“Oh my god!” Amanda cried.
Her exclamation alerted Nine, Neil, and Pete to the approaching colossus looming over them. Patches of bright sunlight shown down onto its back, reflecting dully off its mud-brown hide. Undoubtedly mammalian, the giant herbivore stretched over 20 feet tall. Like a giraffe, it stood firmly on four elongate legs, and reached even further with a long neck. But it lacked the distinctive gracility of a giraffe, and was instead a very robustly-built creature, with thick sinewy legs and neck. In practice it, was a strange combination of a giraffe and rhinoceros, despite its lack of horns.
Crossing his arms, and speaking in his lots-of-planets-have-a-Northern accent, Nine proclaimed, “Ah! Indricothere! Paraceratherium, no question. What a beast!”
“Oh god, what a gorgeous animal!” Pete said, positively delighted.
Despite their enthusiasm, the indricothere did not seem as pleased to see them. It stamped its feet, snorted out air as hot as its temper, and tossed its head around so wildly, it crashed through some fairly thick branches.
“Whoa, easy there big fella,” Neil said, and his Kong stood up tall and proud on its forelimbs, matching the indricothere’s size. The indricothere stood its ground, but did not approach them any further. “Let’s, uh…let’s just keep moving on.”
Keeping wary eyes on the prehistoric rhinoceros, they began retreating away from it, continuing on their quest to find creature allies. The indricothere likewise went on its way, keeping the strange herd in its peripheral vision until they had vanished into the bush.
Neil sighed and laughed, “Well, that was definitely a close call!”
“Not as close as that arrowtongue!” Nine said. “We really spooked it, would’ve attacked us if not for these three,” and he pointed to the two monster apes and the Xenomorph queen.
“I don’t know, I still say those viperwolves were the creepiest creatures so far,” Amanda said.
“Creepy, sure,” Pete agreed, “but that’s just that sound they make. I don’t think they’d ever actually attack us.”
“So that big…giraffe thingy, just now-,” Amanda began.
“Indricothere,” Nine specified.
“Right, indricothere, it’s a real animal right?” she finished.
“Of course!” Nine answered. “it’s an extinct relative of rhinos from Oligocene Mongolia. That’s about 25 million years before your time.”
“Ha! Knew it! Telling you, I’m getting better every day!” she said with an air of triumph.
“Yeah, uh, just saying – still in the lead here,” Neil said, putting a hand up.
“Might want to re-think that,” Nine said.
“I meant not including you, Doctor,” Neil clarified, “I thought that would’ve been a given.”
Nine smiled very smugly and said, “Just making sure!”
Pete said, “I still think your lying about that Sha-…uh, shara…the thing with leg wings.”
“Sharovipteryx,” Nine said.
“Pfft, I think we can all be forgiven for being skeptical about that one!” Amanda said, a grove of helicordian flowers recoiling as she stepped toward them.
“What can I say, the Triassic was a weird time,” Nine said. “The animals that survive major mass extinctions are like kids in college. Whole new opportunities, lots of crazy experimentation, and then eventually they settle on something. You think Sharovipteryx was weird? Try Tanystropheus or Henodus.”
“No thanks, I’ve already eaten!” Amanda said jokingly, prompting a few laughs from the others.
“Yeah, glad one of us has! I’m starving!” Neil said, massaging his growling stomach.
“Feeling a bit peckish myself, now that I think about it,” Nine said, looking up into the branches above them.
“Well it has been about…what, four days? Since we last ate?” Pete said.
Nine kept scanning the myriad branches criss-crossing above them. With the sun glaring down at them, it was nearly impossible for him to discern anything out of their blackened silhouettes.
“Oy, one of you two,” he said pointing to Pete and Neil, “get one of your apes to pull down this tree here.”
“You heard the Timelord,” Neil said, and the gigantic primate responded by rearing onto its shorter, squat hind limbs and reaching up toward the tree. It grasped the branches in its massive hands and pulled down. It didn’t take much of the gorilla’s effort to force the tree down with an aged, mournful groan. With the branches now at their level, they could all see ripe, red fruits shaped like tear drops growing between the leaves.
“Fantastic!” Nine said, and he began picking some of the fruits. He threw one over to Neil.
“What’s this?” Neil asked.
“Hairless rambutan. Best when picked right off the tree!” Nine answered.
Neil brought the fruit up to his nose, sniffed it, and eventually decided to take the plunge. Sinking his teeth into the fruit, he was instantly aware of a somewhat bland flavor with just the tiniest hint of sweetness.
