Into the fire
Sargasso 0400 hours. Days to reality failure: 1
Steel crept along the dark corridors of the stronghold. It was past midnight, yet the dark was still thick enough to tax even his powerful night vision. It wouldn't have mattered even if he was totally blinded, however. He had memorised the route he needed to take, knew by heart every step to his destination.
As he passed a window, moonlight flashed off the sharp knife in his hand. Steel had always preferred a leading role…
He reached the door, cautiously trying the handle. It was unlocked, the door opening a fraction. He slowly, very slowly, pushed it open, slipping inside as gently as a shadow. A grin spread across his face as he saw the velvet hangings at the other end of the room.
Steel was good at this. Many who had crossed him had gone to sleep and never woken up again, his blade between their ribs. He made no sound crossing the room, knife held loosely by his side. When he reached the curtains surrounding her bed he paused, and adjusted his grip on the knife. An efficient killer, Steel never used the flashy stab of the amateur, where the knife was raised dramatically over the head before striking. Overarm stabs were easy to get wrong. Up and under the rib cage, that was the way. Through a gap in the curtains, he could see a figure shrouded in blankets. He carefully sighted a good spot to stab, taking his time. A good assassin never hurried. Do it once, do it right…
With a snarl of triumph, he ripped the hangings aside and thrust. The knife tore through sheets and bedding. But not flesh. The grin froze on his face. There hadn't been the resistance of flesh under his blade as he stabbed. Something was wrong…
Steel lifted the blanket carefully, and stark terror rooted him to the spot. The shape on the bed had been nothing but pillows. And a sweet, cultured, deadly voice spoke in his ear.
"Looking for someone?"
He spun around and dropped his knife with a clang. For someone with bone white fur, the shadows had hidden her remarkably well. Kaos was smiling, but it was the kind of smile that swan towards unsuspecting bathers at the beach.
"You really are a fool." she said, still smiling. "You actually thought it was going to be that simple? That a mere knife could stop me?"
She laughed. It wasn't a crazed giggle or super villain worthy cackle. It was warm and friendly. Coming from her, it was almost obscene.
"You know, Steel," she said, almost conversationally. "I could kill you right now. I could send you out that window-"
"-or have you teleported into the vacuum of space-"
"-or just tear you apart with my bare hands. It's easier than it looks, believe me. How do you think I got this stronghold?"
A whimper escaped him.
"And yet, in the light of the removal of a persistent thorn in my side, I'm in a remarkably good mood today. I will not kill you, Steel-"
"Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!"
He dropped to his knees in front of her, nearly sobbing with relief.
"Instead, I will refuse to let you die."
She spoke into a communicator.
"Send them up."
It seemed only seconds before a grinning Patches had stepped inside the room, dragging a long, thick chain behind her. There was an iron collar at each end, on small, the other enormous.
"Thank you, Patches. You may consider yourself second in command, effective immediately."
Patches smiled smugly.
"Thank ya, Ma'am! You won't regret this!"
"I better not."
There was a scraping noise from out in the corridor, and a hiss. Steel found himself hauled up by his collar, as helpless as a cub in the face of that iron grip. Out in the corridor…
He desperately tried to flee as the foul scent hit him. The Ishkhan nearly blocked the corridor, watching the struggling Lombax with interest. Kaos had carefully made sure that the beast was controlled, to stop it killing any more soldiers, but she had neglected to tell them this. However, what she had planned would be a lot of temptation for it. Better take steps….
A terrified Lombax was holding it's chain, the only thing keeping him from bolting was his far more overwhelming terror of Kaos. She gently placed a hand on it's nose, staring into its eyes, her ebony orbs blazing as she gave it instructions, making sure it would not kill him. Turning from it, she snapped the smaller collar around Steels neck, and his eyes widened as he saw her pick up the collar, knowing with a sick feeling what she had in mind.
"No, please! Not that! Kill me, I beg you! Just not that! Please, kill me!"
She smiled as she placed the collar around the Ishkhans neck.
The two now connected, she patted one of its talons.
"Off you go, then."
It lumbered away, Steel desperately trying not to be dragged off his feet. She waited until his whimpers had faded, then turned to her new right hand woman, who was still open mouthed at the vile punishment inflicted on Steel.
"Fetch Silent Sally up here."
Glad to escape the Ishkhans lingering scent, and her new bosses nerve-scraping smile, Patches hurried off. A few minutes later, a dark shape stood in front of her. Like the late Jasmine, Silent Sally had black fur, but unlike the Guards soft, velvety coat, hers was rough and harsh. Her eyes were a dull, mustard yellow. Across her throat, a livid scar gleamed in the moonlight. An argument with a fellow gang member had earned her a cut throat. By some miracle, she had lived, but had never been able to speak since, making her ideal for covert operations. There was no chance of her blabbing.
"It's in place?"
"You were not noticed?"
"Not even by the ship?"
"Well done. Just checking. You may leave."
When she was alone, Kaos leaned on the windowsill, taking in the view. She couldn't help but smile.
Soon, Drake and his cronies would regret the day they hatched!
Drake sighed. From his perch on the King, Elysium's highest tree, he could survey the whole of the main clearing. It was not a cheerful place right now. News of Jasmines death had spread quickly, and the normally happy Zenithi were subdued and quieter than usual, the only sound the occasional mournful piping. Even the chicks were less playful. Not being old enough to understand, all they knew was that the grown-ups were sad.
The air beside him wavered, but he didn't look up until there was a meaningful cough. He spoke without looking around.
His second in command nodded. He was older than Drake by millennia, and had served both his father and his grandmother before him. The blood red Zenithi was a fountain of useful knowledge and advice.
"Greetings, Drake. You…are well?"
"What do you think, Steve? I've just lost a friend, someone I cared about like family. I can see now, why they advise not to get attached to off worlders. Compared to us, their lives are as sand in the wind, here one moment, gone the next."
Steve gave Drake a worried look. He was unused to him being so depressed.
"I imagine the mission still continues?"
"Oh yes. The problem is…Well, come with me."
Drake disappeared, Steve following close behind.
They reappeared in a natural bower, the light green where it shone through the leaves roofing it. And sitting on a fallen log, ears low and head bowed…
"We just can't get through to him." Drake whispered. Clank was sitting next to his devastated friend, trying to get a word out of him, trying to do something to see a spark of the old Ratchet.
Steve shook his head.
"Poor fellow. I can't imagine what he's going through."
"I can." said Drake distantly, watching as Clank gave up in despair and walked towards them.
"It is no use." he said, sadly. "Nothing I saw will reach him. He would not even touch breakfast! I have never known him to refuse a meal before…"
Drake thought for a while.
"You go and find the next crystals location in the book, Clank. Leave Ratchet to me."
