Elysium 1900 hours. Days to reality collapse: 4
It had been a grim ride back. Jasmine seemed almost to curl into herself, slumping in the back seat, just staring at the shattered crystal in her hands. Any attempts at making conversation received silence in return. Now she sat hunched over at a table in the temple, head in hands. In front of her, the Jump-gate and the crystals found so far glittered in the light.
"This is quite serious" Drake was saying. "The only other crystals of the same quality on Mukow are deep underground. It would take days to find one, days we simply do not have"
"Well, what else can we do?" replied Ratchet. "We don't have much of a choice. We need that crystal"
A group of scholars had assembled, trying to work out a plan. One of them, a delicate, ash-grey male with a whispery, husky voice, spoke up from the scroll he was reading.
"A thought occurs, esteemed Lombaxes. Maybe that exact crystal is not needed. Perhaps, a replacement can be found. What is the property of the broken crystal?"
Drake looked at Jasmines notes.
"It multiplies the energy in the gate by a factor of ten. That ten is quite important, apparently. Too low and it will not work, too high, and it will burn out the Jump-gate"
"You read Lombax?" He couldn't make heads or tails out of Jasmines notes, covered end to end in dense Lombax runes.
Drake didn't look up.
"I read most languages, Ratchet. If I am to perform my duty correctly, it is necessary. Jasmine, do you know of any other crystals with the same properties?"
Jasmine spoke up for the first time.
"Do I look like a friggin' scientist to you?"
The grey Zenithi spoke again, his soft voice barely audible.
"I think I know who might, Drake. Have you considered the living library? Lankin might be the one you wish to talk to. I am sure she mentioned a crystal at one point"
"An excellent idea, Meshan!" cried Drake "Come, friends, to the living library!"
He led them down a winding corridor. Ratchet spoke up.
"What's this 'living library'?"
"As you know, Zenithi live for a very long time. Elderly, for us, is around a hundred and fifty thousand years. Once a Zenithi is too old to go on missions, they are given an option. They can stay out in the valleys and age and die naturally, or they can stay in the temple and preserve their knowledge indefinitely. Around half chose the latter option, usually those who witness events of great importance or rarity. This helps to keep huge amounts of knowledge from being lost to us. Ah, here we are"
Two double doors stood at the end of the corridor. Drake came to a halt.
"Stand back, please. The doors open out"
A patch of stone on the wall was a lighter colour than the rest. Drake pressed his snout against it. There was a rumble of hidden gears, and the doors swept open slowly and ponderously. The two Lombaxes could hardly suppress a gasp.
"There's no way Clank's going to believe me" Ratchet breathed. (Clank had declared they would get him in that temple over his dead sisterboards, and was staying in one of the valleys)
Inside the room was a forest. Tall trees stretched up to the roof, which was open to the elements. A tiny stream trickled among their roots, and soft mist shrouded them, turning the trees into wavering ghosts. It was warm and humid, with the pleasant fragrances of flowers and Zenithi musk hanging in the moist air. Drake whistled softly. For a moment, there was nothing to disturb the stillness. Then the mist swirled, and they were there. They had made no noise, given no sign, simply appeared between one blink and the next. At least forty Zenithi were silently watching, perched on branches and roots. They were old. Unlike the soft grey of the scholar Meshan, they were the faded silver that comes from extreme age. Yet their eyes burnt with the light of intelligence. There was no doubt they were old in body only.
One spoke up in a cracked, wavery voice.
"I say, chaps, the whippersnappers back, eh wot? This a social call or-" He noticed the Lombaxes
"Or maybe not. Who do you want to see?"
"One moment. She'll probably be over by the waterfall. Lankin!"
The shout was surprisingly loud for someone so frail.
"Blast it, she's out of earshot. Hyrath, go fetch her, there's a good chap"
The old male nodded and disappeared. A few moments later, a Zenithi appeared out of the fog, practically shrivelled with age, but her eyes were still bright and cheerful.
"You wanted me?"
"You have a visitor, Lankin"
"I said, you have a visitor, Lankin!"
"A VISITOR, LANKIN!"
"No need to shout, I'm not deaf. Ah, Drake. Good to see you, young fellow. You'll be wanting information, I take it?"
"Do you happen to know anything about a crystal, Lankin?"
Drake sighed and repeated himself.
"Oh yes, a crystal. That sounds familiar. Ah, that's right, my first mission on Fastoon!"