“How is it?” Pete asked.
“I’ve had better, and I’ve had worse. For an empty stomach, it’s good enough,” and he took another bite.
Nine tossed more of the fruits to Amanda and Pete, while sticking some more in his pockets. “Well, onwards then.”
“So Doctor,” Amanda said, “I didn’t know you were so well versed in fruit.”
Nine was about to answer, but waited until after he ducked under a low tree limb. “I’m the Doctor, there are very few things I’m not well versed in.”
“What would those be?” Neil asked.
“Well, I have been meaning to learn how to fly a biplane,” Nine said as he stepped over a large yellow flower. “Oy, everyone, watch out for this yellow flower, it’s extremely toxic. You catch that Pete?”
“Yes, Doctor, I heard you,” Pete said goodheartedly, rubbing his butt softly. “The sores are very nearly gone, in case any of you were wondering.”
“No offense Pete, but I think we were all trying our hardest not to think about your sores,” Amanda said with a hint of disgust.
“So Pete,” Nine said to the director, “as you made very apparent upon our first meeting, you say you’re a fan of ‘my show?”
“Oh yeah, huge fan! I own dozens of props from the classic series!” Pete responded jovially while swatting a mosquito.
“Yeah, great, anyway, exactly how much of my life does the show cover?”
“Quite a bit, really. It’s been on for nearly 50 years,” Pete said.
“Well, when does it start? From my perspective.”
Pete was whizzed back in time for a moment, thinking back to fuzzy, black-and-white television screens, and to a face so markedly different from that of Nine. “Oh that was all the way back at the First Doctor.”
“First Doctor?” Nine asked. “You mean granddad? Yikes, I shudder to think”
“Oy, don’t be mean! I loved the First Doctor! I love all of them, er, you that is” Pete defended.
Nine felt a little guilty and said, “Oh I don’t mean it, it’s just….blimey that was long ago.”
“Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, ‘a lifetime ago,’ doesn’t it?” Amanda asked cheekily.
Nine looked back at her, and asked, “Yeah, or eight. Do you watch the show?”
“No, but I might have to when I get back. You’re a pretty interesting man, Doctor,” she said with a smile.
Nine smiled back nervously, then turned back to Pete, “No offense to the first, it’s just that I’ve changed so much since then….in ways I could never have imagined…,” he added with a grim tone.
“I’ll say you have!” Pete said with a laugh. “Funny when you think about it – the youngest you is the one who looks the oldest!”
“Do you remember when in my timeline the story starts? Like, was it when my granddaughter and I first stole the TARDIS?”
Pete shook his head, “No, long after that. It starts when you first meet Ian and Barbara.”
Nine became so wrapped in memories he couldn’t move, and stood still in the middle of the forest. “Right…..Chesterton…., Totter’s Lane, and-and the Chameleon Circuit, and….,” Nine ran his head through his nearly non-existent hair. Then he started laughing, “’The Doctor’…that really is when it starts, isn’t it?” he said to no one around them. And in an instant, a shadow fell over his face – the toothy smile warped into a fearful frown. “The Time War! Does that mean they showed the Time War!?” he said, choking on the words as tears began trickling from his eyes.
Pete shook his head again, and said, “No, there was a hiatus between when we first meet the Eighth Doctor to when we first see you and Rose.”
Nine took a deep inhalation, the tears being reclaimed by his eyes. “Thank goodness!” This was followed by a proclaimed silence. They were all curious, but none of them dared to probe Nine for further details, lest the Oncoming Storm unleash its full wrath.
Neil pretended to cough, and said, “You know, I still can’t believe the Prawns wouldn’t help us.”
Amanda, picking up on his intentions, replied, “Oh, oh yeah, yes, right! That really sucks!”
Nine said, “I can. That group was totally disorganized. Nothing but apathy throughout the whole colony. We should count ourselves lucky we found them early, and didn’t end up wasting time on a lost cause. At least now have time to keep looking before we have to head back.”
Nine, at the head of the group stopped dead in his tracks. The others, taking notice, also stopped, waiting for instructions or information. When none came, Amanda asked, “Doctor what is it?”
He turned to look at them, and said, “Come see for yourself.”