Clank nodded and left. Steve nudged his leader.
"Whatever you have planned, make it quick. We have a day left at most."
"Don't worry. I'm almost positive this will work."
It was shaping up to be a glorious day on Elysium. Tiny, rainbow bright birds sang in the trees, and the air was scented with flowers. It was beautifully warm. Except for Ratchet. He had never felt this cold before, this empty. It seemed to fill him, freezing in his soul, tangling in his very heart. The beauty of Elysium went unnoticed as he huddled on the log, clutching his knees to his chest. He ignored the arrival of Drake, who was clutching a bark bag in his jaws. It was placed next to him.
"I brought you breakfast. Clank tells me you haven't eaten. There's no insects in it, no need to worry. I personally don't understand why other races are so nervy about eating them. It's just protein, really. But, each to their own, I guess."
There was silence.
"Starving yourself won't bring her back, you know."
"We still have a mission to complete."
Once again, nothing. Drake looked closer at him and his heart went out to him. Ratchet was a mess. His fur stuck up in all directions, his green eyes so dull they were nearly grey. Tears had tracked furrows down his cheeks.
"You know, Ratchet, I've been where you are right now."
Finally, Drake got a response. An ear flicked up slightly.
"You have met my daughter, correct?"
A non-committal shrug was the only reply.
"Did you ever wonder why you never met her mother?"
Ratchet raised his head slightly, dull eyes flicking in Drakes direction.
"Ah, she was a beauty. Feathers like fire. When the sun hit her just right, she seemed to shine." He smiled sadly.
"I know it sounds clichéd, but it truly was 'love at first sight'. We were soul mates. Inseparable. Then the eggs came. Three perfect eggs. Zenithi always have three to a clutch. We don't know why. I was so excited. Finally, a second chance at fatherhood, with chicks that could be guaranteed not to try and kill me. Then, about a day after they had been laid, a situation arose on Lumos. Not a very important one. It just required someone to watch it and observe any possible effects on the Balance. Technically, it was in the sector she was meant to be monitoring, but she was tired from egg-laying, so I went in her place. While I was away…" His voice broke slightly. Despite his grief, Ratchet found himself interested, curious as to what happened. "While I was away, the Mis-shapen Ones struck. They attacked the nursery. They have a great liking for eggs and chicks. She…she tried to defend our nesting hole. All they found of her afterwards was one feather. And by the time they were finally driven off…only one of my eggs was whole. One, single egg, out of my entire family. Zenithi breed only once in our lives. Mia is the only child I will ever have. I had to hatch and raise her, all on my own. And like you, I grieved. Few things in my life have hurt as much. Such grief is natural. There is nothing wrong with it. Tears are only water, and without water, nothing can grow. A broken heart will heal in time, and when it does, the memory of the one you lost is sealed inside to comfort you, and you can remember them without pain. What is wrong is allowing grief to overwhelm you, to leave room in your heart for nothing else. She is gone, but her legacy lives on in us, and I know she would want us to continue. And knowing Jasmine, she'd kick your tail from here to sundown if she saw you like this!"
A tiny smile flitted across Ratchet's face.
"So, I guess I'll leave you to think about it,then, Clank is looking for the other crystals location. He shouldn't be long. Come see us when you feel ready."
He began to walk away.
"I am glad I could have-"
His head spun around. A Zenithi was barrelling towards him as fast as his legs could carry him, two Feloisa scurrying in his wake. He was a soft, chocolatey brown, and both him and the Feloisa were streaked with grease and oil. Unusually for his race, this particular Zenithi had a passion for engineering and mechanics, a skill Drake encouraged.
He screeched to a halt in front of Drake, his Feloisa attendants already babbling in sign language. Feloisa lacked vocal cords, so communicated by signals, but they were so panicky Drake couldn't understand them.
"What is it, Guthrie?" he said.
"We 'ave a problem, Guvna."
"Well, you said t' 'ave a gander at the Lombaxes ship an' see if it needed anythin'?"
"What's wrong with her?" said Ratchet, urgently shooting to his feet.
"Nah, nah, don't worry, Guvna. Nuthin's wrong with 'er. Only…"
He raised a wing, and something silvery and shiny dropped to the ground.
"We found this bolted to the undercarriage."
Ratchet picked it up. And his stomach fell away.
"It's a tracking beacon!"
It was always windy in the canyons. To Tachyon, near permanently in a gloomy mood these days, it sounded like sighing. He was mixing up black pigment for his mentor. Some might consider it a step down from Emperor, but he considered it a step up, considering some of the things he had done.
"I finished this batch."
There was silence. This was unusual. He would never admit it, but Azreal enjoyed the company, and was usually happy to talk to the Cragmite.
"Something isn't right here…"
The tone in his voice had Percival scurrying over to his side. Azreal was slumped on the floor, wing feathers stained with paint. On the wall in front of him was a riot of colour, lines, swirls and blobs in no particular order. Something about it disturbed him. He sought for something to say.
"Nice abstract." he said. "Very…arty."
"It is not an abstract." Azreal said, his quiet, breathy voice nearly drowned out by the wind. "It is a mind dump. What you are looking at is my subconscious. When it is here in front of me, it is sometimes easier to read. It is remarkable the things you find there. To you, it is meaningless. To me, it speaks volumes." He frowned. "Most of the time."
"What does it say?"
"I'm not sure.That's the problem with the second sight. You see what is happening, but not what it means. I find my attention is most drawn to this…"
He pointed with a talon towards a red slash, still wet paint glistening like blood.
"I don't know what this means, but whatever it is, it can't be good. When I look at it, I think of…death."
"But that's already happened, hasn't it? Jasmine died!"
"New death…Greater death…"
A sudden nasty thought appeared in Tachyons mind. He had been in a number of invasions, crushing resistance under his armies. And Kaos was far nastier than he had ever been….
"Perhaps…Perhaps she is coming…here…."
Azreal was silent, unwilling to entertain the terrifying thought. The more he looked at the wall, however, the more he could see Percival was onto something. The way the slashes angled up, the size and shape of the blobs, they all seemed to point to the same thing.
"If you are right…It would seem Elysium is no longer off the map. And I think it will happen soon. Very soon."
Fighting against the rising tide of panic, Percival ran outside to check for invading ships.
And nearly fainted at what he saw.
"I say, Angela! Be careful!"
She carefully put the egg she had nearly fumbled back in its hole. Working in the temple eggery always made her nervous. Here, the eggs of Zenithi parents who were both called away on missions were stored in cubby holes lined with soft material. They could be stored indefinitely, outside of time. She carefully backed away. For Lombaxes, the tail was vital for balance, and without it, Angela tripped, dropped and fumbled with monotonous regularity.