Jasmines head jerked up.
She said it loudly enough for Lankin to hear her first time. She scowled at her.
"Kindly forbear from interrupting, young lady. Thank you. Where was I? My first mission, that was it. I'd only just fledged my wings, still barely a teenager when it all happened, really. A group of us had been called to Fastoon. The entity had chosen its next incarnation there, and we were to aid the Guardian in destroying it. Now, this was hundreds of thousands of years ago. Back then, Lombaxes were a pretty primitive lot. The height of their technology was a pointy rock on a stick!" She chuckled at her own joke.
"They were a bright bunch, though. You could see the potential in them. And the fear. The incarnation was ravaging the little tribal communities. A big, tough male, as I recall. And this one was far more dangerous than any other incarnation we had seen before. At some point, he'd got hold of a crystal, part of an asteroid that had landed some time ago. It amplified the Kaos incarnations powers ten-fold"
"Was it exactly ten? Are you sure you remember it correctly?" Jasmine said loudly, heart pumping.
"Pin-sharp, lass! Zenithi never forget. Trust me, we were the ones facing off against him. That kind of thing has a tendency to stick in the mind. However, we didn't actually end up having to do much. The other Lombaxes had suffered greatly in his hands, and rose up against him. They were successful. We barely had to lift a talon. The Guardian was quite grateful for this. They do not enjoy taking the incarnations life, but it must be done"
Drake nodded gravely.
"Any hoo, after the Lombaxes had defeated him…well, they were still a primitive and superstitious race. They entombed him and the crystal he used deep inside a cave, too scared to bury him normally. They sealed the tomb, and as time went on, interred their dead warriors there to keep him in. Over time, they forgot why, and continued to bury their dead there, until the climate changed and the oasis's moved, and they were forced to move with them. The crystal is still there, safe in the place you Lombaxes now call, the catacombs"
There was a gasp from Jasmine. She was pale, ears held low.
"You have got to be kidding me! There is no way I'm going in there!"
Lankin nodded to herself.
"It seems some of the old superstitions remain" she murmured quietly.
Ratchet looked confused.
"What's the problem?"
"The problem? the problem is the catacombs! No sane Lombax would would dare set foot in there. You don't disturb the dead. I heard the stories! No-one who went in there ever came out…"
"We have to, Jasmine. For the Lombaxes" said Ratchet softly, gently touching her shoulder. For a moment, she wrestled with herself, than-
Lankin nudged Drake.
"They going, are they?"
"Good. You fetch some parchment, I'll sketch you out a map. Don't want to get lost out there!" She chortled wheezily.
A few moments later they were leaving the temple, a rough map safely stored in Ratchets pocket.
Drake cast a worried glance at Jasmine. The young soldier was definitely looking a few twinkles short of a glitter, ears and head hung low. A few doubts squirrelled around in his minds. Would she be up to it? Had he hitched his horse to the wrong cart? Had he, in short, made a big mistake?
They found Clank in one of the myriad smaller valleys dotted around the temple. Two huge cliffs rose from the forests, facing each other. They were steep and intimidating, with a waterfall tumbling over the left hand cliff. And nearly every teenage Zenithi was throwing themselves off them. For Zenithi, you were considered adult if you could safely fly from one cliff to the other, a feat usually attainable from age twenty. The young ones were trying to shave a few months off this, desperately flapping their wings as they, more often than not, plummeted to the ground after the first few feet. At the foot of the cliffs, huge spongy mushrooms, carefully cultivated for this purpose, caught the young Zenithi's, often catapulting them off like a trampoline. It was very entertaining to watch. Clank giggled as a young female bounced from mushroom to mushroom before landing on her back with a thud. For a moment she struggled to right herself, feet waving in the air, than she finally flipped over and walked off, endeavouring to look as if the entire thing had been intentional.
"Enjoying yourself, pal?"
Ratchet and Jasmine were heading towards him, Jasmine looking very unhappy.
"Oh yes, this is most…meh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh! Look at that one!"
"That was pretty funny! Unfortunately, it's time to go"
"You have found another crystal?"
"Yeah. On Fastoon. believe it or not!"
"Marvellous! We must hurry, there is not a moment to lose!"
He ran off towards the valley Aphelion was parked in.
"Well, someone's keen! You should take a leaf out of his book, Jasmine"
"Shut up, Ratchet"
Fastoon. 2000 hours.
