let us hurry.”

My heart fluttered upon hearing this. I sent another wary glance at Eddie, who shrugged and motioned toward Rogi, who had started walking down the opposite fork of the tunnel. We started following him down the dim corridor, and for once I had a surprisingly calm feeling in my chest. I didn’t know why, but somehow I believed the HIRC.

Judging by Eddie’s whispered grumbling, I don’t think he felt the same.

“Hey,” I whispered. “Give the guy a chance. At least we’re getting somewhere.”

Eddie said nothing.

“And remember,” I continued, “if anything goes wrong, we can just blast him to pieces.”

Eddie ignored me and continued down the hallway. Rogi and his light had almost reached the end of it.

I sighed, shook my head, and hoped that my friend’s fear was misplaced.

And, more than anything, I hoped that Kyralee really was okay.



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