Cautiously, they went to Nine’s side, and saw what it was that caused him to stop. Amidst the thick jungle foliage were ruins: gigantic, ancient stone ruins. The walls were formed from giant rods made from basalt crystals giving them a very aged dark grey. The rods were weaved into each other, allowing them to come together and form structures of enormous size and elaborate intricacy. The buildings, crumbled and ruinous though they were, had not given up, and there were still many that were still standing. All of them were covered in intruding vines that snaked their way through ever gap in the stone; up walls and over floors. For all they could see, the structures were spanned out across the area of a small city, complete with winding streets.
“I know these ruins!” Pete said.
“You do?” Neil asked surprised.
“I sure do! These are the ruins of the ancient civilizations of Skull Island!” Pete said. “As seen in the remake of King Kong I directed a few years ago!” Pete looked to the ruins, and marveled at his own vision, made more real than ever before. The level of detail transcended that of any mere human thought. The basalt, resilient though it was, was rife with the signs of extensive weathering. Tiny flecks of green were visible in between every crack and crevice.
“Right. Off we go!” Nine said, turning left at the city’s edge.
“Well, wait, hold up a second,” Amanda called to him. “What if there’s somebody living in there? Maybe they might be able to help us!”
“Don’t be stupid,” Nine said. “There’s not a single intelligent creature living down there.”
Amanda, staring him down and crossing her arms, defensively shot back, “How do you know?”
He looked at her with eyelids hanging in arrogance. “Amanda, it’s a ruin! No one lives in a ruin, that’s how it gets ruined.” Amanda kept her arms crossed and her gaze confrontational. She did not appreciate his tone, even if she did appreciate his use of words. “If anything, this place is a magnet for creatures to seek shelter. No telling what’s living down there.”
“Not like it matters, nothing can touch us with 2 giant gorillas and an alien queen,” Neil pointed out.
“My point stands: there’s nothing for us down there and we’ve got a schedule to keep!” Nine egged them on.
“Let’s just cut through!” Neil suggested. “That’s got to be quicker than going all the way around.”
“Like I said, it could be dangerous,” Nine said firmly.
“And like I said, we’re not exactly defenseless!” Neil said, his Kong giving a supportive snort. “Besides, is it really that much more dangerous than the jungle?”
Nine hesitated in answering, though not for lack of a response. Begrudgingly, he complied. “Oh gone on, then. Let’s get to it, but let’s hurry, looks like it’s getting darker.” and he pointed to the sky, where they could all make out the sun drifting farther westwards, casting their shadows long on the trees beside them.
“Wait a minute, how are our creatures supposed to follow us?” Amanda asked. “The space between buildings looks pretty narrow.”
“That’s my girl, Amanda!” Nine said raising an open hand toward her. “Good point, off we go,” he said turning around.
“That’s no problem,” Pete said. “The Kongs should be able to just scale the buildings. I think it’s safe to say they’re well qualified.”
“And the queen?” Nine asked.
“Two words: piggy back,” Neil said.
The 14 foot tall Xenomorph craned its towering head crest over her six projecting shoulder spines, facing Amanda with its domed, eye-less face. The teeth shone like fiberglass, and even with its mouth closed, every one of them was clearly visible – interlocking between each other if an eternal, vicious stare. The picture of unease was completed by its utter lack of facial features: eyes, ears, or nose. There was absolutely no way to discern was going on in the calculating, alien mind sitting just behind the glistening dome. It faced Amanda directly, awaiting instruction.
“Uh…..what he said,” Amanda said, pointing to Pete. The Xenomorph turned away toward one of the Kongs, stepped over to it, and pulled itself onto its back.
Pete shrugged. “Problem solved.”
Nine rolled his eyes, but complied all the same. “Off we go then,”
With their first steps into the ruined city, the two apes reached up and grasped the walls of the lingering temples, hoisting themselves upward and finding solid footholds with their opposable toes. The three human travelers and their Timelord companion walked right down the center of the streets. The setting sun bathed them in the darkness of the long shadows cast by the decaying structures. Their trek became infinitely easier now that they no longer had to worry about layers upon layers of thick tropical foliage obstructing their path. Amanda took the lead, with Neil right behind her. Nine sulked at the back.
“Seriously, does anyone else get a bad feeling from this place?” Nine called out.
“No,” Amanda called out in reply.
“So it’s just me then?” Nine called out again.
“Yes,” Neil answered.