Ratchet sighed happily as the cool night breezes of Fastoon embraced him. It was dark, a river of stars flowing overhead, winking at him like old friends. During his sojourn on Fastoon he had come to know each star intimately, scouring the internet for old star maps and staying out till past midnight, tracing with one finger the shapes of the old Lombax constellations. Many times Clank would find him in the mornings slumped over a dune, covered in dew and fast asleep. Behind him, Jasmine studied some of the wreckage, uncharacteristically quiet.
Drake appeared on a ruined bench, scales and feathers silvery in the moonlight.
"Me and my crew have confirmed it. Kaos is not here. With any luck we will be unhindered in our search. Now, according to Lankin's map. we need to head north, out into the deep desert. A hostile place, by all accounts, but the catacombs aren't that far in. The city has spread out over the years"
"Uh, can I have a moment, Drake? There's something I need to do"
"Of course, Ratchet. Don't take too long, though. Time is of the essence. Report back here when you want to move on"
Ratchet disappeared into the shadows. Drake glanced at Jasmine, who was fidgeting.
"Oh, go on then. When you're done exploring, come back here"
She ran off, the darkness swallowing her up.
Clank and Drake were left alone. Drake nodded in the direction Ratchet had disappeared.
"He's been acting strange since he got here, wouldn't you agree?"
"I never should have agreed to us moving here. There are too many memories, too many ghosts. Such solitude, it is not healthy for him"
"But you went with him"
"Would you leave a friend alone in their hour of need?"
They were silent for awhile, staring up at the night sky, each lost in his own thoughts. After a while, Clank spoke up hesitantly.
"Just out of curiosity…how long have you been following us?"
"All Ratchet's life, really. But we increased our watch after the Tachyon incident. You see, we did not know exactly where Kaos was. We can't be everywhere at once. However, we knew Ratchet was supposed to have some involvement with her. All we had to do was keep track of you until you led us right to her. Worked like a charm! Now we can keep tabs on her, but her security is so tight, we can't get much information. Still, it's something, I guess…"
"I suppose so"
He cast a worried look into the ruined city.
"Do…do you think he will be alright?"
Drake looked up at the stars, face impassive.
"We shall have to see"
Jasmine ran her hands reverently over the stone wall of a building. Even ruined and broken, the city had a grandeur about it. This was the first time she had stopped to look at the city properly, yet it felt like home already. She smiled. Just imagine what it would look like with the Lombaxes back…She thought.
A noise captured her attention. To anyone else, it would have been just that, a noise, but Jasmine was a Praetorian Guard. What's more, a Praetorian Guard who had grown up in one of the multi verses most hostile and deadly environments. Small noises could mean big danger, you ignored them at your peril.
She crept closer, sticking to the shadows by the walls.
"…Sorry I didn't come earlier, It's been pretty hectic, these last couple of days…"
It had been a park, once. Hardy desert trees and shrubs bloomed, adding their soft fragrance to the cool air. Ratchet was leaning against a tree, head bowed.
"I just thought you might like to know. We're close, Alister. Closer than I ever dreamed possible"
She noticed a mound of earth, a shiny rock and wilted bunch of flowers at its head. Sad realisation struck.
"It's kind of…ironic, you know. If you'd just waited a little longer…"
His voice broke. Jasmine fought back tears of her own as she watched Ratchet brush a hand over his eyes, trying to regain control. When he spoke again, his voice shook.
"If you'd waited a little longer you wouldn't be here right now. Maybe you'd be helping us. Dunno what you'd have thought of Jasmine, though" He gave a sad smile.
"She isn't what you'd call professional"
The smile disappeared.
"Why'd you do it, Al?" His voice was almost a whisper. "Why didn't you just wait? Now you're-"
He looked up sharply as a piece of masonry crumbled under Jasmines hand.
She stepped out of the shadows.
"How…how much did you hear?"
"Quite a bit"
"Sorry about that 'professional' crack"
"I've heard worse. 'Sides, it's hardly a lie, right?"
She looked at the sad patch of earth in front of them.
"So, who was he?"
"General Alister Azimuth. He was a friend of my dads"
"The General Azimuth?"
Jasmine nodded to herself and reached into the glowing manifestor on her breastplate, drawing out a scroll.