The small yellow Zenithi in charge of the eggery shook her head and sighed, a rueful smile on her muzzle. Sunny was never far away from a smile. Her name was derived both from her sunshine yellow scales and her personality. It was second nature for Zenithi to be cheerful, but compared to Sunny, they were very depressed indeed. Even her song was happy, reminiscent of the perky tones of a steel drum. Like many Zenithi, she wore scale paint, delicate lines and swirls of black contrasting with her bright scales.
"Why don't you go join Ace at the lookout? I'm sure he'll enjoy the company!"
"OK. Thanks, Sunny."
She left, tripping over the doorway as she did so.
Angela breathed out as she left the border of the temple, feeling the familiar tug as she stepped back into time. She always felt strange in there. It was a relief to be back out under the open sky. She heard the sad song drifting from the clearing and her ears drooped. She hadn't liked Jasmine, but it was clear Ratchet had. She had seen him when he had returned. He had been barely able to stand. She hated to see him so upset.
A short walk brought her to the lookout, a spur of rock jutting out from a hillside. Ace was sitting on the edge, legs dangling. A stunning view of Elysium stretched out before them. The rule said they could never leave Elysium, but none of the "waifs and strays" minded. Why would they want to leave anyway?
"Hey. Thought you might like some company."
She sat down next to him.
"Any sign of them?"
"Nope. The Mis-shapen Ones have been pretty quiet. Guess they learned their lesson this time. It's been a pretty chill morning so far."
Angela didn't respond. Her ears were perked up, as an unfamiliar noise reached them. Ace lacked the uncanny hearing of the Lombaxes, however.
"What is it?"
"Sounds like…a ship."
"It could be Ratchet's."
"No. This ones harsher. And…there's more of them. Holy crap, there's a lot!"
She jerked upright, shading her eyes as she scanned the horizon. Ace saw them before he heard them, a small fleet of ships approaching with chilling relentlessness.
"Please let them be friendly!" he moaned.
And the first missile streaked over the forest.
"Here it is."
Clank pointed to the picture of the red shard of crystal in the book.
"Once we have found that, we will be able to fight Kaos properly!"
Zoe clapped her hands and giggled.
"Then I can see my daddy again!" Her face fell. "But Jasmine won't be there…"
Clank gave Shona a worried look at the children. They seemed to have taken Jasmines loss rather hard. His attempts to raise their spirits seemed to be having no effect. they were still quiet and sad.
"So where is it?" said Zoe.
"It does not say. But the crystal in question is quite a powerful one.. it should not be difficult to find someone who knows where it is."
He waved away a Zenithi chick. As per usual, the nursery was crowded. Zenithi and Yakunzu bird chicks scurried underfoot, while Feloisa kittens got everywhere and into everything, baby talking in sign language. The two girls spent a lot of time there. It was very sweet to watch them play. But there wasn't much playing happening now. Some of the Feloisa succeeded in dragging Zoe off to play, but Shona stayed behind, staring at the ground.
"Are you all right, Shona?" he asked.
"I'm sad. I miss Jasmine."
"I miss her too." he said sadly. "She was very brave."
"What if the bad lady comes back? What if she hurts Ratchet too?" Shona suddenly looked scared. Clank patted her hand gently.
"Do not worry. Elysium has never been discovered before. Kaos will never find us here. And Ratchet will not fall for the same trick twice. He will be fine, you will see."
Shona was about to reply, before a cry echoed across the clearing.
Ratchet had his hoverboots on full throttle, haring towards him.
"Ratchet! You are feeling better?"
Ratchet stopped so suddenly he almost fell over, wheeling his arms frantically to stay upright.
"We have a situation! Someone put a tracker tag on Aphelion! I think we just led Kaos right to-!"
Screams erupted in the distance, and Ratchet saw flames leap up. Drake reappeared.
"Great sky, we've been located! Don't worry about the fire! Our trees don't burn easily, and the Feloisa will take care of the ones that do! We need to stop the invasAAARGH!"
He keeled over, screeching, as a strange humming started setting Ratchets teeth on edge and making Clanks circuits vibrate. Around them, all the Zenithi staggered and moaned, then just as suddenly, the humming died down slightly, and they staggered to their feet, still reeling from both the strange noise and the suddenness of the attack. One of the Zenithi gave a shrill cry.
"I can't teleport! Some-thing's blocking me!"
Panic rippled through them as they realised she was right. Drake bared his fangs in a snarl.
"She won't even face us on an even footing! I can't believe this! How is she even doing it?"
"I believe that may be your answer."
Clank pointed skywards. Overhead, a huge, hazy purple energy dome covered the temple, the canyons, and a large chunk of the forest.
"She must be scrambling our teleportation abilities somehow! We're stuck here!"
Shona grabbed Ratchet's hand, huddling close to him in terror.
"What's happening, Mr Ratchet?"
He squeezed her hand in a vain attempt to comfort her.
"We need to get the kids to safety!" he snapped.
"Usually the safest place is the canyons." said Drake. "There are plenty of deep caves the Mis-shapen Ones don't know about. That's where we usually hid the chicks during attacks. All those on nursery duty! Follow me! We need to get the young ones to safety! Ratchet, Clank, try and hold off the attackers!"
Ratchet gently prised Shona off him.
"It's OK, Shona. Go with him. He'll keep you safe."
She gave him one last look of pure terror before her and Zoe were led off. Clank locked himself into his harness, and they set off north, to where the enemy dropped ships were raining down their cargo of death…
"There we are!"
Patches stepped back from the dome generator, its teeth rattling hum settling down.
"This will prevent them from teleporting, yes?" Kaos sank further into the shade of a tree, cloak and hood casting her face in shadow. Silently, she cursed Elysiums sunny climate.
"It does more than that, Ma'am!" Beside her, Honey grinned and began sharpening a knife.
"Lets just say that anyone trying to leave the dome is in for a bit of a shock. It will be an electrifying experience!"
"They'll receive severe electrical burns!" giggled Honey.
"You just killed the joke, Honey."
Already, the sounds of the assault began to filter through the trees, the screams of the Zenithi mingling with the harsh laughter of the invaders.
"Well done." said Kaos. "Now, why don't you two go have 'fun'?"
They gave identical smiles of evil joy and shot off into the forest. Kaos smiled. Already she could feel the Balance start to shift faster. Lets see what Drake thinks of this...
It was bedlam. The invaders seemed to be everywhere. Taken by surprise, and still in shock at their home being discovered in such a horrific fashion, the Zenithi were being hammered. Ratchet felt his gorge rise as he beheld the slaughter. It wasn't the sight of innocent creatures being killed that hurt the most. It was the sound. Zenithi have expressive voices, as they use music to pass on messages.Few sounds are as heart rending as the screaming of a young teenager writhing on the ground with a broken wing, or the wails of someone watching their nest mate shot down in a hail of bullets trying to flee the devastation. To see creatures as innocent and delicate as the Zenithi so brutally attacked was more than he could bear. Gun blazing and wrench flashing, he joined the battle, striking them hard, pouring his grief and rage into every blow. Ratchet slammed into a Blarg, leaving them stunned and breathless on the ground. He bent down to help the Zenithi it had been attacking. One look told him it was too late. She tried to speak, gasping for breath, then slumped, scales growing dull as her life left her.
Tears burnt his eyes.
"I'm so sorry…"
Clank tapped him on the shoulder.
"Ratchet, we must continue! What if they reach the temple?"
He shook himself.
"You're right. We can't risk that!"
Dodging blaster shots and returning them with a vengeance, he pressed on.
He was too late. The temple, never very highly defended in the first place, had been breached. The Mis-shapen Ones had never gotten that far before. Defence hadn't been necessary. The invaders were not having it all their own way, however. The 'waifs and strays' had risen to the occasion magnificently. For many, it was the only place that had ever felt like home, and even though the rule said you could never leave Elysium, it was more a paradise for them than a prison. And now it was threatened, they had jumped to their temples defence.
The corridors were a war zone. Ignoring their protests, most of the Zenithi had been herded into the deeper chambers in the temple to stay safe. The Feloisa and Yakunzu birds had stayed to fight, however, and added their own unique brand of pain to the battle.
Angela stumbled over a fallen Yakunzu bird, her blaster shot going wild. They were managing to hold a defensive line in the outer corridors, but were paying dearly for every foot they gained back. Max steadied her quickly. His normal expression of faint confusion had been replaced with anger. Elysium was all he could remember, and he would not tolerate those who would threaten it.
"Get behind me!" he barked, shooting the wrench out of a snarling Lombaxes hand.
"It's no use, Max! There's too many of them!"
"As long as I breath, they will not harm this temple! If it's our day to die, then so be it. We'll die bravely."
The invading army looked set to overwhelm them…and a roar echoed through the corridors. The attackers started to panic as Big Tom the Agorian appeared, fists waving. He didn't need a weapon. He was the weapon. He was big. He didn't stand out in a crowd, he was the crowd. People often didn't see him because he was in the way. And he was intensely, unshakeably loyal to the Zenithi who had given him a second chance. Defenders cheered as he cleared the corridor in moments, scattering the invaders like nine pins as they struggled to flee from his onslaught.
Angela leaned against a wall to catch her breath. In the distance she could hear him pursuing the attackers.
"You…seen…Ace?" she panted.
"He's leading the forest defences. I think…" His forehead crinkled as his ravaged mind failed him once again. Angela exchanged sympathetic glances with a Yakunzu bird perched on a broken statue, and it's mental voice slid across her mind.
The powerful telepaths had done their best, but with an injury like that, there was only so much they could do…
Angela put the thought out of her head and began rallying the troops.
"OK, people, listen up! We won this battle, but the war is still going on out there! We can't let them win! They have us outnumbered, but we really have something to fight for! And you saw them run. They're cowards at heart! We need to drive them out!" There was a ragged cheer. They were bone weary, but willing to die if necessary.
"We'll split up into groups and flush them out. Remember, they don't know this place like we do. You four and Max, come with me."
The small group ran down the south west corridor, searching for traces of the invaders. They were pulled up short, however, by a sudden scream from Big Tom coming from not far away, his cry abruptly cut off. Angela primed her blaster as a shadow loomed at one end of the corridor, growing larger and larger as its owner got closer…Then it shrank, revealing a small, female Lombax in a sweet looking outfit. Angela only had time to take in the girls crazed smile and miss matched pupils, however, before one of the defenders went down, gurgling, scrabbling at the knife embedded in his throat. The girl giggled childishly. And suddenly was everywhere. There was no focus to her attacks, she just seemed to want to hurt as many as possible, stabbing a Markazian one moment, the next slashing Angela's arm to the bone. No-one could touch her. She moved like a snake, glorying in the pain she caused. Then suddenly Honeys arms were pinned to her sides, and she was hauled off the ground, Max dripping her tightly.
"Leave them alone you monst-oof!"
Her foot drove into his stomach. As he dropped her, she kicked his ankles out from underneath him. He fell hard, head hitting the wall with a sickening crack. And he didn't get up again.
The girl turned to Angela, knife suddenly shining in her hand. Her teeth glittered as she advanced, grinning. Most of the defenders were either dead, unconscious or nursing grave injuries. Slumped against the wall cradling her injured arm, Angela was helpless. Fear gripped her as Honey raised the knife…
And suddenly Honey was flying through the air, screaming. Strong hands hauled Angela upright.
"Are you OK, Angela?"
"I've been better-Max? You're OK!"
The tall Markazian was swaying slightly, but he was upright and concious. It took a few seconds for Angela to realise why he suddenly looked different. His eyes shone.
"I remember everything, Angela! It's all coming back to me!"
"I remember the Dimensionator!"
"Talwyn! My god, I haven't seen her in years!"
He came back to the present day with a bump.
"Max, she's getting up!"
Honey was rising to her feet, ribs aching and prolonged murder in her heart. She drew another knife, hissing in anger. She no longer looked sweet and innocent. Far from it. Her face was twisted in a snarl, fangs bared.
Max pushed Angela behind him, tensing himself for the sharp metal that would slice through him….
And something white hit her like the wrath of angels. Honey shrieked as the Yakunzu bird pecked and tore. Then she looked up into its eyes, and sank into glowing, yellow eyed oblivion…
The tide was turning. In the forests of Elysium, the Zenithi were fighting back, superior brain power and tactics starting to win over the invaders. Drake was obeying his duty as a Guardian and leader, helping the young, old and injured get to the canyons, as yet untouched by the attack. Even unable to teleport, Zenithi were fast on their feet, and Drake knew all the secret paths in the undergrowth.
Ratchet lashed out, sending a Blarg reeling under the force of his blow. He was almost grateful for the rage filling him. The anger burnt away the grief, gave him something to focus on other than what he had just lost. He let the rage take him, let it flow over him in a crimson tide. The small part of him still capable of rational thought looked out through his eyes and shuddered at what he was becoming…
Then Clank was shaking him. With an effort, he pulled his thoughts together and focused on his friend.
"I said, they are gone, Ratchet."
The invaders in the small clearing had fled his wrath. He could hear sounds of slaughter coming from the other clearings, but in this one, there was a tiny moment of peace. It didn't last. A Yakunzu bird soared out of the surrounding forest with the suddenness of a ghost. It landed heavily on Ratchets shoulder, and he winced. Unlike Drake, who held on gently if he had to perch on someone, the huge white bird sank its talons in hard enough to draw blood. It craned its head around until it was staring Ratchet square in the eyes. Birds don't have very expressive faces, but as near as he could tell, this one was afraid. Very afraid.
You are needed!
A sharp pain lanced through his head. In its fear, it wasn't being careful with it's mental communication, causing Ratchet pain with each word.
"Argh! Geez, that hurts! Why am I needed? What's going on?"
The hatching trees! They are under attack! They are destroying the eggs!
"Lead the way."
It was a short trip, but a hard one. The thorns Ace had planted as defence against Mis-shapen Ones scratched and tore at him and Clank, while the Yakunzu bird swerved and fluttered its way through them like they weren't there.
They came from the other side of the clearing. They burnt the thorns there! Nothing was stopping them from entering.
"So why am I being cut to ribbons back here?"
It's a shortcut.
They finally burst into the hatchery. A heart breaking sight met their eyes. No Zenithi would dream of abandoning their eggs. They had tried to fight. They had failed. A ring of invaders kept the snarling Feloisa at bay, and in the centre…
"Patches." Ratchet growled. She turned, beaded dreadlocks clicking against each other. The dying Zenithi she had been holding slipped from her fingers and hit the ground, expiring with only the faintest of sighs. The Yakunzu bird leading them screamed in rage and attacked, meeting its end with a shot from Patches gun. She grinned and gave a mocking salute with the hand still holding her blaster.
"Morning. Lovely day, isn't it? Shame to hear about what happened to your nice young lady. But, well, that's what happens to those who stick their noses in places where it don't belong."
Ratchet wasn't listening. He was staring at the broken egg shells in horror. He knew next to nothing about Lombaxes. He didn't know the history, didn't know the language, didn't know the customs, but an instinct as old as the race itself was rising in him.
You don't harm young ones.
He raised his head slowly, looked her directly in the eyes. And snarled.
Patches ears drooped in fear as she saw his expression.
"Attack!" She yelled, and the invaders surrounding them piled on, covering Ratchet and Clank in a scrum of blows. Patches sneered and resumed her attack on a cowering young couple, who were still bravely attempting to defend their nest. The male lashed out at her with his fangs, hissing in mingled fear and anger. She raised her blaster, coldly took aim…
Ratchet hit her like a ten ton wrecking ball. She struggled in his grip, crying out in panic for backup. They weren't there. The few who hadn't fled from Ratchets anger into the forest were lying on the ground, either dead or unconscious, she couldn't tell. She quickly found herself in a fight for her life, Ratchets blazing eyes never leaving her terrified ones. She had no chance to use her weapons, no time, the two Lombaxes rolling around in the blood soaked moss. Clank found himself knocked off Ratchets back, his absence entirely unnoticed. He tried to get Ratchets attention, to stop murder being done. Not even Patches deserved that…
Through the fog of bloodrage, Ratchet felt something tugging on his tail, and heard an insistent voice calling out.
"Ratchet, please! Look at yourself! This is not you! Do not kill her! Do not sink to her level!"
"Why should I let her live, Clank? Look at what she's done!"
"But you are a hero, Ratchet! Heroes do not kill!"
"Maybe its time I started cleaning the universe up properly."
Clank felt terror squeeze his circuits. He knew that if Ratchet killed her, the part of his friend that was…well…Ratchet would die with her. He played his ace.
"What would Jasmine think?"
That stopped him. That pulled him up short. A cold wind seemed to blow through him, freezing the rage inside his chest. Hanging limp in his grip, Patches saw his expression get distant. Hope flared. He let her go, and she landed with a heavy thud on the ground.
"I'm not going to kill you."
She clutched at his ankles in fawning gratitude.
"Oh thank you! I knew you would be merciful!"
He gave her a look of distaste and kicked her hands loose.
"What, you think I'm letting you go? After what you've done? The Zenithi have a code. They don't kill anything if there's no cause. But you see those?" He pointed to the Feloisa, hissing and snarling at the shuddering Tortoiseshell Lombax. "They don't."
He turned and walked away from her. The Feloisa surged forward and she screamed.
"No, please! I'll be a good person, I promise! I'll change!"
He didn't look back, didn't stop walking. He could feel nothing but coldness in his heart for her.
"Please! Ratchet! Ple-eeaaaahhhh-!"
Her screams peaked, then cut off. He didn't look around.
"Come on, Clank. Lets find Drake. We need to get a plan together."
Clank gave his friend a concerned look. This…emptiness…was more frightening than anything Kaos could dream up. He was truly afraid. Not for the universe, but for his friend…
"Lord, help me…"
"My wing! Lord, please! Save us!"
Drake buried his head under his wing in a desperate attempt to block out the cries. His feathers and scales were streaked with blood, and the smell of death clogged his nostrils. No Guardian in the history of the Zenithi had ever seen anything like this. And there was nothing he could do. Wings and claws reached out for him beseechingly as they begged their leader and Guardian to help them. A hand landed on his back, and he looked up into Ace's worried face.
"Are you OK, sir?"
"No, Ace. I think we can safely say I am not. How are the forest defences?"
"They seem to have retreated, but there's no sign of Kaos, and the ships are still here. I think they have something planned."
Drake looked around the cave a large number of Zenithi were sheltering in. Percival and Azreal were tending to the wounded. It was a hard job. Nano-tech was useless for Zenithi, who had a different cellular structure than the rest of the universe. Injuries that would have taken five minutes to heal with nano-tech were potentially life threatening for them. But Drake breathed a sigh of relief as he saw the young ones seemed to have gotten out intact. Percival was rounding them up to count them, a task on a par with herding cats. There was the click of talons behind him. Then…
"I hope you're happy."
Drake wheeled around.
"Aeon! How can you say such a thing?"
The blue green Zenithi was glaring, eyes reduced to yellow slits.
"If you weren't such a damn bleeding heart, this would never have happened!"
Drake usually never pulled the status card. For him, it reeked of dictatorship. But some times, it has to be done.
"You dare talk to your leader in that manner!?"
"Aye! I hardly see why we should call you one, though. You couldn't lead ducklings!"
There was a group gasp, and everyone in the cave fell silent, riveted on the two Zenithi, who were now circling each other warily, eyes locked. Zenithi don't often fight, but when they did, they fought hard.
"And you think you can do better, do you?"
"As a matter of fact, yes! I would have made sure Kaos never became such a threat!"
"By killing an innocent child?"
"Um, excuse me..?"
"It was a monster! It was born a monster and you know it!"
"You call yourself a Zenithi!"
"You call yourself a Guardian!"
Drake growled, and for a moment, the soft spoken, educated Drake was gone. For a moment, he was an animal, just a sleek, flying lizard, hissing in rage. He was a few moments away from launching himself at his challenger.