Nine sighed, and crossed his arms. There was indeed something about these ruins that filled him with a deep sense of foreboding. The earth beneath his feet felt wrong; as if it was far too thin. He looked sideways around him, catching glimpses of the inner workings of the many varied buildings. He could tell that inside, narrow, winding hallways led down to miles and miles of intricate catacombs. They were straddling the very top of an enormous iceberg, and the Doctor dreaded to think what was hidden in its depths.
“What makes you think there’s something bad here, Doctor?” Pete asked, letting Nine get a little closer.
Nine shook his head. “I’m not sure exactly, but this place just…gives me this feeling. I’m 900 years old, and I didn’t get this far by not knowing when to trust my gut.”
“Well, if it helps at all, I trust you,” Pete said.
Nine gave him a small smile, “There’s always one, isn’t there? I wouldn’t worry about it too much though, Pete. I’m as good at getting out of trouble as I am at getting into it, and it looks like I will be for some time.”
“Yeah?” Pete asked.
“Yup! I’ve seen the future, and it is skinny,” he said with a side glance.
They continued wondering through the city for half an hour, the most secure and comfortable they’d ever been since falling into this world (except for Nine, who never shook off his feelings of unease). It was mostly uneventful, though Amanda did nearly step on a three-foot-long scorpion. The only sounds came from the little bits of rock that fell away as the two gorillas climbed over the more decrepit parts of the buildings above them.
Time passed – much to the Doctor’s dismay – slowly, and in the proper chronological order, and the night followed close behind. Without the bioluminescence of the jungle, it became nearly impossible to find their way around, as evidenced by Pete nearly tripping headfirst right into Neil.
“Oh for god’s sake!” Nine said, pulling out his sonic screwdriver and activating it, using the blue light at the end as a flashlight.
Amanda yawned, “Eh…I’m thinking maybe we should stop for the night,” she said with droopy eyelids.
“I want to get out of these ruins first,” Nine said, not a hint of exhaustion in his voice.
Amanda sighed and said, “Come on, Doctor! For all we know, we’re nowhere near the end!”
“I’m telling you, there something about this place that just doesn’t sit right with me, and it sits even less well at night!” Nine said defensively.
“We’ve been going since sunrise!” Neil pleaded.
“Alright then,” the Doctor said defiantly, “Let’s put it to a vote! Anyone who wants to stop for the night right here, right now, raise your hand.” Amanda and Neil responded accordingly. “Okay, and anyone who wants to wait until we get out of here, raise your hand.” Nine and Pete both raised their hands.
Amanda and Pete both groaned.
“Ahh, Pete?!” Amanda whined in exasperated incredulity.
“What?” Pete asked rhetorically. “I trust the Doctor.”
“Good man, Pete!” Nine said, patting him on the back.
“Well, okay then, what now, huh?” Neil asked, holding out his hands. “It’s a tie!”
The voice caught them completely off guard. Nine spun around and immediately began scanning the scene with the sonic screwdriver. Pete was startled to a jolt, and Neil nearly stumbled backwards on to his rump. Amanda, to whom the voice was directed, had the most relaxed reaction of all; she simply turned around in the direction of the voice.
“Uh…yes…?” Amanda asked tentatively.
Nine shined the sonic screwdriver up toward the source of the voice, and the pale blue light revealed a young woman who couldn’t have been well into her 20s. She was fairly short, and blond hair.
“Olivia!?” Amanda asked with obvious recognition. The girl smiled, confirming the identification. Amanda returned the smile and went over to Olivia, who was standing by a column at the entrance to one of the temples. The other three followed, Nine’s screwdriver providing the much-needed light.
Amanda and Olivia hugged one another. “I can’t believe it’s you! What are you doing here?” Olivia asked.
“Oh god, it is a long story. I’m guessing you have no idea what’s going on?” Amanda said.
“Not a clue!” Olivia confirmed.
“Don’t worry, we’ll make sure to fill you in. Oh, these are my friends,” Amanda said, motioning to the other three. “This is Neil deGrasse Tyson, Peter Jackson, and the Doctor.”
“Doctor who?” Olivia asked, genuinely not knowing.
Pete laughed. Nine turned to him and said, “Oy, it’s not that funny!” Then he turned back to Olivia. “It’s just the Doctor.”
She held out her hand to each of them and shook. When she got to Nine, he winced a little at the touch, and said, “You alright, Olivia? You’re hands a bit cool.”
“Oh yeah, it’s nothing, I’m just feeling a little under the weather, that’s all, nothing to worry about,” she said very dismissively.
Nine wanted to probe further, but Neil stepped in. “How do you two know each other?”
