“You’re pretty early, Wyatt!”
“Early bird catches the beetle, Dr. Fulbright. No better time to catch it than today.”
“No better time indeed,” said Xavier, handing Wyatt an antiallergenic napkin, waving an arm to the ajar door of his office. “Come in, come in. Penelope’s even earlier than you.”
Wyatt entered Xavier’s office, where Penelope sat in a wingback chair, wearing a crimson camo jacket, matching pants, and steel-toed combat boots. A stringy clump of striped tigon fur was pinned to her breast pocket. Her ruffled collar was decorated with two golden claws. She gave him a nod and a slight smile. “Good to see you’re still on your legs, Wyatt.”
“Good to see you, too,” he replied, sitting down in the wingback chair across from her, patting the napkin on his eyes and nose. He was on the receiving end of her gaze, which seemed to have borrowed some of its metallic glint from her tigon-skull-and-crossclaws necklace.
Seconds later, Cooper slid in with a small squeak on the granite flooring, his hair even shaggier than usual, both hammers dangling from the belt of the sleeveless uniform he wore on Ovsecuu. “Hey, hey, hey! Who’s up for today?”
Penelope pointed to herself and Wyatt. “Us, for starters.”
Cooper’s eyes flickered over them, then he walked by with the stiff gait of an old robot that had to be oiled. “Is that s’pposed to be sarcastic?”
“No, but thanks for trying to be perceptive.”
“Yep, there’s the sarcasm, no doubt.” Cooper slowly sat down on a sofa and brushed dust off the velvety cushions, then fiddled with an aeroflora-bred cardinal orchid circling near him.
Wyatt said, “Are you okay? You look a little jittery.”
“I’m just tryin’ to get everythin’ tidied up in my noggin.”
Wyatt sat forth on the wingback. “It’s natural to be nervous. You probably feel the same way before every Warbearer assignment, but you still complete the job.”
Cooper managed a smile and gave a thumbs-up before the door squeaked open. Sidney strolled in and popped a mint chocolate into her mouth. Bright shards of color sewn onto her shirt created some sort of an abstract tower with a bulge on the spire. “How’s everyone feeling?” She settled on a loveseat next to Penelope, eating another mint chocolate from her sweets case. “I’m still pretty amazed that Grimhet hijacked Geanthoff. I can’t wait for us to break in there!”
Penelope said, “Sidney, our main priority is collecting intel, not beating up Grimhets.”
Sidney’s mouth curled sideways, but it upturned into a smile when Wyatt said, “Actually, Marsden does want us to kill them if there’s time.”
“Fair morning, comrades!” Gene called as he and Corbin scurried into the office, their curly hair bouncing. Each brother still had a cashmere argyle vest over a button-down shirt, khaki pants, and loafers, like when Wyatt and Penelope met them at Cerebral Foundation.
“Advisor Wiley is taking a call. He and Dr. Fulbright will join us soon,” said Corbin.
As soon as he and Gene seated themselves next to Cooper on the plush sofa, they had to jerk away when Cooper clapped a hand on his knee and loudly asked, “So, ar’all ya rascals ready-steady?” The brothers mumbled to each other, and Gene picked at the drawstring gear pack he had brought in, but Cooper went on, “Yep, I tumbled outta bed, peed, washed up, polished off scrambled eggs with baked pear chips and chocolate milk, peed, psyched myself up, peed, left the house, and peed here. If my bladder doesn’t wanna burst again, I won’t have to pee.”
Gene’s nose twitched. “What is the root for this urinary periodicity?”
“I always tinkle a whole lot in the morn, an’ then I don’t have to go too much later on.”
Corbin wagged a finger. “There is no need to discuss your bodily functions.”
“What about periods, because I had mine this morning — ”
“No, Sidney, no, no, no, that equally counts as a bodily function.”
“You’re really squeamish, aren’t you, Corbin?” Penelope said.
“Only with urine, periods, feces, and . . .”
“Diseases of the macabre or disfiguring kinds,” finished Gene.
“Yes, Gene, diseases of the macabre or disfiguring kinds. Now, may we divert our chat?”
“We should be going over today’s mission,” Wyatt said, getting up from his wingback to pace around the office, briefly examining a painting of two men picnicking in a little marble house on the peak of a grassy hill, their heads thrown back, mouths open with laughs of ecstasy.