"I have always done what I thought best for the good of the Zenithi! I made a mistake! Yes, I will admit that, but I have spent the rest of my life trying to rectify it! I was young! Young ones are hardly known for their wise decisions! I may be young still, but I have learned from my mistakes, and will not tolerate you using it against me! You have no right! No one has the right! I am the leader and by the great sky if you cross me you will never set claw in these woods again-yes what is it Tachyon?"
The Cragmite stopped tugging gently on Drakes tail and sat there twiddling his thumbs.
"What?" Drake and Aeon snapped in unison.
"How many chicks were in this years hatching?"
The unexpected question momentarily stymied the two Zenithi.
"Ah…52 this year, I believe." stammered Drake. "Why do you ask?"
"It's just…there's 51 chicks here."
The rage drained from Drakes heart, to be replaced by gut wrenching fear. Him and Aeon exchanged terrified glances, argument forgotten in the light of the emergency.
"Great sky!" he gasped. "We must have missed one!"
A cry broke out from a Zenithi pair.
"We can't find Marrisa!"
Zoe and Shona began to cry. The two were hugging each other close at the back of the cave, terrified beyond belief. Marrisa was a friend of theirs. Zoe gave Drake a reproachful look.
"You said this was a safe place.."
Marissa's father staggered to his feet. Both him and his mate were injured. She was barely concious, and he had a bone deep gash running down his leg.
"I'm going after her!"
"Don't be absurd, man! You can hardly walk!"
"I have to! She needs me! You know she can't move fast with that twisted foot of hers! She wouldn't last-"
Heads turned. Percival met Drakes eye in a defiant stare.
"I'm uninjured, I'm fast, I'm small and hard to shoot and I know the canyons well so there's no risk of me getting lost and wasting time. It's the only option! Half of the Zenithi can barely stand! I have to!"
Drake sighed and nodded.
"Sky bless you, Percival. Good luck."
The Cragmite nodded gravely and bolted out of the cave.
Unaware of the panic her absence was causing, Marissa limped across a deserted clearing, looking for her family. Zenithi chicks were curious, but not very bright. Intelligence came later, at around 3 or 4. Until then they constantly required rescuing from whatever situation they found themselves in. And she was in urgent danger.
As she hobbled along, a brightly coloured sweet landed in front of her. She snapped it up, squeaking happily. The concept of bait was alien to her. As far as she was concerned, it was just a nice treat coming from nowhere. Another one landed a little distance away, and she limped towards it. She had hatched with one foot curled in a fist, and it slowed her down considerably. Slowly but surely however, the trail of sweets was leading her towards a stand of bushes. She prepared to pounce on a particularly tasty looking one…
And let out a terrified squeak as a hand closed around her fluffy body. Kaos grinned as the chick wriggled in her hand and peeped desperately.
"Silly child. No use struggling. Your fate was sealed the moment you lost sight of your family. Oh, are you trying to bite me? How sweet! Shame you couldn't put a dent in a marshmallow…"
She raised Marissa up to eye level, watching with interest at the panicking chick.
"You weren't part of my plan. but I don't see why I can't have a little fun before I start." She gently took the chicks head between finger and thumb. "I imagine it will require very little pressure to snap your neck like a matchstick. It's almost a kindness really, considering your crippled foot and what I have planned for the rest of your feeble race."
Marissa's tiny talons scrabbled at Kaos's wrist as she tightened her grip.
"Put the chick down, Kaos."
A broad smile spread across her face, and she turned.
"Percival Tachyon. So called 'Emperor' of Polaris. What an unexpected pleasure to see you here! I'd ask how you wound up here, but I'm afraid I simply don't have the time…"
"Let her go or face the consequences!"
Percival was amazed at himself. Just the sight of her induced knee-shaking terror in him, yet he still somehow found reserves of bravery he never knew he had, giving him strength to stand up to her. He had an overwhelming desire to save Marissa. He had always made a point of being kind to the young ones of Elysium, the memory of Fastoon still fresh in his mind. There had been an orphanage… The memories had burnt inside him ever since he had realised he had made a mistake, and now, looking at the chick clenched in Kaos's fist, he saw a chance for redemption. If he could save her, he could make peace with his past. His first act of heroism. He would not fail…
"Why do you fight against me, Tachyon? You of all people. From what I heard, you delight in this sort of thing."He clenched his fist.
"I'm not that person any more. I've changed!"
"Have you?" Her voice was smooth and sweet, almost hypnotic. "Don't you remember the heady power of command? Being able to crush whole planets with but a word and a wave of your hand? I can give you that power back, Percival. I can give you that power and more. All you have to do is join me. Join me, and become far more than you ever were."
He ignored her deceitful promises.
"You're a liar, Kaos. Believe me, I know liars. You just want destruction. I will receive nothing from you. Now, put her down or you'll pay!"
Kaos laughed, and bent down so she was eye level with the Cragmite, Marissa still gripped tightly, shrieking in terror.
"And what, exactly, are you going to do? Hmm? How is a runty little excuse for an insect going to stop me from doing what I want?"
Her black eyes pierced him to his core, gleaming in contempt. He tried to fight the despair growing within him, but her insidious attack wore him down. She's right. He thought. I should have worked out a plan. I've failed before I even begun…
"Lets face it, Percy. There's nothing you can do."
Sudden inspiration struck like a lightning bolt, obliterating her dark influence.
"Except for this!"
He kept a pouch on his belt to store pigment materials in, and his hand flew to it quickly. A handful of black powder struck Kaos squarely in the middle of her gloating face. The eyes had always been her weakest point after years in a dark cave, and she screamed like a damned soul, dropping Marissa as she desperately clawed at her face, trying to wipe the powder from her streaming eyes. The chick landed directly in Percival's hands, snuggling close to him in sheer relief. He ran, her screams echoing behind him.
"That's right! Run, you miserable coward! I will find you! Your fate will be whispered by mothers on dark nights to frighten their young! You…You…AAAARRRRGH!" Her voice gave way to howls of sheer fury, ringing through the forest…
…And coming to the attention of Ratchet. He had gotten lost, the ruined and deserted clearings all looking the same. He drew a bead on the sound, keen hearing quickly triangulating its origin. It wasn't far. He began to run towards it, selecting his constructo-rifle. As he drew closer the bushes rustled, and he felt his hackles rise as Percival tumbled out, a tiny chick huddling in his arms. As much as Ratchet loathed him, he didn't have much choice. He had to know.
"Where is she?"
Percival barely paused as he ran past.
"Back that way! Be careful! She's angry!"
That was an understatement. She was furious. As him and Clank cautiously entered the clearing, she focused her attention on them and snarled. he had never seen a face look so bestial. Some kind of black powder had turned her face into a dark mask. It would have looked comical, if it hadn't been for the look in her eyes.