“Oh Olivia was one of my students a few years ago…in fact…I think she might have even been in the same year as Patrick,” Amanda said.
“Patrick? Patrick Murphy?” Olivia asked. “Is he with you?”
The four of them exchanged exhausted looks, and Amanda just said, “Nah…like I said, it’s a long story…,” and she laughed a little.
A piercing thud signaled the arrival of the apes and the alien next to them.
“Holy fuck!” Olivia gasped with a fearful face looking up at all three intimidating creatures.
“Oh don’t be afraid of them!” Pete said. “They’re with us!”
“They’re ‘with you?’” Olivia asked. Before any one of them could elaborate further, all three spirit creature erupted in furious excitement. Jaws were opened, teeth were bared, fists were raised in tight balls. The night exploded with thunderous roaring and terrific shrieking. The three of them instantly lunged at Olivia.
“BACK! BACK!!” Pete shouted, grasping at the fur on his Kong’s forearm. “What’s gotten into them!”
“No idea!” Nine said.
All three of them were able to hold back their respective spirit creatures, keeping them from unleashing their full might upon the little human in front of them. Though their hands - as well as claws, jaws, and tail-spines – were stayed, they were no less wrathful in their constant vocalizing. As the three humans struggled to hold back the wave of zoological fury, Nine observed them intently. Were his suspicions finally being confirmed somehow?
After several minutes, the creatures were finally calmed to the point that they were able to keep from ferociously bellowing out their instincts, but they were still obviously upset, as evidenced by their incessant, low growling.
“Sorry about that, Olivia!” Amanda apologized. “I have no idea why they’re acting like this!”
“No it’s okay…but why are they with you at all?” Olivia asked.
“Remember that long story I mentioned?” Amanda asked. Olivia’s nodding was enough to make it clear. “So what have you been up to since you got here?”
“Oh nothing much really. We spend most of our time hiding out down below.” Olivia said.
“You’re not alone?” Neil asked.
“Ugh, no, thank god!” Olivia said with a giggle. “No there’s five of us. Like I said, we mostly spend our time downstairs. I only came up because I thought I heard voices.”
“Say, Olivia,” Neil spoke up, “You mind if we stay the night with you? We’ve been traveling all day, and we could really use a nice safe place to sleep.”
“Whoa, hey, no!” Nine spoke up, “We hadn’t agreed on that, right Pete?”
“Actually,” Pete said with a yawn, “this last little bout with the creatures…pretty much took the last bit of energy out of me.” Nine turned to him looking positively betrayed. “I’m sorry, Doctor. I need to rest.”
Finally giving in, the Doctor relaxed his entire body. “Oh alright. If you must.”
“It’s really not a problem!” Olivia said. “Come on, let’s get back down to the others.”
They all began to follow Olivia into the structure, despite the pleas of their spirit creatures. Nine kept his sonic screwdriver up and at full light to make sure the path was well lit. “It sure is dark down here,” Nine mused aloud. “How did you manage to navigate your way up from the lower levels?”
“Oh, nothing special, really, I just felt my way around. We’ve been here for like a week, so I’m pretty used to it,” she said casually. They came up on the first set of stairs leading down into the depths of the temple. Once the first set was past, the second was upon them. Then the third, and shortly after that, the fourth. “Careful guys, there are a lot of tunnels and hallways down here. Very easy to get lost, take it from me.”
“Duly noted,” Pete said, shrinking past a web containing a large, fat yellow spider.
“What’s down here, anyway?” Nine asked.
“Tombs. Mostly,” Olivia said. “At least all the parts I’ve seen.” There was a noticeable wave of disgust passing over all of them at the mention that all around them the ground was filled with ancient crypts.
They turned down two more passageways. Amanda was walking in a coma, barely aware of anything around her. If she was anymore awake, she might have seen Nine stop dead in front of her. As she was, she didn’t, and so her nose collided with his leather-shrouded scapula.
“Oops sorry about that,” she said drearily. When Nine still would move, she became curious. “…Doctor?”
“Nobody move,” Nine quietly but firmly commanded. They obeyed, but not without curiosity. He pointed down, and with the help of the sonic’s faint light, they made out the vague outline of shapes imbedded within the grime of the stone floors. “Foot prints.” With a little squinting, they all saw it. Like hands without thumbs, five long digits tipped with obvious, pointed claws sprouting from fleshy palms. “There’s something living down here.”
“What?” Olivia asked, shocked with surprise.
“Not sure…these footprints are old, and faded,” Nine said, tracing the outline with his finger. “But still, it’s not like anything I’ve ever seen. It’s quadrupedal, whatever it is. Five digits per limb. Other than that, I can’t be sure of anything. The foot prints lead down there,” and he pointed the sonic toward a section of the catacombs that veered right.
“Ah, well, good thing we’re going this way!” Olivia said, heading down an opposite corridor. They followed, just a little bit more worried than they had been. In the darkness of the ever expansive tunnels, and with their senses heightened, it now seemed as if the underground was alive with constant activity. The small tumbling of rocks, the faint dripping of water, the ghosts of forms moving in the surrounding shadow: they all were keenly aware that they were not alone.
“Here we are!” Olivia said with a joyful smile as she crossed a doorway and into a small room. “Hey guys! We have visitors!”
Inside, Nine, Neil, Amanda, and Pete saw four others: two boys and two girls. Both girls had dark hair, but one was much shorter than the other. Despite the differences in their height, both had the width of a twig. One of the boys shared their nearly non-existent physique, but coupled it with a soft, boyish face topped by brown hair. The other boy was of medium height and build, with a short, beak-nose and wide blue eyes. Not one of them looked over 25.
“Cool, who’d you find?” the taller girl asked.
With that, the four of them entered fully.
“Doctor!” the taller boy exclaimed upon seeing Nine.
Nine resisted every urge to roll his eyes, and resigned himself to quietly whispering, “Fantastic…”
“Hey guys, I’m Amanda, and this is Neil, Pete, and the Doctor,” Amanda introduced them all, Neil and Pete giving little waves while Nine simply nodded.
“And these are Zach, Drea, Meghan, and Toby,” Olivia said of the two tall ones and the two shorter ones respectively. The newly-named occupants began getting up from where they were, and briskly walked over to the newcomers.
“Uh, wait, guys!” Olivia said, holding them back. They looked at her confusedly. “These guys actually seem to know what’s going on.”
“Really? That figures,” Zach said, eyeing Nine.
“Let me guess,” Toby said, “It has something to do with Patrick Murphy?”
“How’d you work that out?” Nine asked half sarcastically.
“Oh please,” Drea said, “Between all of us knowing him and the fact that there are dinosaurs out there…”
“Well, yes in fact, you got that much right,” Nine said. “In fact, we’re all inside the world of Patrick’s mind.”
“Care to elaborate?” Meghan asked.
“Okay, long story short since it’s getting late,” Nine began, “Patrick has been attacked by a creature called a Conceptivore – a mental parasite that feeds on human minds. But in order to do that, it must first transform a mind into something tangible, hence this world. So everything in this universe is a manifestation of everything going on in Patrick’s head.”
“Huh…well, it’s as good a guess as any of ours,” Toby said lazily.
“So how come we haven’t seen this thing?” Meghan asked.
“Well, it’s a big world, isn’t it?” Nine said. “But trust us, the Conceptivore is working its way toward consuming this entire world, and everyone and everything in it.”
“Okay, well what are we supposed to about that?” Drea asked.
“Well, that’s where we come in. As we speak, our colleagues are scouring the world looking for anyone willing to help us storm the Conceptivore’s keep, rescue Patrick, and save the world!”
“Yeah, how’s that going for you?” Toby asked jokingly.
“Uh,” Nine said, looking at the others before finishing, “We’re not really sure. So far, we haven’t had any luck, but others might!”
“How about you guys, do you want to help us?” Neil asked.
They all looked at each other before Zach asked, “Um….wait, back up, what exactly is your plan? You find help, then what?”
“Well, we raise an army, attack the Conceptivore’s fortress and save the world, you know,” Pete said.
“An army?!” Meghan. “Jesus, how powerful is this thing?”
“It’s got an army of over a million,” Nine said blankly.
“Yeah, I think I’m going to have to give that a pass,” Toby said.
“Same here,” Drea said.
“And me,” Meghan said.
“Me too,” said Zach.
“Oh come on guys!” Pete said. “Once we get enough help, I’m sure we’ll be able to do it!”
“I’m sure you will!” Toby said, “So therefore, you won’t be needing us four. We’ll just be content to sit back and wish you well.”
Amanda shrugged, “Eh, fair enough, I guess.”
“Man, we are really bad at this,” Neil said.
“So…,” Drea began, slowly getting closer to Pete, “Anything else worth nothing about…you know, this whole…predicament, thingy?”
Nine thought for a second, then answered, “Not that I can think of.”
“Well, in that case…,” Drea said, slowly reaching for Pete with her left hand.
“Oy, what are you doing?” Pete said, Neil, Nine, and Amanda looking on with sudden confusion.
Drea moved closer and closer, as if she was about to gently peck him on the cheek, only to throw her head back with a violent jerk. A ferocious, otherworldly screeching filled the room. In utter disbelief, they could only determine that the horrid sound had come from Drea, who was now sporting skin with a deathly, sickening pallor, eyes that burned a furious red, and a mouth dripping with pronounced fangs.
Pete recoiled at the sight of this new entity, standing where once a seemingly normal human being once stood. He moved back toward Neil, Nine and Amanda, all reeling with shock and a lack of understanding.
“What the hell’s going on?!” Neil asked frantically.
“What?!” Toby asked Drea, his own voice now carrying a sinister subtly.
“A cross, it was a cross!” Drea shot back at him.
Pete looked down to the catholic cross he had dangling by a loose chain around his neck. “Vampires!” he shouted with sudden realization.
“Oh, bloody brilliant…,” Nine sighed. Regaining himself for the chase he knew was coming, he grabbed Pete and put him in between them and the undead terror now rising from a state of stealthy seclusion. Olivia, Toby, Meghan, and Zach all began to take on the signature vampiric traits, peeling back their lips to show as much of their fangs as they could. They hissed like snakes ready to strike. “Alright, here’s how it’s going to work. We’re just going to slowly and quietly work our way out of these tunnels, and back to the surface, where we will continue on our merry way, and you don’t have to be destroyed.”
“Good luck finding your way through the tunnels, Doctor!” Zach playfully taunted. “Once you get lost, you’re dead!”
Nine smiled smugly, “Well then, good thing I always know where I’m going!”
They continued creeping backwards, the four vampires watching patiently with hungry eyes. Eventually, the light from the sonic became too distant, and the vampires were consumed by blackness.
“So,” Nine said, piercing the silence which gripped them all, shocking them to attention. “Does anyone here want to say it, or should I?”
“Say what?” Amanda asked.
“Alright, guess I’ll say it, “ and he cleared his throat, “I told you so!”
“Are you serious?!” Amanda hissed. “Are you really that immature?”
“I think so, yeah,” Nine said proudly.
“Now? You really want to do this now?!” Amanda asked fiercely.
“Yes, I do! Because if you’d listened to me, we wouldn’t be in this mess!” Nine defended.
“You know, Doctor, you’re not exactly helping right now.” Neil said to him.
“I know, but it makes me feel better,” Nine said with a shrug.
Echoes of their undead pursuers rang out, bouncing off the walls of corridors winding down and up around them. Hissing like angered cats, and the soft quick padding of feet against stone.
“Uh…,” Pete began before pausing, “does anyone remember the way back up?” The silence that answered him told him all he needed to know. “Bugger,” he sighed.
“Is it me, or do some of those sounds seem to be coming from in front and behind us?” Neil asked.
Nine shook his head, “No, they’ve got us near surrounded.”
“How is that even possible?” Amanda asked.
“Well, they have been down here a week. In fact…I’m starting to think Olivia might have intentionally led us around in circles a few times before bringing us to the others. Not like we would have noticed, what with it being so dark, and us being so tired…,” Nine said.
“Well, we know we’re trying to go up, so stairs would probably be a good sign,” Neil said.
“Let’s just hope we find the stairs before the vampires find us,” Amanda warned.
As they kept wandering, making sure to keep their ears out for signs of the scattered vampires, they came to a split in the catacombs. One passage led to the left, the other continued straight.
“Alright fellas,” Amanda said, “anybody have a preference?”
“Left,” Nine said immediately. “Just look down,” he pointed to the ground, and they could all vaguely make out the mysterious footprints they had encountered earlier.
“Wait, that’s it!” Neil exclaimed. “This creature, whatever it is, had to come down here from upstairs right? So we just follow them backwards and we’re sure to find the way out!”
“It’s our best hope, I suppose,” Nine said with cautious optimism.
His optimism didn’t last long though. As they were about to turn left, Nine’s screwdriver lit up the hall to reveal Zachary and Meghan lurking there, waiting for them in silence. Zach stood in the middle of the hall, while Meghan hung from the ceiling, crouched like a gecko with her face hanging up side down. The faint light of the sonic glistened off their red eyes, burning furiously. The minds that sat behind these demonic stares gave no hint of mercy, and signaled the deep, dark depths of their cruelty. With their lips curled back, their gums shone a brilliant red as if bleeding. Their fangs were so long that they clicked off the bottom teeth even with their mouths open. All four of them could swear that the vampires had become even more repulsive than they’d seen just minutes earlier; their hair messier, and their skin sickly pale gray like a sign of decay.
“So much for our best hope…” Amanda mumbled, dismayed at the vampires standing in the middle of their only way out.
“It’s alright, we’ll just push by them with the cross,” Nine said. As if signaled by Nine’s words, a ferocious snarl rang out from behind them, and the three remaining vampires were standing firm in the corridor. Like Meghan, Drea had put herself on the ceiling, glaring down at them with a face turned topsy turvy. Olivia and Tobey crawled spider like on the walls on either side of them.
“Pete,” Nine whispered, “give me the cross.” Pete obliged, quietly passing the object to Nine, out of view of the vampires. As all five closed in, Nine moved between them and their attackers, keeping the cross stiffly out in front of him.
“There’s no use Doctor,” Zach taunted. “You only have one cross. You won’t be able to keep all of us back!”
“So which will it be?” Drea asked. “Us, or them?”
“Oh, only those two?” Nine said jokingly, “Why don’t we take a third option!” he said, ushering the other three behind him to move down the unexplored corridor, following the footsteps of the unknown creature. As they moved, Nine kept facing the vampires, both the cross and the screwdriver out in front. The vampires’ terrible shrieks made it obvious that they were not thrilled with Nine’s plan, but they followed nonetheless, keeping themselves halfway between the light of the sonic and the shadow of the underground.
The hallway ended suddenly at a door. Pete tried the handle, but the door wouldn’t budge. “No use, it’s locked,” he said.
“’No use?’ Thought you were the fan!” Nine said indignantly. “Amanda, come here,” he said, and she followed his direction. “Here’s how it’s going to work. I’m going to have to unlock the door with the sonic screwdriver. This means we’ll lose the light for just a moment. Now, here take the cross,” he said handing it to her, “and hold it out,” and she obeyed. “Now here’s the tricky part: when it gets dark, those five are going to make every noise possible to get you to drop the cross. Whatever you do – and whatever they do- don’t drop it. No doubt they can see in the dark, and even in the dark it’ll keep them back. Got that?” he said looking at her intently. She nodded, strengthening her grip on the cross and stiffening her arm. “Ready?” he said, preparing himself to dash for the door.
“Ready,” she said with a hard voice.
The light left them, and the hall erupted in fits of hissing and snarling as if a pack of savage jungle cats and pounced from the darkness. Amanda shut her eyes, for all the difference it made. She couldn’t see them, but she could tell how close they were. Not only were they as vociferous as pack of wolves howling at the moon, but she could feel the spittle from their mouths sprinkling on her knuckles as she held her hand outward. Amanda could feel her heart pounding terribly beneath her chest she could feel its pulse underneath every inch of her body, but she didn’t yield.
Nine brought the tip of the sonic to the metal bolt, and in an instant the lock was picked. “In, in!” he commanded Neil and Pete, who rushed into the room. Nine went back to Amanda, lighting the scene again and revealing the horror of the vampires still standing before them. He put his hands on her shoulders, and together they backed up, cross still out in front. The vampires followed as close as they could, until Nine and Amanda crossed the threshold and Nine slammed the door on them, locking it swiftly with the screwdriver. Desperate poundings began ringing from the other side, letting them know that the vampires weren’t about to let a simple locked door keep them from a feast.
“There, that’ll give me some time to think,” Nine sighed.
Neil took a step, and heard something jingle beneath his feet. He swished his foot around and felt the general outline of a large coin underneath his sole. “Hey, Doctor, can we get some light over here? I think I found something,” Nine answered wordlessly, shining the sonic’s blue light upon the ground by Neil’s foot. There was indeed a coin there, a large coin with a diameter of a few inches. The closer the screwdriver got to the coin, the greater its shine became. The light was too pale to cast its proper color.
Nine picked it up, and sniffed it, getting two strange looks from Neil and Amanda. Pete asked, “What is it?”
Nine looked confusedly at the coin, and said simply, “Gold. A gold coin.”
“Gold?” the three of them asked.
“Yup,” