“Stop whining like a two-year-old, you mushrot, and get the reserve back online!”
“You know why that is impossible, so give me some peace. I can’t devise — ”
“Suck it! You’re a master techno-engineer, so you can build another way to track it.”
“You make ‘master engineer’ and its variants sound uniquely astringent. I dislike it.”
“Corbin, Penny, you need to stop this right now,” Sidney interrupted, jumping in to stand between Corbin, who was crouched in a chair, and Penelope, who was standing over him with fingers arched into claws and eyes that could go up in flames at any second. Sidney pointed at Corbin first, scolding, “This is not the time for a labor strike. Your brother and Wyatt are still out there, so find a way to track down the reserve.” She turned to Penelope next. “And you need to stop being so hostile. Has it ever made progress for us before?”
“Once or twice. Or three times. Or four. Five. Maybe six. And if — ”
“No, Penelope, it’s not helping us. Besides, who knows? Wyatt Durrell is a hardy one. It wouldn’t surprise me if he and Gene came through that entrance in a burst of Super Nex energy.”
An orb of cobalt light materialized in the middle of the cavern with a growing whir, spinning in a tilted circle, brushing wisps past the shelves and computer monitors. Corbin scrambled off the chair and backed up with Sidney. Penelope drew her switchguns. The curtain rustled open for the bathroom on the far end of the cavern, and Cooper’s head popped out so he could bug his eyes out at the widening orb. “Ram spit, the ol’ Com’dore!”
Zipping up his pants, Cooper fully exited the bathroom in time for the orb to flood the cavern with energy, its impressive warmth rushing into everyone. They grabbed onto tables and shelves to keep themselves on their feet. Their eyes were wide open, briefly blinded by the light, and then they blinked and the light vanished. Standing in the middle of the cavern were Wyatt and Gene, the flashlight in the former’s hand.
“Durrell!” Sidney cried, racing up to them with a laugh and a punch to Wyatt’s shoulder. “Took you long enough! And Gene!” The shoulder-pat she gave him was close to a shoulder-slap. Then she sharply cocked her head at them. “You look a little better than I expected.”
“A little better?” Wyatt repeated as the rest of the team crowded around them.
Cooper thumped Wyatt’s shoulder. “Where in blue blazes have you been?”
Corbin tousled his brother’s hair, making him giggle. “Are you as robust as ever?”
Penelope shook a switchgun at Wyatt and Gene. “What the hell’d you get lost for?”
“Too much stimulation!” Gene cried, holding up his hands, falling into Corbin’s arms.
Wyatt and Gene sat on stools, and the others pulled more stools around them so they could listen to their story. It was punctuated by the team’s noises and statements of amazement, especially when Corbin said, “A teleportation device, powered by Super Nex energy, stable enough to whisk you through spacetime without any deformities?” He snapped his fingers into a dirt stain on his khaki pants. “Mr. Medanar, you are a wonder.” At the same time he was using a first-aid kit of Quentin’s to treat the cuts and abrasions on Gene’s face and hands from all the rocks and dust of Alidiska Min.
Penelope said, “We were here for hours, though. Why’d you stay out there so long?”
Exchanging an odd look with Gene, Wyatt said, “No, we were there for a few minutes.”
“Perhaps you loitered in the void of spacetime,” said Corbin, gesturing to a wall clock. “According to our time, your absence lasted for three hours and fourteen minutes.”
Biting his lip, twisting a hand around the flashlight, Wyatt eventually said, “Well, it doesn’t matter. I’m glad you made it back here, back through that crazy dust storm.”
“And the collapsing columns!” Sidney added, rolling up Wyatt’s sleeve all of a sudden. “We were extremely fortunate. And stay put, I need to replace the bandage.”
While Sidney did first-aid work on him, Penelope said, “We tried to track you down through the reserve. The signals were powerful, even in its broken state, but fuzzy. But the tablet shut down. I was persuading Corbin to build another — ”
“Wait to reproach me until after you take responsibility for the malice you spouted.”
“Oh crappers,” moaned Cooper, pushing the bangs up off his forehead. “C’mon, Wy and Genie, they’re right here. Don’t need to stab the tigon when it’s snoozin’.”
Pursing her mouth, glimpsing at him and then Corbin with the fire in her eyes shrinking, Penelope blew hot air out her flared nostrils and said, very bitter, “Fine.”
Corbin briefly darted his eyes somewhere, and Wyatt and Gene followed his gaze to a worktable some feet away. Laying there was a computer tablet with a spiderweb of cracks in the screen and a split running along the case’s edge. Wyatt started to talk, but Corbin said, “I have to fetch something. Wait here, please.” He jumped off the stool and scampered up the stairs, leaving
Wyatt and Gene to look at each other with bemusement.
Penelope smirked. “There’s a trinket he found while rummaging the junk.”
Gene sat up on his stool. “A trinket? Ooh, my heart is beating with anticipation!” His eyes shone, but then they dropped to a book on a worktable. “Pardon me, but who handled my third-favorite novel like a churl? The spine was not creased, if my memory — ”
“Naw, already creased, ruffled, bent, ya name it. I cared for it like a pup.”
“Mr. Roosevelt, please treat books and other delicate objects punctiliously.”
Cooper tilted his head back and puffed a long breath. Before he could respond, Corbin burst out of the stairs and onto his stool, a biconcave disc on the palm of his hand. It bore curvy symbols around the outer rim in intaglio, although a few of them were too close together to make them out clearly. The inner rim of the three-inch hole in the center seemed to be mostly detached, even hovering, as if suspended by some quiet force in the device.
As Gene lifted the disc off his brother’s palm, regarding it with a twinkling gaze, Wyatt asked, “Another invention of Quentin’s? Do you know what it does?”
“I stumbled across this upstairs in its own compartment among the rest of his gadgets,” said Corbin, his eyes following the disc as Gene turned it over and over, glimmers of golden and silver reflecting off the metal surface; it had a strangely soft look to it. “‘Spacetime tube-warping torus invented by Q.M. on March 21st, 2448′ was the compartment’s title.”
Gene’s shoulder hunched up. “Spacetime tube-warping torus’?”
Cooper released a guffaw. “A clunker of a name, yeppers!”
Sidney said, “We could call it a portal disc. I suggested it earlier, it’s simple.”
“Portal disc, portal disc.” Drumming a hand on his knee, Wyatt nodded. “I like it.”
Penelope said, “You haven’t even seen the whole thing. Gene, squeeze it between your hands, like if you’re pressing a sandwich. And don’t drop the damn thing. If it breaks, I will — ”
“Penelope.” Corbin stared at her for three seconds, then gestured to his brother.
Squeezing the portal disc horizontally between his hands, Gene yelped when it silently shone a hologram up through his fingers. It depicted a tall mountain with streaks of magenta that bowed up the slopes along trails of silver-leaved trees. Puffy clouds encircled the middle section. A small patch of the silver trees covered the peak.
Wyatt read aloud the message under the holographic mountain. “‘Enter the primis monns on the largest crescent. What you will harvest from its belly can defeat Super Nex. Q.M.'”
Sidney fidgeted with her amber pendant. “‘Primis monns’ is Teönor for ‘first mountain’.”
Wyatt said, “Its belly. In the largest crescent. It must be somewhere in Lunatark.”
Penelope reminded them, “Our main challenge is uncovering the portal pieces.”
“Which could be easy,” Sidney said. “We’ll retrieve the pieces, and if Lunatark’s natives are helpful to us, we can definitely get our assignment rolling along.”
After a few moments, Corbin patted his brother’s shoulder and said, “I must repeat this. It’s a relief, a huge relief, to see that the two of you are safe and sound.” He motioned a hand to Gene and Wyatt. “We became inspirited by finding that the reserve was, that it was online . . .” He trailed off when the dots on Wyatt’s open palm glowed, faded, and glowed again.
Only when everyone stared at this sight did Wyatt look down at his hand, and then he drew a tight breath. Silently, he let loose a wisp from his fingertips, condensing them into an orb, which changed into a sword and then a pair of hammers. After he dissolved the energy, he picked up the flashlight from his lap and said, “It’s because of this. It had the energy — ”
“Let me see that.” Penelope held out a hand, waggling her fingers. Wyatt hesitated to give her the flashlight until she said, “Just a look at this freaky little thing.” She held it close to her narrowed eyes and twisted the cap, shooting a cobalt beam out the lightbulb end. Corbin and Cooper, the ones closest to getting hit, reared back on their stools, and Cooper clutched Corbin’s wrist to stop him from falling off.
“Web Foundation?” Wyatt said, furrowing his brow at the picture of the satellite station that the beam was shining on the wall.
Cooper slapped his forehead. “We’re orbitin’ the same goopy planet as the spook base?”
“Penelope, put down the flashlight,” Wyatt instructed, getting off his stool. “I think I know what it’s gonna do, but before it does that, we need to pack our supplies.”
Penelope took her glasses by an edge of the sharp frames and pulled them down her nose, peering over them at Wyatt and the flashlight. “You actually think this will teleport us to the Foundation? Look, it may have done that for you and Skinny Nerd Two here — ”
“I beg your pardon!” Gene squeaked.
“But how reliable is this thing? Medanar built it, not Quantax, and the materials — ”
“To the best of our observations, Me. Medanar uncovered a Super Nex antiviral in an alternate dimension,” Gene interjected. “He participated in the Project Super Nex trials. He transformed this cavern into a moderately comfortable residence. He is responsible for the portal disc, the flashlight, and the enigma trail that will supposedly lead us to Lunatark.”
Corbin sat towards him. “What is your opinion, brother?”
“A judicious one, I believe — relying on Mr. Medanar for our trip to the Foundation.”
For the shortest of moments Wyatt looked at Gene, brow furrowing downward and then loosening upward. He hopped off his stool and asked everyone, “What do you guys think?”
Cooper, Sidney, and Corbin were quick to agree, which made Penelope push her glasses back up her nose. “Well, one against five is pointless. But if traveling through spacetime melts us or tears our bodies or destroys us any way, don’t come weeping on my shoulder.”
“All right,” Wyatt said. “First, I need to go use the restroom.”
After he was gone, Gene claimed that he had to go next. Then Penelope said, loudly enough for Wyatt to hear, “Perfect timing. I just sanitized it. There was a scattering of dandruff around the sink. It always occurs after a certain someone — Corbin — takes a visit. If there was a murder involving him, I could say, ‘Go to the bathroom sink! You’ll find plenty of his DNA in the form of scabs, dandruff, little pieces of dried blood, dribbles of some liquid that I’m hoping is saliva, and other unidentifiable bodily contents.'”
“I have a vital organ in here.” Corbin patted his chest. “And your taunt is breaking it.”
After Wyatt returned, stepping aside for Gene to enter the restroom, he said, “You did a good job cleaning everything, Penelope. I could smell the fresh scent of rubbing alcohol.”
“Save the compliments. I hear enough of them from Dr. Fulbright. Now let’s start to pack the essentials, including the puzzle maps, Medanar’s journal, all our personal possessions.”
They bustled about the cavern to do exactly that, making sure they took the synthetic pieces of Gigalek amber. Wyatt also stuffed Vermillion Pacifist and a bottle of Dinisis vinneum into his bag. After Corbin and Gene snapped pictures of the cavern with their phones, Wyatt took the flashlight from Penelope and gathered everyone together. He pointed the flashlight down at the floor, where the picture of Web Foundation appeared again.
Cooper clapped his shoulder. “Don’t stress it, Com’dore. Just muster it from here” — he tapped his stomach — “and get it all the way to here.” He tapped his hands.
Wyatt dropped his gaze to the beam, hands clenching onto the flashlight, eyes closing halfway. Just as before, the flashlight transformed into a spinning energy beam and absorbed into his chest. A spherical forcefield enclosed the agents, lifting them off the floor with a breezy humming. Their shouts faded as the sphere warped into a pale blue tunnel streaked with coppery-white light, sucking them into this new path, melting away almost as fast so their feet could float down to the entrance ramp of Web Foundation.
The agents turned around more than once to survey the surroundings — the Foundation and the dragonflies up top, the nearby clusters of translucent white buildings, Alidiska Maj and the rest of the cosmos beyond the vividome. After Wyatt put away the flashlight, Cooper started shimmying and exclaimed, “We’re back, wild angels!”
“We can make calls now,” said Wyatt, dialing his phone, hearing Xavier’s voice. “Xavier, it’s me. My team and I are in front of Web Foundation. I don’t know if you — ”
“Finally! Why’d you take so long? Hold on, I’m in my office. You can come up here!”
However, when the agents did that, they slowed down in the hallway due to a chilly voice leaking from Xavier’s office. Sidney asked, “Why’s Foxer here?”
Wyatt motioned the others to stay back and advanced toward the open door. Foxer and Xavier were standing opposite each other, the former with his collar pulled down to reveal his grizzled chin, both men separated by the mahogany desk. Bridger was off to the side, swinging a rosewood pocket watch by its chain. “He’s here,” he said quietly, turning up the volume when Wyatt hovered in the door. “Durrell, how are you? Everyone is curious about what happened.”
“I’m sure of that,” Wyatt said, gripping the doorjamb with one hand. “Xavier, isn’t it better for us to talk downstairs? Unless your meeting is finished and they’re ready to leave.”
“We’ll talk here,” Foxer stated, resting a hand on one of those icy daggers in his belt.
“This’ll be entertaining,” Penelope muttered, filing in with the team, Corbin and Gene mumbling to each other, Xavier giving strong handshakes that jiggled his loose-limbed arm.
Gene asked, “Overseers Foxer and Bridger, to what do we owe the pleasure of — ”
“To a thief who broke into our outposts and stole classified contents,” Foxer cut off.
“Xavier is lending his assistance,” Bridger said, still swinging the pocket watch, which had a miniature sundial in the watch face. “But enough about us. We want to hear your story.”
Wyatt recounted the team infiltrating Geanthoff, the creation of a Moteth, being whisked away to Alidiska Min, the events at Quentin Medanar’s cavern, and their successful teleportation to Web Foundation. Then he concluded, “What I keep getting hung up on is the fact that he was a participant in Project Super Nex, and even more so, that I can barely remember him.”
Xavier whirled his hands in the air. “Well, he wasn’t a participant for very long.”
Gene chimed in, “He yearned to create an antiviral. Wyatt informed us that Overseer Foxer never candidly accounted for Mr. Medanar’s abrupt withdrawal.”
“And his journal mentioned the Super Nex virus’s growing toxicity,” Penelope added.
Foxer’s hand closed around his dagger a bit more. “I’m unaware of the details.”
“Owen, with your permission, I think it’s time we declassify this matter. They deserve to know more.” Xavier gestured an open hand to Foxer, whose icy white eyes stared back at him. Receiving no answer, Xavier turned to the team and said, “Quentin’s extreme power fluctuations, we thought it was for the best to keep them under wraps until they could be fully understood. But he left without a trace, compelling us to mask the details even more. And Owen was determined to reject any participants who exhibited unusual symptoms and went on to, er, oversee the trials with more scrutiny.”
“Stop,” Foxer said, his one-word command enough to silence Xavier.
Twirling her zigtail, Sidney questioned, “What about the people you rejected, Foxer? I can’t imagine you would let the virus remain in their bodies.”
“Rad-Bio Laboratory tried to create an antiviral, but the virus suddenly vanished from the rejected participants’ systems. We don’t know the reason.”
Sidney tilted her head, a suspicious edge creeping onto her faint smile. “I also have a hard time believing the virus would disappear, especially in a spontaneous fashion.”
“Rad-Bio did keep those events on record,” Wyatt said.
A whole layer of ice covered Foxer’s face. “We’re not discussing this topic anymore.”
A brief silence fell over the agents before they produced the bundles of synthetic Gigalek and dropped them into a pouch that Xavier took from inside his suit. Bridger was leaning over to peek at the pieces and their various colors, and he asked, “Xavier, do you have any idea how Grimhet acquired these shipments? If it can corroborate the break-in at Quantax Foun — ”
“Janus, Janus.” Xavier darted his eyes between Bridger and the agents.
After Bridger nodded and tucked the pocket watch into his blue-and-green speckled tweed coat, Penelope gave Xavier the gray-tinged Gigalek key and explained that it was taken from a Romuteli chief. Bridger tensed more visibly than Foxer, while Xavier patted his belly and said, “The Romuteli, eh? I’ll say, Alidiska Min hasn’t been surveyed since 2441 — ”
“No,” said Wyatt, looking straight at Xavier. “SPACE Union avoids deploying units there for reasons that we’ve become severely familiarized with.”
Cooper said, “Winds an’ rocks roarin’ ev’rywhere, creepy Romuteli, no phone signals.”
Bridger said, “Yes, we don’t need to launch an expedition of such lengths for now.”
“By the by, may you update us on the Super Nex participants who are unaccounted for?”
“Sure, Gene,” Xavier responded. “The ones who went missing are, um, still missing. We’re searching for them, the whole universe, we’re searching. The rest are under asylum. And the antiviral, Cerebral University has been generous enough to lend us some of their labs while Rad-Bio is undergoing reconstruction. Grant is extremely hopeful for progress.”
Corbin said, “Speaking of antivirals, the one Mr. Medanar mentioned — ”
“Are you certain about this quest?” Bridger questioned, gazing at the agents through his bronze glasses. “What if Medanar organized this as an elaborate trick?”
“We would be dead if we didn’t find his cave,” Wyatt said, taking a step toward the Quantax Overseer. “And my team and I have judged that he was a smart man, an earnest man.”
“We did?” Gene whispered, which made Cooper shush him and Sidney shake her head.
“Dead?” Xavier said, spreading his arms wide at the team. “No, we would’ve found you.”
Foxer said, “Very few people escape the fog of Alidiska Maj and Min.”
Xavier shot him a sideways glance and mumbled, “Owen, please.” His eyes returned to the team, his face falling a bit. “These gems, you think they can help us?”
Wyatt looked around at the others. “I don’t know. What do you guys think?”
Most everyone replied with enthusiastic agreement, except Gene, who was tugging at the top button of his shirt. “Is everyone in genuine concordance? Deciding with, with such haste?”
“Yes, we’re sure,” Sidney, Penelope, and Wyatt answered at the same time.
“Wryneck!” Cooper exclaimed at the same time as Sidney and Wyatt.
“You don’t get to say ‘wryneck’, Roosevelt,” Penelope scoffed, which made Cooper shrug.
“Ahem, ahem, ahem!” Gene loudly interrupted. “Yes, I may give my consent.”
“Even though Medanar was a devoted supporter of Torchen?”
Foxer turned his eyes slightly, and then his head. “What are you implying, Bridger?”
“Torchen, of course. He could have cursed these gems. You know what . . .” Bridger absorbed everyone’s frowns, arched eyebrows, and generally dark expressions. He reached a hand into his coat for the pocket watch. “Fine, if you’re unconcerned with their arcane doctrines.”
Xavier asked if the team needed help with anything, and after Penelope mentioned that their mobulars were left on Flordubul, Xavier said, “I’ll order a pod for you. Just a minute.”
While typing on a holographic screen, Xavier told a bawdy Raellem poem about the drunken absurdities of Ovsecuu’s nightclubs. Everyone except Foxer blushed. Then Xavier shut the screen and said that the pod was ordered. Wyatt thanked him and then looked back at his team, saying, “First, Flordubul, and then the first world in Quentin’s trail — Vestral.”
“Did you know crypt tortoises mate at Tortug Terre once every decade? It’s a fascinating ritual to witness. Males turn their shells vivid patterns of yellow and orange.”
“Sidney,” said Penelope, “you can’t talk about this the entire time.”
“I can at least mention it while we’re heading to Tortug.”
The team was filing down walkways that meandered around and between hills of mauve grass. Dark brownish-gray boards made from a wood-metal blend groaned under their brisk footsteps. Brooks babbled down some of the hills from small openings in the rocks. Spots of pale green light flickered above the water. Less than a mile away were low houses and shops packed
around a cluster of many-tiered towers. A triangular lantern of rich purple light drifted to and fro above the ring of crow-stepped gables on the tip of each tower.
Most of the agents took a few seconds every once in a while to pause and gaze at the peaceful environment. As for Wyatt, he took steady step after steady step, only stopping if he noticed the others stopping as well. He rarely glimpsed at the thin cumulus clouds twirling through the dark green sky, the quadruplet of suns seen as marble-sized circles of whitish-red, or the four-winged birds wailing and feeding off the orange trees scattered on the muddy hilltops. This was a small part of Vestral, which looked like a ball of green, purple, and white lands and oceans swirling together into a planet of mutable life.
“Gramps took me here lotsa times for raven hunting,” Cooper mentioned as they stopped at the edge of Tortug Terre and peered down into the bowl-shaped area. “Never got my heart into it, though. I mean, those ravens, their numbers are slippin’, but a lotta people don’t give a flap.”
“People don’t care about a lot of things on this planet,” said Wyatt, staring at a still pond on the far side, where narrow streams spoked out and eroded the walls. Drumming his hand on the banister, he climbed down a spiraling staircase that landed near three houses built from the same wood-metal blend as the walkways. The others followed him down there, stepping over the mossy ground, passing a group of carved stone tortoises.
“Oh, for Demcratus’s sake,” Corbin mumbled, stopping at a tortoise that was turned onto its back. He flipped it onto its feet with Gene’s help, grunting and sucking in deep breaths.
Penelope had taken the Vestral map from her satchel — the one Shemoaniir dropped — and studied it with slitted eyes. When they reached the pond on the far side, she said, “The gem is either inside this pond or near it, if Medanar drew this correctly.”
Wyatt went down on one knee at the pond’s edge. “Survey everything aboveground. I’ll go in here first.” He held his breath and dove into the water with a splash. He massaged his wrists for a moment before swimming off, searching the clear water and the smooth stone walls. Half a minute passed before his eyes zeroed in on what was embedded into the bottom of the pond: a coppery coin shining an emerald green emblem of an octagonal crystal.
Wyatt wedged his energy wisps around the coin, prying it out of its crevice with a loud crack. This sent rumbles through the bottom of the pond, crumbling holes apart in the stone and subsequently firing golf-ball-sized rocks like cannonballs. Tucking the coin into his jacket, he sped away and leapt out of the water.
His roll across the dirt made Gene jump back from the splashes and yell, “Alphacos! Identify yourself, swamp gargoyle!” He blinked at the young man and exhaled a breath of relief. “Oh, Wyatt. It is, it is only you. My apologies. You are no swamp gargoyle, of course. Hopefully, my arrhythmia is only imaginary.”
“Arrhythmia? What’s next, sore muscles?” Penelope said with a smirk before recesses split open in the wall that curved up from the pond.
The rocks struck Wyatt’s forcefield hard enough to push it backward, leaving long scrapes on the dirt, forcing him and his team to move away. As he clenched his hands and gripped the forcefield into the ground to stop it from moving, Sidney made a bunch of energetic little hops and pointed at the rocks. “Finally! A classic treasure hunt trap!”
Gene gasped at her. “The temerity to appreciate this threat!”
Penelope said, “Don’t gasp too much, Gene! You might tire out your precious throat.”
As the rock barrage continued, Corbin sidled over to Wyatt and asked, “Did you discover anything in the pond? There must be a mechanism to dismiss this hindrance.”
“I did, thanks for reminding me.” Wyatt sustained his forcefield as he produced the coin from his coat. He fingered it, staring at the wall where all the rocks were launching from.
Gene scurried over to him next and suggested, “Why don’t you display shrewdness and recognize the coin’s intended placement in that peculiar recess?”
Wyatt turned to him with furrowed eyebrows. “What recess?”
“There!” Gene planted a thin finger on the coin and then pointed at a recess in the distant wall, rimmed with the same coppery metal as the coin, a small green indent in the center.
“Oh. Thanks.” Wyatt used the propulsion feature of his suit to fly forward, projecting two forcefields, one to defend the others behind him and one to protect himself from the rocks in front. He slowed down at the wall and reached through his forcefield, pressing the coin into the indent with a soft crunch. The rocks stopped firing instantly.
Cooper exclaimed, “Whoo, ten outta ten, Com’dore. Ya did it!”
Wyatt flew back to them and said, “Gene pointed out the indentation there.”
“I am gifted with an eye for individual features whose elusory traits may pass — ”
“Enough with the boasting, Gene.” Penelope waved off a hand at him.
Sidney was the first to jog over to a convex wall where a panel had slid away to reveal a chamber that was stark in comparison to Quentin’s cavern. It had no ridges, plants, moisture, bumps, nothing besides a shoulder-high column with a spot of green near the upper end. Sidney jogged up to it, rubbed a hand over the green spot, and said, “Hey, it’s right here!”
When the others joined her at the column, Cooper said, “We’ll probably have to make hash of the rock to dig out the shiner.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to — ” Wyatt quickly moved aside as Cooper rushed forth, wrapped his arms around the column, and pulled back with a prolonged grunt. Red bolts arced over the column and propelled him into Wyatt. The two of them tumbled over each other.
“Another booby trap.” Sidney smiled and rubbed her hands. “Another lock to pick.”
Getting up with Wyatt, Cooper gaped at her. “Ya really think it’s hot stuff?” When she vigorously nodded, he groaned out a laugh. “What’re we gonna do wi’ya, Sid?”
After the red bolts solidified into a rectangular forcefield, no amount of slashes or smacks from the agents could break it down. The bolts threw sparks and left marks on their weapons, like scratches on Cooper’s hammers or smears on Wyatt’s Dawnaster. However, the portal disc was buzzing in the hip pocket of Penelope’s pants, and she took it out and briefly peered over her glasses. “What is this trinket doing — ”
The interior rim spun separately from the rest of the disc, and she couldn’t hold on long enough before it shot out of her grasp, shattered the forcefield, and clacked onto the column. The gem vibrated out of its crevice and poked through the disc’s center hole. Wyatt extended a hand to pull it out. After Penelope took back the disc, the column silently sank into the ground.
Holding up the gem between his middle finger and his thumb, Wyatt said, “Really, it’s quite unique. I’ve never seen this sort of crystalline structure before.”
“Are you educated in crystallography?” Corbin asked, scratching his chin.
“No, I gained this knowledge from my dad, the devoted mineralogist.” Wyatt focused on the realidorr, which resembled the one from Quentin’s cavern except for the symbol on either end — two V’s above a semicircle with the flat side face-up, an arch of waves on the right edge, and a tall cane on the left edge.
“The next place we should hit is Octoberry Trails,” Penelope said, having taken the map out of her satchel. “This will be tougher. Medanar didn’t specify where at Harlow Remembrance he hid the gem. We’ll be rooting through all the possible hiding spots.”
Then someone greeted in a breathy whisper, “How are you, younglings?”
They whirled around, seeing a tall woman stride toward them. Her beady eyes stood out in the paleness of her fully-shaved head, as incredibly moody as the shiny purple-gray flourishes sewn into her black dress. She was holding a slender glass staff surmounted by a slanted oval with the barest features of an ambiguous face etched into it. Her gauzy angel sleeves hid everything but the stars of violet glittering from her fingertips. As she crossed Tortug Terre, the wailing of birds, the babbling of brooks, and the whispers of breezes sharply rose in volume. Wyatt started to cover his ears, but when she stopped in front of the agents and the cacophony suddenly deflated into silence, he clasped his hands behind his back.
“How are you, younglings?” repeated Freye Urewlil in her signature whisper — Overseer of Torchen, which probed into fields too obscure and eerie for most Starsapiens to pursue, including the pocket dimension and beasts of Grimhet.
“We’re good, Overseer Urewlil,” Wyatt replied, leading his team out of the cave. “We’re actually on a mission right now, uncovering — ”
“The realidorrs. Yes, I know all about your venture. My probers detected an unusual signature during their patrol here yesterday, but they couldn’t uncover the source. When I heard about your mission, I became certain it was the realidorr.”
Wyatt wordlessly held up the gem in his hand. Penelope plucked it away and tucked it into her satchel, saying, “Did the other Overseers tell you about this, or Advisor Wiley?”
“I only had to sense your presence.”
With a tiny grunt Penelope said, “If you don’t mind, we’ll move on to the next gem.”
“Is it somewhere at Harlow Remembrance in Desguis Park, Octoberry Trails?” Freye propped her staff on her shoulder, watching the agents dart glances with each other. “Probers detected a similar signature this morning. I can help you home in on the source.”
“All aid is welcome in this realidorr trail,” Corbin admitted.
Wyatt looked around his team, giving Penelope an extra second of thought — her eyes were less fiery when he had invited the Thistle brothers — then nodded to Freye. “Octoberry Trails, then.”
As the others began to go back across Tortug Terre, Penelope pulled Wyatt aside and told him sotto voce, “You actually trust her, the biggest gadstroller out of everyone in Torchen?”
Wyatt knew the reason she reacted like this was due to the basic reason that most anti-Torchen Starsapiens, or “snuffers” as some called them, were prejudiced against the Intention: Freye was Gargant’s great-granddaughter. She had succeeded her mother Seerdre as Overseer nineteen years ago, in 2433. It was Torchen’s Advisors who caught Gargant conspiring to assassinate Halcyonic Overseer Irris Zessar, then punished him by exiling him into the pocket dimension of Grimhet. No one thought, to their despair, that even a figure of his passionate might could actually turn those pitiless monsters into his blind servants. On top of all this chaos Sairdre was still mourning her late father when she herself succeeded him as Overseer.
No need to waste my time trying to convert a snuffer, thought Wyatt, silently turning and pacing after his team and Freye Urewlil. A scowling Penelope had to march after him, leaving crunched grass blades in her wake.
“Stop whining like a two-year-old, you mushrot, and get the reserve back online!”