"Well, well, well. Ratchet and Clank." She spat the words as though they were obscenities. "Come to have another crack at me, hmm?"
She barely looked sane any more. Any sophisticated smoothness was gone. One eye twitched spasmodically, her tail lashing from side to side and fur rising like an angry tiger.
"No more games! I'm tired of you. Behold your fate!"
With a dramatic move, Kaos reached into the depths of her cloak and pulled out a remote, grinning insanely. The pair tensed as she pushed the button.
She gave it a confused look.
"Oh, the agony, " said Ratchet sarcastically. "Sweet release of death, take me now."
Clank rolled his eyes.
"Terribly sorry, that was the garage door opener." She tossed it aside. "This-!" She pulled out an identical remote. "-is your fate!"
The air behind them shimmered, swirled and solidified. And the Ishkhan raised its head and roared. It's bone tipped tail ripped gouges in the mossy ground as it strained against the mental leash Kaos had placed on it. Chained to it, Steel whimpered with terror and clung to his chain.
Kaos looked it square in the eye, nodded towards Ratchet and Clank, and simply said:
It let out a chilling shriek and lumbered towards them, building up speed. Ratchet swiftly locked Clank in his harness and ran, trying to put some distance between them.
"Any ideas, Clank?"
"None, I am afraid. I-No, Ratchet! Change course! We are leading it right to the canyons!"
They had left the forest and were speeding across the grasslands. Delicate, antelope-like creatures fled in terror as they saw the monster loping towards them. Ratchet could see the canyons ahead, and his heart sank. If they tried to shelter there, the Zenithi would be wiped out. A green blur flashed in the corner of his vision, and Drake was flying next to him, wings beating as fast as they could.
"Can't help but notice you're in a bit of a pickle there!"
"No kidding! Thanks for pointing that out!"
"I have a plan. You need to head for the canyons!"
"What!? But what about the Zenithi?"
"The canyons are huge, Ratchet! Where we're going is nowhere near us! Besides, we aren't going through the canyons. We're going over.."
Steel anchored himself firmly to the back of the Ishkhan, jamming his boots under one of its armoured plates. A twig that had snapped off under his flailing hand as they had charged through the forest now acting as a rudimentary lock pick. He gave a hiss of triumph as the iron collar around his neck clicked open. As he prepared to leap for freedom, however, a thought stopped him. Was it possible for him to regain his favour with Kaos? A nasty grin slid across his scarred face as he imagined laying the torn carcasses of Ratchet and Clank at her feet, once again returned to his position of power. Kaos had lied to those who served her, and they were under the impression she was after galactic domination. His greedy mind conjured dreams of being given his own planet to rule as lord and master. And later, he would not make the same mistake again. He'd be more careful. She was cunning, but no-one lived forever. Accidents do happen…He cackled. The Queen is dead, long live the King…
Steel kicked at the Ishkhans sides as though spurring on a horse, his fear of it forgotten in his dark glee.
"Yee-hah! Get 'em, boy! Yer havin' Lombax for breakfast today!"
He noticed the land was rockier, and getting steeper, almost cliff-like. His prey scrambled along rocky, almost forgotten paths that climbed steadily, rising above the landscape.
Ratchets breath rasped in his throat. On the rising, rocky path, his hoverboots were near useless. His muscles burned, he was more tired than he'd ever been in his life, but he kept going. They had reached the canyons tops,deep gashes in the stone seeming to go down forever. Log bridges traversed them like spiderwebs. The amazing view went unnoticed in the pursuit. A hiss from the Ishkhan behind him lent terror strength to his limbs, and he pushed on. Drake was doing his best to distract the beast, but it was entirely focused on its prey, and Steel kept lashing out with the end of the chain, driving him back.
A short rise loomed up ahead, barely ten feet high. Ratchet tensed his shoulder muscles, sending a signal for Clank to be prepared. Just as they reached the rocky wall, Ratchet jumped. Acting with the skill and timing born from years of practice, Clank activated his heli-pack at the top of the jump, yanking Ratchet up in the air. Ratchet latched on to the top of the rise and hauled himself over, arms shaking with exhaustion. A huge canyon gaped in front of him, the bridge across it decidedly old and rickety looking. He activated his hoverboots and zipped across it just as the Ishkhan scrambled over the rise. It was stupid, but not that stupid, and it paused, pacing back and forward as it cast a wary eye on the bridge. Drake fluttered gently down onto Ratchets shoulder.
"Do you see my plan?" he whispered.
"I think I do."
"Heel, you overgrown worm!" Steel yanked on the chain still around the Ishkhans neck. This would normally have seen Steel thrown and eaten for his pains, but the influence of Kaos had made this one slightly more biddable. It crouched down, baleful glare still fixed on its intended prey. Steel slid off the Ishkhans back, letting go of the chain, which landed in a large, thick coil at his feet. He crossed his arms and grinned smugly at Ratchet and Clank.
"You two think you're safe. The big guy here's got your scent. There's nowhere you can hide! It's only a matter of time before Kaos has you as a rug on her floor. If there's enough left of you, that is!"
He laughed nastily.
"If you think you're so tough, why don't you come over here?" called Ratchet, gripping his wrench tightly.
"I don't need to. After 'em, boy!"
The Ishkhan lunged, flowing across the bridge like liquid death. The bridge was shaking under it, but Feloisa architecture is built to last. It looked dangerous, but it held under the Ishkhans prodigious weight. Ratchet narrowed his eyes as the monster got closer.
"Wait for it…" he muttered.
It was halfway…
"Wait for it…"
He swung his wrench as hard as he could. It struck one of the bridge posts. Which broke neatly in two.
A deafening crack echoed across the canyons as the remaining post gave under the weight. With a wail, the Ishkhan fell, scrabbling at thin air. Steel felt only mild annoyance at first. Until he felt the chain that had tangled around his leg without him noticing tighten. He screamed as the falling Ishkhan yanked him off his feet. And over the cliff. Ratchet watched as they disappeared down the canyon, screams fading with distance. There was a thud, and Ratchet winced. It was true what they say. The bigger they are, the harder they fall…
Clank expected Ratchet to come up with some witty one-liner, but instead he sighed and said,
"Come on, Clank."
As they made their way back down towards the ground, they saw the dropships rising into the air, fleeing Elysium. Drake tossed his head proudly.
"Hah! Remember this, boys. Just because something is weak, doesn't mean it can't be strong. I think Kaos will think twice about coming back here again! Though I notice she's left the dome up. Ah, well. It shouldn't be too hard to find and destroy. You two should be proud. You've done well."
Clank smiled, but Ratchet was silent, all the way back down.