"I guess it's a little late for this, but better late than never. The council reckons they were too hard on him, with all that exile stuff. You know how it is, when emotions run high. Apparently there was a story behind it as well, a reason he did what he did. I don't know, I'm not high up enough. They gave me this on the off chance I bumped into him"
She gave the guard salute, placing the scroll on the grave.
"Alister Azimuth, on behalf of the Elder Council and Praetorian Guard, I grant you your official pardon, and apologize for the grave wrong doings done to you. You are hear-by released from exile"
"You think he'd like that?"
Ratchet swiftly wiped his eyes.
"I'm sure of it"
There was silence for a while, before Jasmine shouldered her wrench and said:
"Well, wherever he is, I'm sure he'd want us to keep going and not sit around moping. Come on, we still have to do the-" she shuddered.
"I really don't see the problem with it" said Ratchet as the walked away. "It's just caves, right?"
"Dude! Nearly every Lombax horror movie involves stupid teens blundering into the catacombs and the various gruesome ways said teens were murdered. I had nightmares about it when I was a kid! It's just…not somewhere you go…"
She shivered again.
"Look, just in case there is something there, I'll keep a weapon close, but I still think you're over reacting. We'll be fine, trust me!"
"Famous last words" Jasmine muttered.
Silver moonlight flowed over the soft dunes as the small group left the city walls. Ratchet hadn't gone this far before. He could see no end to them, marching away over the horizon, punctuated only by the occasional rocky outcrop. He spread the map over a fallen wall, trying to make sense of Lankin's arthritic scrawl.
"OK, we need to find the, uh…can't make it out. Is that an ink blot or a land mark?"
Drake recognised it instantly. He had spent some time on Fastoon previously.
"It's the Two Kings. You can see them in the distance"
Two huge towers of rock pierced the sky line.
"Once we reach them, it's a half hour trek north west to the catacombs entrance"
"Piece of cake"
Drake shook his sleek head, scowling at Ratchet.
"Don't get cocky. There are dangers out there, Ratchet. We always travel in groups when we must enter the Fastoon desert. I have lost good friends here. And that's just the wildlife. You're lucky it's night time. During the day you would have to contend with dehydration, heat stroke and mirages. The deep desert is not a place to take lightly"
Ratchet locked Clank securely into his harness.
"Sorry, Drake. Don't worry, I'll be careful"
Fastoon city fell away behind them as they marched over the dunes, reaching the Two Kings quickly. Jasmine took a compass out of her manifestor, swiftly getting her bearings.
"That way" she said.
"Good. A word of warning, Lombaxes." There was a quiet "ahem"
"And robots" said Drake smoothly. "What we have crossed is not the deep desert. Here there is still water and shade. It is relatively safe. Out there, we must be on our toes. Eternal vigilance, lady and gentle-men! Otherwise your bones will decorate the dunes"
"Cheerful fellow, Isn't he, ratchet?" said Clank.
"I heard that!" said Drake, hiding a grin.
Ratchet smiled. Even though this place was dangerous, he still felt at home here. It all felt so..right. The spicy desert breeze on his face, the soft sand beneath his feet, and the stars overhead, shining like diamonds on black velvet. He looked over at Jasmine. She was twitchy and nervous, clearly dreading the thought of entering the place of her nightmares. They were about halfway there when Drake froze.
"Hush! Do you hear that?"
There was silence as they strained their senses. Ratchet picked it up first, the sliding of sand and a soft growl. A rank odour reached his nostrils. For a moment, panic gripped his heart, until he realised that Ishkhan's smelled far worse.
"What is it?"
There was bedlam. The dunes erupted, and Ratchet got his first look at Fastoon's most deadly carnivore. They were small, barely half a metre at the shoulder, with sloping, hyena-like bodies and short golden fur. Unlike most creatures he had seen on Fastoon, these had six legs, with large paws for extra stability on loose sand and unstable dunes. Their canine heads were locked in fierce snarls, huge ears laid flat as they circled. In the shifting moon light they looked like huge spiders, crouched and ready to spring.
Drake hissed, and fluffed his wing feathers to give the illusion of size. A futile effort. Zenithi are marginally less threatening than marshmallows.
Ratchet swung his wrench at one who was circling too close. It leapt back and snarled.
"Drake, you've dealt with these, what do we do?" he said.
Drake nipped at the tail of the Alpha female, who was ready to pounce. It yelped and backed off.
"Sand wolves are highly intelligent. We won't be able to fight them. Our only option is to out run them"
They charged forward, scattering the wolves with wrench and gun. Behind them there was a howl as the sand wolves regrouped and came after them, letting off eerie, high-pitched howls.
"How much further?" shouted Jasmine, as the forerunner nearly took a chunk out of her shin.
They could see a mound of stone and boulders in the distance. The catacombs… Jasmine whimpered. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place!
She stumbled as a sleek golden shape swerved into her, nearly knocking her off balance. Ratchet caught her before she fell, practically shoving her forward.
They reached the shadow of the rocks, the pack baying at their heels. A cave loomed out of the rock walls and they ran towards it. From his position on Ratchets back, Clank aimed his laser at the sand wolves, trying to keep them at bay. In focusing his aim on a large knot of them, he missed the small alpha male coming in from the right. With a howl, it leapt.
Clank called out too late. Ratchet turned to receive a face full of wolf as it struck, tearing and slashing. He tried to pull it off and run forward at the same time, stumbling as two more latched on, Clanks laser and Jasmine's wrench blades the only thing keeping them from Ratchet's throat. The beleaguered Lombax fought to stay upright, knowing if he fell both him and Clank would be lost. He staggered into the cave. And the wolves slid off him with a whimper. The Lombaxes watched as the pack ran off, tails between their legs.
"Phew! Thanks, Clank" said Ratchet, gingerly inspecting his bites.
"Uh, that was not me…"
There was silence as the implications of this sank in.
"That's…not a good sign" Jasmine said.
Clank dropped down from his harness.
"I wonder what they were running from?"
Drake shrugged his wings.
"I don't know. We never had reason to go in here"
"Let's get this over with"
Sand had blown over the floor, crunching with each step as they went further into the cave. After a while, Jasmine took out a torch and clicked it on, the beam cutting through the blackness. And illuminating a blaze of colour.
Painting covered every inch of the walls. The sheltered caves had stopped the elements wearing them away, and the caves dry, cool atmosphere preserved them. Ratchet gently brushed his fingers over an intricately painted stalagmite. Lombaxes covered its surface, hunting, dancing, building. They were clearly primitive, wearing loincloths, body paint and not much else, but the paintings were so skilled they seemed to breathe.
"How can you find this place frightening, Jasmine? It's beautiful"
She picked up a flint knife that had lain undisturbed for aeons, still as sharp as the day it was made.
"This…is kinda surprising. All the movies showed it as this scary, creepy place. 'Course, no-one ever went in here so no one knew what it- AAAAAAAA!"
Jasmine had looked up into the grinning face of a skull.
She fell over in shock, scrabbling backwards.
Once the shock wore off, Ratchet gave it a closer look. Alcoves were cut into the walls, each one filled with the bones of a long dead Lombax. There were dozens of them. In some places, the bones acted as a wall themselves, carefully interlocked.
It wasn't creepy so much as…humbling.
"There must be thousands here. How old is this place?"
Drake carefully examined a painting of an ancient ceremony.
"Who knows? These caves go on for quite some distance, I understand. Get up, Jasmine. They're only skulls"
They continued down, the floor sloping gently. By Clanks estimation they were quite some distance below ground level, and still descending. The pictures were changing. There were more weapons displayed, more warriors. And a mark that kept reappearing over and over, a snarling skull.
"Hey, Drake" said ratchet. "What does this symbol mean?"
"What, that? Its a warning to trespassers. It means there's a curse here."
"A-a curse?" Jasmine leapt back from the walls, wrench blades bared.
Ratchet rolled his eyes.
"Oh, please. You don't believe that do you? It's not like an armed warrior is gonna leap out of the-"
Ratchet turned, and looked right into the face of an armed warrior.
He leapt back, wrench raised. There was silence, and Ratchet gradually realised the Lombax he was menacing was-
"Remarkable!" exclaimed Drake.
Ratchet had to admit, he was right. For a primitive race, the statue was life-like enough to fool the eye. A six foot tall male raised a spear over its head, body markings glowing in the torch light. Ratchet saw others, males and females of differing heights and markings, holding a variety of weapons. The only thing he could find fault with was the faces. They were blank, eerily lacking in expression.