“There’s nothing to go over until Wiley explains it for us,” said Sidney, twirling her zigtail. “Remember, Durrell, you need to realize that our mission was successful.”
Gene’s hand froze in the middle of a curl-pluck. “I am sorry, Sidney, but the critic in me is set ablaze whenever people advocate such an ideology. It negatively colors your view of reality.”
Her head swiveled his way, her face defiant. “Take that back.”
While they quibbled, Wyatt stopped his pacing in front of a shoulder-high shelf with books on the top rack, a hardcover Chameleons For Breakfast novel face-out in the middle. His eyes brightened at that before lowering to the next rack: a hand-painted kingfisher model; a framed picture of Xavier and his husband in a meadow, each of them holding either end of a five-foot-wide swath of raw sienna fabric; and four iridescently-shining flags, each one printed with a picture of a world circuit and the years 2429, -32, -36, and -40. The lowest rack contained an oblong stone slab with an imprint fossil of two large pawprints from a prehistoric tigon.
Wyatt stared at the shelf so long that he drifted off into darkness, twisting his college ring, pressing a thumb into his aching wrist. Then Sidney’s voice pierced his head, and he blinked and stood upright. “All I’m saying is, Your Heart Forever is a very, very enthralling film, much more than My Home. The former did win a Flimique for Best Thriller.”
“Heh heh, ya gotta wish for a star t’drop to pick scabs off My Home‘s wounds!”
“My husband loves that movie!” Xavier said, breezing into the office with a computer tablet. “He says it makes your heart pulse with hope and dread.”
Dr. Fulbright entered next with a clothing bag. “But you say it’s of average quality.”
Xavier waved his tablet in the air, his inflating chest putting a good amount of strain on his waistcoat’s buttons. “Oh, I’m not here for film critique. Agents, I’m pleased to inform you that Freye Urewlil was gracious enough to reveal several secret passageways that can be taken through Geanthoff to enter the gaderch, the gathering chamber underneath it.”
Dr. Fulbright said, “This is assigned to you, Wyatt.” He rested the clothing bag on the table and unzipped it. He pulled out a jacket and a pair of pants made of a fabric that reflected a navy blue luster; the threads were meshed into solid panels.
“What is that?” Wyatt asked, standing up to run a hand along the pants.
“SPACE Union whipped this up for you. It absorbs your Super Nex energy and solidifies into protective armor, allows you to boost into the air, cloaks zoatic signatures from Grimhets.” Dr. Fulbright patted the jacket. “And it has many pockets. Pockets are always useful.”
“Indubitably!” Corbin exclaimed.
“Indubitably to the power of three!” Gene said, which made Cooper snicker.
After Xavier let Wyatt into the bathroom so he could change into the jacket and pants, Sidney said, “His attire looks too generic. It should be a bomber jacket or a trench coat.”
Once Wyatt came back out a minute later, Corbin looked him up and down. “No, Sidney, SPACE Union struck the bullseye with their dart by assigning . . . Is there a specific title for it?”
Xavier answered, “No, it’s simply a Super Nex-specialized suit.”
“Man, you’re rollin’!” Cooper thumped Wyatt on the shoulder.
“Nice superhero suit,” remarked Penelope, her casual voice contrasting with her smirk.
“Is there anything else we need?” Wyatt asked, sitting back down.
“I’m sending you Torchen’s chart,” Xavier said, typing on his tablet. “The safest passages and the most hazardous ones, all of them leading through Foris to Geanthoff, are designated accordingly. If the assignment goes south, abandon it. We can try again at a later time.”
“That won’t happen,” Sidney said, her lilt briefly stronger. “We’ve already succeeded!”
Wyatt nodded to her. “Exactly, we won’t have to abandon anything.”
Xavier spun a hand around his chest, closing his eyes, cantering around his office. “‘Light rises for sky/dissolve pall of dust/send the troop there/construct bridge’s iron girders/Fight all goop-spurters’!” He jumped onto his desk and thrust his tablet in the air like a sword.
“See, that’s how invigorated you need to be!” Sidney told Wyatt, who smiled wearily.
Xavier opened his eyes and released a jolly laugh, waving his arm at her. “Your mother and father would’ve loved seeing that. What was their favorite one? Oh, it was — ” He stopped when Sidney’s smile greatly dimmed and her hands tightly gripped onto her sweets case. He stepped down from his desk, cleared his throat, and did an airy hand-flick. “Uh, never mind. Here, you also need long-range comms links.” He handed out earbuds for the agents to test out.
Dr. Fulbright pushed his glasses up his nose, passing his gaze over each agent. “You’re about to do a great justice for us.” He looked at Wyatt a second longer, the weight of pensiveness growing heavier in his eyes. “I’m proud of you.”
Drumming a hand on his knee, Wyatt gave him a small nod. Then Xavier said, “Do you still have that monitor?” Wyatt held up his wrist, and Xavier patted his stomach. “Good, I’m glad. I think you’ve gotten on the saddle.”
The agents stood up. Wyatt’s hands glowed. Cooper tapped the shrunken hammers on his belt. Penelope rested her hands on the switchguns in her hip holsters. Corbin ran his fingers along the tiny bronze hoops and the signaler on his belt. Gene fiddled with the Gelescent bracelets tucked into the cuffs of his sleeves. Sidney put her sweets case away and pinched the neck of her shirt to activate her yellow-and-black jumpsuit.
Dr. Fulbright turned to Xavier and remarked, “They already spurred the horse.”
On Flordubul, Gene was the first to step out of his mobular, lifting his head, raising an arm in the air like a king about to make a grand declaration. “It is now, as our shoes contact the peaty ground, that we take a step toward fulfilling the duties of our universal technocracy.”
“Yay, woohoo, let’s hear it for the magnificent orator.” Penelope clapped her hands.
Gene whirled around and wagged a finger at her. “I can skillfully pinpoint lampooners.”
“What? Noooohh! I wasn’t lampooning you!”
“Precisely there, the vitriolic banter. My, are you ever so supercilious!”
“Resist from treating my brother in that flippant manner.” Corbin marched over and stared Penelope in the eye. “We request only kind gestures.”
“You want a kind gesture? I’ll give you a kind gesture!”
Right as she began to whip up a hand, Sidney clasped onto her wrist. “Penelope! Come on, we haven’t even been here for one minute! It’s enough to watch you out on the road!”
“Hey, he can’t suppress me. Not how my mind works.” She stopped struggling to pull her hand, and Sidney let go. Penelope glared at Corbin and Gene, then stormed off for Foris.
The Thistles shook their heads at her before everyone trekked through the field, up to an area filled with more trees than the segment behind them. They gave space between themselves and the fenced-off precipice about ten feet to the left. Wyatt called out after he read the map that Xavier had sent to his phone, “It looks like we can’t use jet-boots, jet-packs, or anything like that until we get closer to Geanthoff. The signatures will be easily detected out here.”
“Then how come we can use them closer to enemy territory?” Penelope questioned.
“Because using jet-boots to fly over the gorges closest to them is the quickest and safest way to reach Geanthoff. We’ll have to finish the job before their security can get a bead on us.”
“Then let’s head on over to the tiki head, pronto!” Penelope ordered.
Gene reached into his drawstring gear pack and produced a blaster with two blinking dials attached to the rear and electronic coils that spiraled along the tapered barrel. “I brought homemade prototypes for today. Each model is a Sharpoise. They project tiny ovoids whose spine-covered exteriors exude a numbness-inducing poison after striking their target.”
“I don’t need it,” said Penelope, taking a switchgun out of her hip holster. She flicked the rear switch to pop out the rapier, which barely missed Cooper’s arm.
“Whoa!” He dodged it by awkwardly twisting sideways. “Don’t poke the pin-gun at me!”
They turned onto an uphill path on the right, and after a minute, Sidney asked, “Is there another way to travel to Foris? We’re walking a little too slowly.”
“Are you kiddin’? Barely walkin’. I’d say pacin’, even joggin’,” Cooper protested.
Wyatt said, still checking his map, “No, she has a point. The gathering might be on now.”
“How else should we go about this transportation matter?” Corbin inquired.
“What about those noisome beasts?” said Gene, his voice climbing the octaves. “Truly, their mushy discharges are harming my olfactory senses!”
Sidney drew two boomerangs. “Grimhet? Where are the sludgies?”
Gene edged over to the precipice on the left side of the path and motioned his Sharpoise to the large pack of Grimhets trudging across the sloped ground sixty feet below. Half of them hauled long, barcoded cylinders. The other half carried smaller boxes on their backs. Scuttling at the front and back ends of the pack were Betelarks, Grimhet’s incarnation of an arachnoid beetle. Kaleidoscopic diamonds of white and gray covered their swollen bodies, while varying blacks smeared their bent legs. Their out-thrust heads twisted multiple ways and spit jets of saliva all over the plants, making them gray and shriveled. Most of the agents watched the pack from above, except for Gene, who clapped a hand over his blinking eyes and wobbled back from the precipice.
“Are you still healthy, Gene?” Corbin asked, moving back with his brother.
“I believe so. The dizziness caused by my altitudinal view is merely ephemeral.”
“So’s your face!” Cooper guffawed.
“What a tedious antic of the tongue!” Gene responded, shaking his Sharpoise at Cooper.
Watching the Grimhets at the bottom of the precipice, Sidney checked the map on her phone. “Says here we’re able to use jet-boots. Let’s go on — ”
A tangle of screeches, roars, and grunts echoed from below. Wyatt leaned over to peek down but suddenly jumped back and projected a hemispherical forcefield to block the incoming Betelarks. Each one had hinged up its elytra and outstretched two papery wings covered in a tracery of translucent white veins, and now they were taking flight at the agents, accompanied by the horribly dense buzzing of their wings.
“Stay back!” Wyatt warned the others, his eyebrows furrowing as he fired orbs at the Betelarks. Even then, the other monsters were beginning to climb the precipice.
“Whadda bunch’o gigglers we have!” Cooper exclaimed, shooting off his hammer heads around Wyatt’s forcefield, shoving the Grimhets off their handholds.
Gene, Penelope, and Sidney ran around the barrier and attacked with Gelescent gloves, switchguns, and boomerangs. Corbin took another second to set up his teleportation hoops and his signaler, after which he tossed down one hoop that snagged onto a rock jutting out from the rough face of the cliff. His next hoop caught on a Betelark’s spiny mandible, making its lipless mouth open with a helpless squeal. Corbin activated the signaler on his belt, causing the hoops to buzz and zip together, popping the rock out of the cliff, smashing it into one of two clusters of multifaceted eyes in the Betelark’s head. The rest of the precipice crumbled apart with loud cracks. The agents on top hurried away with the jet-boots that Wyatt had built for them over the past few seconds. The rocks crushed almost a hundred Grimhets, and Cooper’s hammer heads whacked away the remaining Betelarks.
When the crackling and rumbling died down and the hoops arced up from the forest to Corbin’s hands, Penelope peeked over the precipice’s edge; three feet of it had fallen off. “This is perfect, this is just effing perfect! This ruckus won’t draw nearly as much attention as jet-boots.”
Wyatt said, “I think it will be okay for me to do a quick survey. Stay here.” He zoomed up, braking at a height of fifty feet above the ground. This gave him a view of the giant head of Geanthoff and the mile-long rock out of which it was carved. The opening that he made by flying out of the roof yesterday was not visible. Then his gaze shifted to another pack of Grimhets lumbering up a dirt road. One of them, a Goruly, sped up to the rock’s curved wall, dug in its claws, and slid open a panel.
Wyatt zipped down to his team. “They opened an entryway. Let’s go before it closes.”
They all boosted into the sky and then curved down to land on a patch of soil behind the Grimhets, who didn’t finish filing into the tunnel before Wyatt blasted them away with energy orbs. The agents advanced to the tunnel as Gene said, “Energy orbs solve many conundrums.”
“I’m pondering over how they secure this pathway,” Corbin mumbled, tapping his phone, studying its data in front of the open tunnel. “No cameras — ”
Rustles leaked out of the forest around the agents and turned louder in seconds, pressing Penelope to grab Corbin’s elbow and pull him into the tunnel. “Get your butt in here!”
Everyone flew into a depot that was twenty-five feet long and fourteen feet wide, with shoulder-high stacks of boxes and cylindrical containers. Open windows on the far side allowed clear views into the gaderch below, the room that Wyatt broke into yesterday. The tall canisters, metal crates, oddly-shaped machines, and painted walls were all present.
As Wyatt stood guard at the tunnel, Sidney jogged across the depot and said, “This is a great place to sneak into. We’re so high up, nobody down there can see us.”
“The perfect place to reconnoiter this horrid environment,” Gene said.
Cooper’s eyes bugged out at him. “Reconnoiter? Okay, ya made it up. It’s ‘recon.'”