There was a raggedy cheer as they entered the cave the Zenithi had taken shelter in. Drake lost no time in issuing orders.
"Alpha team A! Track down the dome generator and destroy it! Alpha team B, you're on search and rescue! Find anyone who's been trapped and see if you can free them. Any one else who isn't injured, start work on the repairs. Steve, what's the extent of the damage?"
The red Zenithi's face was grim.
"We lost over a hundred Zenithi to the attack, not counting those who were 'between' at the time the dome went up. There's a faint possibility they may have managed to make it to another dimension, but it's highly likely they died. We estimate at least fifty were lost this way. The Feloisa and Yakunzu birds sustained heavy losses as well."
"What about eggs and chicks?"
"Not a single chick was lost in the attack. We would have lost Marissa, if it hadn't been for Percival." The proud looking Cragmite was gratefully receiving the tear filled thanks of Marissa's parents. "But as for eggs…We lost a quarter of this years clutch."
"It would have been much worse if they had reached the eggary in the temple, but thanks to the 'waifs and strays', they were unharmed. In fact, the temple sustained very minor damage indeed, thanks to them. Oh, and Max got his memory back."
Drake looked smug.
"I seem to recall you telling me the 'waifs and strays policy was a bad idea."
"I stand corrected. You were right. Though we have a problem that requires your advice."
"What should we do about the prisoners?"
Ratchets head shot up. He had been slumped against the cave wall, staring into space. Drake hadn't even been aware he was listening.
There were a lot of them, huddled in an unused cave further down the canyons, sitting cross legged with hands on heads. They were an even mix of Lombaxes and Blargs, the latter looking very confused. When Kaos had abandoned them, she had lifted the control she had over them as well. They had no idea why they were there. The Lombaxes had initially shown some spirit, snarling at their captors, but had been brow-beaten into silence by the Feloisa. Now there was quiet, punctuated by the occasional whimper as they contemplated what was in store for them. Some of the gestures the Feloisa had used were very detailed…
Drake paced up and down the ranks of prisoners, thinking. Ratchet had had to be forcibly restrained when he had heard about them, and he knew for a fact some of the 'waifs' would like to see them dead. If it came to it, he would too, but that was not how the Zenithi worked…
"You are fortunate we Zenithi don't kill." Drake said. Behind him, Ratchet glowered, an inch away from charging them. "Any other race would have seen you executed by now, but we will be merciful. Take them away and lock them in the empty storeroom under the temple until we can think of what to do with them."
They were herded away by the Feloisa, thankful for their lives. One stayed, however.
Ratchet started to raise his weapon, then paused. She was hugging her knees, smiling vacantly and singing a nonsense song in a little girls voice. Both pupils were normal now, if slightly dilated. A Yakunzu bird was perched near her. It looked up and caught Ratchet's eye.
Something tells me she will no longer be a threat. One of my better mind wipes, if I may say so myself. it 'said'
"Well done, La-Zu." said Drake. "Go take her somewhere where she won't be in the way. And keep her under tight control. We don't want her going on a rampage."
No chance of that.
It winged out, Honey skipping along in its wake.
"So, what do we do now?" asked Clank.
"Find out where the next crystal is." said Drake "And soon" He consulted the Brr-tanya, sending a gold flash through the cave as the sunlight caught it. "We have less than a day left. Still, our victory seems to have given us a little time back." His face fell. "If you can call it a victory." He looked out sadly at the canyons, now crowded with the injured and the grieving. "We drove them away, yes. But at what cost? Look at them! My people. My subjects. I am honour bound to lead them and protect them. I don't think I'm doing a good job so far. Maybe Aeon was right…"
He looked so crest fallen that Clank felt moved to pat him on the shoulder.
"Do not feel bad. The damage Kaos did could have been a whole lot worse. Now, we must find that crystal."
"Of course. And I have an idea about that. Many of those here are far older than me. If we show the book around, we may find someone who knows."
The book was passed from Zenithi to Zenithi, each coming up empty. It looked like no-one knew where to-
"Wait! Give me that!"
In passing, Percival had seen the picture of the crystal, and had thought it looked familiar. Now he snatched at the book and stared at the illustration in horror.
"Oh dear god, no! I know where it is!"
As the book was being handed around, Ratchet had slipped away quietly. He needed peace. It had been in short supply lately, what with the noise and terror of the attack. Now he sat on a boulder next to a small creek, trying to make sense of his thoughts. A little distance away, he noticed some shrouded figures, the covered bodies of those who hadn't been fast enough, and his fists clenched. He could feel no grief for them. There wasn't room for any more grief. Looking at the small bodies, he felt his sadness harden into anger. This wasn't the harsh, burning rage the had felt during the battle for Elysium. This one was smooth and incandescent, like a river of fire. He would find Kaos, he vowed. And she would pay. Backed by the Praetorian Guard when they were brought back, he would make her regret the day she crossed him. He looked up at the sky. Even as he watched, the purple dome flickered and disappeared, revealing blue sky. It was still early in the day, barely noon yet. So much had changed, in such a small time…
An annoying ring tone cut through the fire of his thoughts. Jasmines scanner and communicator were part of the same device, and what with one thing or another, he hadn't had a chance to give it back…
He pushed the button, and General Cross's face appeared.
"CAIN! What the hell is-You're not Cain. You're that Ratchet fellow. Jasmine was supposed to report back to me with her progress. Where is she?"
The look on Ratchet's face told him everything he needed to know. He sighed and looked away, unwilling to let someone who was still a stranger to him see how close to tears he was.
"She died a hero, General." Ratchet said, voice think with unshed tears. "She was a true Guardsman, right to the end."
The General nodded.
"Good." He gave another sigh. "So that's it for the Lombaxes then. A day or less until the end of the dead line and our only hope dies on us. We really can't catch a break, can we?"
"It's not too late, General. We have one crystal left to find. I'm going to finish what she started, no matter what. She…she would have wanted that."
General Cross smiled sadly.
"You're a good lad, Ratchet. You'd have made a fine Guard. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some very sad news to tell the others…"
The screen went blank. Ratchet looked up at the sky again, and it was as though his rage was a lens. He felt like if he concentrated hard enough he could see Sargasso from here, see Kaos laughing about the destruction she left in her wake. He swore, in Jasmines name, that he would wipe that smile off her face…
Clank was running towards him.
"What is it?"
"They have found the last crystal! Percival identified its location!"
"Well, I can't say I like him, but he does seem genuine, I guess. Where is it?"
"You will not like this…"
"Out with it!"
"It is in her necklace…"
Ratchet was silent, thoughts whirring. Clank didn't like the look on his face.
"Kaos has it, huh?" he said, finally. "Doubt she knows, or she'd have destroyed it."
His face was grim.
"What say you and me go pay her a little visit?"