"Am I the only one who finds them creepy? They look like they're gonna start moving any second! Lets get going…"
They left, heading deeper into the caves. For a moment, the cave they left was still, then, slowly, one of the statues heads began to move…
The tunnel had come abruptly to an end, a blank wall of stone blocking their path. There were no paintings on it, just rough granite. Ratchet bared his fangs.
Drake shook his head in confusion.
"I…I'm not sure. I didn't expect this…Jasmine, what are you up to?"
Jasmine had pressed her ear to the wall, knocking loudly on it.
She moved slowly forward, carefully tapping.
Knock, knock. Knock, knock. BOOM BOOM!
"Hollow" she said. "There's a cave behind this"
Clank scanned the wall.
"There is indeed a cave here. But the wall is 6 inches thick! And Ratchets weapons might damage the crystal if he was to blow out the wall"
"Don't worry, Clank. I got this"
She reached into her manifestor, taking out a handful of small round devices.
"Nut-crackers" she said, carefully sticking them to the wall. "They deliver a powerful concussive blast contained over a small area, perfect for delicate operations. You guys are gonna want to stand well back"
They withdrew to a safe distance. Jasmine touched an area on her gauntlet.
A light on the tiny bombs glowed yellow.
"Readying blast. Nut-crackers…engage!"
The lights turned green, Ratchet braced himself and…
Ratchet barely felt it. As he watched, hairline cracks spread over the rock face, before the entire lot crumbled into rubble.
Jasmine stepped over it.
The first thing Ratchet noticed as he entered the tomb was the empty, yawning feeling of a huge space. The room was enormous. Even with the bright light of Jasmines torch he could barely see the walls. Huge pillars rose from the floor, stretching up to a ceiling so high up he almost couldn't see it. And in the centre of the circle of pillars, a faint blue glitter…
They approached the centre, slowing down to a respectful walk as they saw what lay there. On a crude stone pedestal, a skeleton lay curled in the foetal position, clutching a shard of blue stone to its chest. He didn't need telling who it was. The incarnation.
Jasmine gently brushed some dust from the skull.
"It looks so…sad…" She said quietly, gazing at the ancient remains.
Ratchet respectfully removed the crystal from its bony hands.
"Come on. Lets leave him to his rest. He deserves that much at least"
They stepped back out into the corridor, carefully negotiating the pile of rubble. For the most part. Clank tripped over a jutting stone, landing with a bump and raising a choking cloud of dust. Ratchet chuckled as he helped the little robot up.
"Careful, buddy. You'll dent your-yourAAAA-CHOOO!"
That sneeze saved his life. As his head jerked forwards from the force, a huge barbed spear ripped out of the darkness, burying itself right where Ratchet's head had been a moment ago. He looked up and noticed the others horrified faces.
He gingerly touched the blade.
"Ow! Who the heck…threw…that…Oh crap"
Out of the darkness, torch light picked up the glints of shiny stone as the catacomb guardians loomed out of the black. The ancient statues moved slowly and robotically, but with an unstoppable relentlessness, emotionless faces adding to the terror. Ratchet swung his wrench at the blank face of a female raising a spear, and it shattered into shards of pottery and tiny cogwheels.
"Remarkable!" said Drake, dodging jabbing spears. "I had no idea the Lombaxes were so advanced at that stage!"
Jasmine narrowly avoided being stabbed.
"Yeah, amazing, but can we please focus on the fact they're trying to KILL us?"
More were converging on them, armed to the teeth. Clank and Drake worked in tandem, Clank tripping them at the ankles and Drake ripping out vital components. Ratchet sent bomb after bomb into their ranks. And Jasmine? Jasmine was unstoppable. Ignoring blood flowing from innumerable cuts she took on the clockwork automatons on a one on one basis, the clay statues shattering under her trillium blades. There seemed to be no end to them. Ratchet staved in the head of a large male with his wrench, turning on the back stroke and wiping out one creeping up behind him. A pottery hand closed over his wrist, tugging him into stabbing reach of a sharp obsidian blade. Jasmines blade flashed once and Ratchet watched as its head flew sky high, the rest of its body still moving mechanically.
"Aim for the body, it's where all the main cog wheels are!" he shouted, dodging the blade and lashing out with his wrench. It froze and fell backwards, trailing cogwheels as it sagged. Clank kicked out at the ankles of a tall, black-painted female. They splintered, the statues arms still waving as it fell into the reach of Drake, who plunged his head between a gap in the joints and tore out a vital component.
"How many of these things are there?" said Clank.
"I think they're slowing down" said Drake, spitting out the mouthful of cogwheels, as the statue he was clinging to shuddered to a halt.
Sure enough, the flow of statues was slowing down to a trickle. Jasmine slashed at the last one with both her blades, cutting it neatly in half and sending a shower of cogwheels pattering down.
"That's the lot. Man, I was worried there for a bit. A few more minutes, they'd have had us"
Drake shook fragments of clay from his feathers.
"So, that was the secret of the catacombs. Seems a shame to destroy them, really. They had a lot of historical importance. No other primitive race has ever developed such intricate clock work"
"Them or us, dude. Hey, fuzz-ball, hand me that crystal"
Scowling slightly at the name, Ratchet handed it over. Jasmine scanned it carefully. There was a pause.
"Well?" said everyone in unison.
"It…it's a perfect match…"
Ratchet sighed with relief.
"Phew! I'd hate to think we went through all that for nothing"
Drake gave a fangy grin.
"I would dearly love to see the look on Kaos's face right now. It would be priceless!"
"Sucks to be her. Come on, lets go"
The journey back through the catacombs was uneventful. With the secret of the catacombs revealed, Jasmine was relaxed and chatty, taking an active interest in the paintings and cracking a few jokes. Ratchet pretended to be annoyed, secretly relieved to have her back to her old self. Soon, they reached the surface, the cool night air washing over them. There was no sign of the sand wolves, who had disappeared deep into the desert, having long ago learned any wolf foolish enough to enter the cave never came out. The walk back to the city was a cheerful one, with nothing to spoil the mood. For a little while at least. They had barely reached the city limits when Jasmines irritating ring tone went off. She hit the communicator button.
"Hello?- Oh. Its you. Whaddaya want, Fenris?"
The smug Lombax grinned at her out of the flickering holo-screen.
"Hey baby, got a message for you"
"Lets hear it then"
"Not so fast, sweet heart! Promise me a kiss when you get back and maybe I'll tell y-"
"Get out of it!"
Ginger pushed him aside.
"Sorry about that. He was on desk duty today. We have a problem, Jasmine. S%$ just got real"
"It's best you see for yourself. Patching it through now.."
For a moment the screen was blank, then music began playing, and a news desk appeared.
"Hello, I'm Newton Banks" said the male reporter, with shaggy, dark brown fur.
"And I'm Renee Frost" said the female, a slim calico.
"And this is the news at 7"
The male Lombax faced the camera with a serious expression.
"Our top story tonight, fear grips the X3 outpost today in the wake of a mass breakout at the maximum security penitentiary a few hours ago. Renee?"
"Thank you, Newton. Prison guards, police, and even the Praetorian Guard have confessed themselves baffled as to how the escape could have occurred. All security cameras at the scene were mysteriously disabled during the event of the escape. This was the only footage they could capture"
The camera cut to a black and white image of a prison yard, with various Lombaxes in prison scrubs wandering around. Suddenly, static filled the screen, and when it cleared…
Ratchet gasped. The yard was empty. There was no trace of the prisoners, nothing to show they were ever there. Newton continued the story.
"All guards on duty at the time were found dead at their posts. Clearly this is one mystery that won't be solved any time soon. Residents are advised to lock their doors at night and increase security. The escaped convicts are highly dangerous" He turned to his co worker with a sickly smile.
"You know, you'd think the universe would run out of horrible things to dump on us, right, Renee?"
She responded with an equally fake smile.
"Oh there's always room for that little bit more, Newton. I'm Renee Frost-"
"And I'm Newton Banks"
"This has been the news at 7"
The screen cut back to Gingers worried face.
"We wouldn't have bothered you with this, but you mentioned an Ishkhan in that dimension, maybe the two events are related. Watch your back out there, Jasmine"
Fenris butted in.
"You heard her, sweet stuff. I can't save my pretty damsel in distress if you're in another dimension"
"Fenris, I once took on a banshee by myself while you hid behind a rock and whimpered. Don't talk to me about damsels in distress"
Ginger pushed him out of the way again.
"Due to our power consumption, the council says…the council says you need to complete your mission in four and a half days, or they'll shut us down"
"They can't afford to waste power on something that might not even work. Pick up the pace, Jasmine. You're our only hope"
The screen went blank.
"Well, this makes things more interesting. How the heck am I supposed to find three more crystals in four and a half days? It's impossible!"
"Nothing is impossible, Jasmine" said Drake.
"Try striking a match on jelly, buddy"
"Well, sitting here arguing will not help matters" said Clank. "We must hurry. There is little time"
"He's right. We need to head back to Elysium and try and find out where the next crystal is"
"Correction: we refuel Aphelion, then we go back to Elysium" Ratchet said. "Her fuel tanks looking a little-"
The cry echoed around the ruined sleek shapes shot out from behind a crumbled house. A pair of golden Zenithi skidded to a halt in front of him, panting for breath. They were female, and as alike as two peas in a pod.
"Jin? Jan? What are you two doing here? You're meant to be on duty in Sargasso" said Drake.
"-But it's urgent-"
"-Bad news, very bad news!"
Their voices were high and squeaky, made even higher by panic.
Ratchet made soothing hand gestures.
"OK, just settle down. Now, calmly, tell us what's going on. Why don't you start…um, which ever one you are.."
The one he was pointing to giggled.
"I'm Jin, That's Jan-"
"-Two chicks, one egg-"
They seemed calmer now, so Drake began questioning them.
"What happened on Sargasso that had you so worried?"
"Kaos has new allies-"
"-Killers, all of them-"
"Lombaxes? How did they get there?"
"She had this thingy…"
"A thingy? What kind of thingy?"
"Like a little remote-"
"-With a red dial-"
"-She turned it-"
"-And the air went all shiny-"
"-Next thing we knew-"
Jasmine was quiet for a moment, the ramifications of this sinking in. Then…
"That's how she got the ishkhan and the banshee into this dimension! I know what the thing she's using is! It was one of Gingers earlier attempts at breaking through the dimensions. A hand held transporter. It worked. Kinda. It went through, but the guy testing it didn't. Poor sod nearly lost all his fingers. Turned out she forgot to divide by X. Kaos must have found it and fixed it!"
Ratchet groaned and buried his face in his hands.
"We don't need this…"
"S#$ happens, Ratchet. Come on, lets get going, time is not on our side"
They disappeared back into the darkness of the city, the silence broken a few minutes later by the roar of jet engines.
"Welcome, brethren, to Sargasso!"
Kaos leaned back in her chair with her best fake smile on her face. Her chamber was packed with Lombaxes of all colours, shapes and sizes, still mildly stunned from the shock of freedom. In front of her chair, two Lombaxes stood to attention, evidently the leaders of this motley crew. The taller one stepped forward. He was a male, dense, gun metal grey fur streaked and pitted with scars. His ears were little more than tattered stumps, and one eye was a pearly grey, the other a yellow slit of easy-going malevolence. He bowed low, a cold smile on his thin, narrow face.
"Evening, ma'am" he said in a voice like dark chocolate. "I can't say how grateful we are to you for bustin' us out of there. You-"
"Ah, can it, Steel" interrupted the other one. This one was female. Abundantly so. In Sargasso's warm climate she had already modified her orange prison scrubs into cut off short shorts and a tank top, and now she oozed a dangerous sensuality. Her soft, calico fur was unmarred by scars, but she seemed somehow more dangerous than the huge male now glaring daggers at her, and her green eyes glittered with the light of a born killer. There was tension between them, Kaos could see that clearly. Each one obviously fancied themselves the leader, and the looks of utter loathing was plain to see.
"You have a point you wish to make…?"
"Folk call me Patches" she said. "For my fur colour. I was just trying to say that no one likes an ass kisser, Steel"
He growled, hackles bristling as he prepared to launch himself at her.
"Easy there" said Kaos. "No fighting. We have much more important things to focus on. Tell me, do you two think you could kill somebody?"
There was silence, then Steel chuckled.
"You're kiddin' me, right?"
"Good, that's just what I want to hear. You see-"
She froze, bone white fur standing on end. The room swam as she felt the Balance change. She cursed softly. They'd shifted it! The fools must have found a replacement!
"Ma'am?" said Steel.
"It's nothing" she said.
"Anyway, I have some people on my tail who are very…annoying. I summoned you and your comrades here to help me get them out of my hair"
"You couldn't have picked better people, Ma'am. A bigger bunch of thugs and murderers I've never clapped eyes on!"
She smiled, and Steel couldn't help but shudder. Maybe he was in over his head…
"Wonderful. Here are your orders…"