Gene sighed. “That is what ‘recon’ is short for. I urge you to verify the definition.” He sighed again when Cooper shook his head and checked his phone. When he pouted and tucked it into his pocket, Gene added, “Yes, what a needle in the posterior, isn’t it?”
Cooper ran away to peek out one of the windows. Penelope yanked him down by his arm and growled, “Don’t let them see you!”
“Incoming beasts, everyone. Stay back,” Wyatt spoke up, jumping into the tunnel. He projected a forcefield against the trampling Grimhets, but two Rampas kicked him into the depot.
“Dammit!” Cooper groaned as he whooshed his hammer heads at the monsters.
The last Grimhet standing, a Betelark, was killed when Sidney gashed its abdomen and chopped off the head with her boomerang. When Wyatt asked if everyone was okay, Cooper said, “Sure, but man, am I steamin’ like a pig!” When Sidney handed him napkins, he said, “Thanks a ton,” and padded his forehead and nose.
They crouched under the windows and peeked over the ledges to spy on the Grimhets, who did nothing but speak a garbled-sounding dialect. The crates and machines were pushed against the walls. Penelope jerked her chin at the large wall painting of the young-faced man with patchy black and white hair.”See him? Ulti Magiuse, Torchen Originator, disregarded by his partners for probing occult knowledge.”
Cooper snickered, “A lotta people know that, Penny! We got lively thinkers, ya know.”
While Gene and Corbin took photos of the gaderch and the depot with their phones, Sidney’s gaze rested on one of the containers, an off-white box covered with scuff marks. “An Web package,” she said, pacing over to the box, rubbing a hand over a barcoded label.
“What do you think it withholds — ” Corbin stopped as she used a boomerang to slice off the lock with a low-pitched crack. She swung up the box’s hinged lid and produced a smooth mineral from inside. She sidestepped Corbin when he scrambled over and dipped his head into
the box. “Look at this amassment of green-speckled amber!”
“Amber? Ya talkin’ ’bout Gigalek?” Cooper asked as everyone hurried over to the box.
Wyatt said, “Why would Web illegally mine — ”
“This is synthetic Gigalek.” Sidney looked left and right, then reached in and dug up two handfuls of the small pieces. “Let’s take some for later examination.”
Wyatt constructed small sacks and passed them around, but they couldn’t fill them with too many pieces before shouts burst up from the Grimhets. Wyatt ran back to the windows, his brow furrowing. “Gargant.”
Everyone stuffed the bags of amber in their pockets, spying Gargant levitate out of an archway on the far side, trailed by his apprentice in a dress suit with bishop sleeves. This was when Sidney slitted her amethyst eyes and muttered in her throatiest tone, “Naazang.”
Wyatt whipped his head to frown at her. “Sidney, are you okay?”
She turned to him and blinked, her mouth flickering into a smile. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“The way you spoke sounded as if, if some malevolent spirit was possessing you.”
“Thank you for uttering this nightmarish simile. It will torment me in bed tonight.”
Wyatt looked at Gene on Sidney’s other side. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.”
Then Gargant announced from below, “Grimhet! Your contributions to vanquishing the oppression of Starsapiens are bearing fruit. Right now we are standing under the blossoming tree of Super Nex and feeding off its energy, reviving our long-extinct kin, growing our numbers, opening our vortexes across Cosmotic. We are thriving more than ever before!”
As the legion cheered, Sidney said in a less growly tone, “Gargant thinks he’s running the show, but Naazang is orchestrating everything backstage. Gargant’s his bitch.”
Cooper shook his head fast. “Naw, I still think Naazang is Gargant’s bitch.”
Penelope made a rough tch of annoyance. “Kids, they’re each other’s bitches.”
Wyatt asked, “Who is Naazang? Is he crucial to Grimhet’s plot?”
Sidney made no effort to upturn her mouth or brighten her eyes when she turned to him. “He’s the reason we’re here now.” She looked back out the window, watching Gargant pivot around and stride past Naazang. Penelope had to rest a hand on her wrist to stop the repeated figure eights she kept scraping into the floor with her boomerang.
“Now I will welcome the Moteth,” Gargant declared, using an upward swing of his arms to sweep dust off the floor and shower it all over the painting of Ulti Magus. It was seen curving and spiraling behind the dust sticking to the wall. Then a bipedal creature lunged out, stabbing its hooves into the ground, flailing its double-elbowed arms to balance its thirty-foot-tall body. Its
eyes were vertical slits at first before widening into large walleyes.
Everyone except Sidney cringed in some fashion when Gargant pressed a hand into the creature’s ankle, veins visibly pulsing beneath its grayish-brown fur. His prideful grin broadened when the Moteth sniffed its upturned snout, swiveled its bat-like head almost one-eighty degrees, and craned its neck up at the depot. The agents crouched under the windows, but it didn’t matter.
Gene squeaked, “Does this abominable creature possess heightened awareness?”
Cooper made a loud shushing noise. “Shut up! It could hear your mousy voice!”
With a murmuring laugh the Moteth thrust its hand into the depot, scattering stones everywhere. The agents sprinted toward the entrance tunnel. Penelope fired her switchguns at the hulking monster behind them. She, Wyatt, Corbin, and Sidney whirled around at Cooper and Gene’s shouts. The floor had crumbled from under their feet, and they both tumbled down with the rocks before they could activate their jet-boots.
“Agh, we have to save their hides now?” Penelope groaned in the tunnel, even as Wyatt shot past the remaining crates and machines in the half-torn depot and flew down at the Moteth. Penelope, Sidney, and Corbin followed him.
The Moteth had grabbed Cooper and Gene in one hand and started to raise its other fist, but Wyatt smacked it away with a long energy hammer. Corbin threw two hoops, one that caught on the beast’s shoulder and another on a catwalk railing. The force between the hoops tore out the catwalk, which banged into the Moteth’s head. The whole creature fell over, and Cooper and Gene were thrown out of its grip, but Sidney and Wyatt swooped them up in their arms.
“Unless you wanna spend quality time here, let’s fly our asses out of here,” Penelope said, leading the flight up to the depot. The next thing they knew, though, Grimhets stampeded out of the entrance tunnel and pushed them back out into the open air. Wyatt’s forcefield was the only thing that buffered their fall onto one of the conveyer belts. It also protected them when those Grimhets rained down from the depot.
“You did not have to trouble the others by bringing them along, Wyatt,” Gargant said, levitating towards them, stroking his lapel’s hyacinth. He roared a call to his Grimhets, making them compress their oozy bodies into the domed forcefield. But it exploded into cobalt sparks, disintegrating the beasts, sending Gargant into a wall.
“I’m not certain we can reuse our entry as an exit,” said Corbin, looking up at the depot.
The others looked up as well, frowning at the ooze and dust filling the depot, hardening into lumps around the edges. No one could reply to Corbin before a Rampa stomped up to them, making Penelope roll her eyes; she didn’t even have to look its way to shoot it in the face.
When the Moteth, recovering from its crash, stood up and started to punch a fist at the team, most of them scattered, except for Wyatt. He would have stood there with his open hands, but Cooper yanked him away, exclaiming, “Gonna see if you can shield us against that whopper of a fist? Wy, you’re hilarious sometimes!”
They raced down an aisle between the crates and machines, but a Drakolin dove onto the path ahead and breathed a whitish plume of fire at them. Wyatt’s forcefield blocked it long enough for Cooper to whoosh his hammer heads up and over into the Drakolin’s back. The fire-breathing stopped, and its head suffered a strike from Wyatt’s energy staff.
“Ouch, down for the count!” Cooper hooted, lopsidedly grinning.
The battle grew fast in the gaderch. Naazang had made the choice at the beginning of the chaos to move up to a balcony next to where the Moteth spawned from the wall. He scanned the chamber as Cooper whammed a Betelark into a forcefield that Wyatt projected to his side, as Sidney and Penelope stood back-to-back and slashed and shot Grimhets, as Gene stretched Gelescent ropes through Corbin’s hoops so that they zipped all over Grimhets and tangled them up. He stood there, doing nothing, even when Gargant levitated up to him, the pure whiteness of his quivering head bulges standing out from his dark gray skin.
“Capture them, you lazy child! You cannot act impassively towards this disaster!”
Naazang glimpsed at Gargant. “I explained the events. Now, let them unfold.”
“You always rely on excuses,” Gargant clipped, glowering at Corbin as he borrowed a Sharpoise from Gene and fired the spiked ovoids at the Moteth’s knees, causing them to buckle.
The fight dragged on as Wyatt, having been separated from Cooper due to a particularly vicious Rampa, tried to send an alert to Xavier through his comms earbud. He could barely say a word before a Goruly kicked him into a stack of crates. Things crashed over, the earbud popped out of Wyatt’s ear and clattered to the floor, and the Goruly crushed it beneath its foot. Wyatt held back a grunt and propelled the ape over ten feet upwards with a forcefield.
Right around that time dust puffed through the area that Sidney and Penelope were in. By the time they killed the small number of Grimhets that came along with it and stumbled out of the fog, they were standing on opposite sides of it, each of them facing a dense pack of Grimhets. Things turned worse for Sidney when a Betelark opened its chittering mouth and squirted her with a fine spray of bitter-smelling saliva. She staggered back into the fog, padding her eyes with a napkin, blindly throwing a boomerang. It struck the Betelark in the head, then curved back to her, but she was holding the napkin to her face with both hands. Without anyone to catch it, the boomerang fell to the floor with a clang.
A throbbing inside Sidney’s head passed into her eyeballs, making her yell in pain. She ripped the yellow-blotched napkin off her puffy eyes, but it stuck to her fingers. Swaying in place, getting down on a wobbly knee and then standing up at once, lifting her heavy feet one by one to make it out of the fog, she finally opened her eyes. Yellow crud leaked from the corners. Her pupils were dilated. Her gaze darted at the paths between all the equipment, and standing in one of them was a slate-gray figure with murky yellow eyes.
“Naazang!” Sidney called, fumbling a boomerang out of her jumpsuit’s arm sleeve.
Naazang’s voice rang in her head, “Sidney, stop paining yourself — ”
With a deep grunt of effort she cast the boomerang at her opponent. The second it struck his arm, his form dissolved to reveal Wyatt, whose shout pierced the air. Sidney sucked in a breath and bolted up to him. “Oh shit,” she muttered, her eyes clearing up. She pulled the napkin off her fingers, wiped the last of the crud off her eyes, and tossed it away. She kneeled to remove the boomerang from Wyatt’s upper right arm. He was groaning and trying to curl away from her.
“Why’d you do that? Didn’t you know it was me?” he asked, his throat cracking.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I mistook you for Naazang. I’m sorry,” she quickly mumbled, producing a lourus-stamped case from the hip of her jumpsuit. She clicked it open to reveal a complete first-aid kit’s worth of materials. She mopped up the bleeding cut with gauze, dabbed a pale pink ointment around the edges, and applied a thin bandage, all within one minute.
“Don’t do anything strenuous with that arm. I’ll finish treating it after we escape,” Sidney said, pricking the skin beneath her eyes with a needle-tipped bottle. Her pupils constricted and the rest of the crud dissolved almost instantly.
She helped Wyatt stand up and looped his arm around her shoulders, guiding him the opposite way of the fog. In the middle of an atrium-like space between all the equipment, she had Wyatt stop when Corbin and Gene scampered in, holding back pursuing Grimhets, crying foreign curses. Penelope jumped down from a catwalk, her jet-black bun dusted with Hagga scales. Cooper completed the team, getting catapulted there by a Goruly. He returned the favor by whacking his hammer heads into the Goruly’s bloated stomach.
“I apologize in advance for this,” Gargant said from a catwalk above, the one Penelope had jumped off. He held out his arm and made a sharp twist of his hand, silently commanding his Grimhets to cower away from the agents. Then he held both hands downward and formed a small whirlpool of oozing dust. “I promise you, this will preserve your well-being.”
“No, it will not,” Wyatt stated, holding up his trembling hands, the glow flickering in his palms. This translated into a thin forcefield that, when a funnel roared down from Gargant’s whirlpool, burst into weak glimmers. Violent winds swirled around the team, condensing the dust, blowing Grimhets away, drowning out Naazang’s rising voice.
When Gargant clapped his hands together, the funnel swelled outward, imploded into a single point in the air, and finally unleashed an explosion of oozing darkness that threw Grimhets and machinery all over the chamber. Gargant levitated down to the space where the team had vanished, squeezing the white bruises on his hands, his facial wrinkles widening.
“You have lost a chance to capture the intruders,” Naazang said, climbing down from the crates, his steady voice contrasting with the flash in his yellow eyes.
“It is better this way. They will survive, but nonetheless they will be trapped.”
“Where are they now?”
Gargant favored Naazang with a nasty sideways smirk. “A fragment of gloom.”
“You’re pretty early, Wyatt!”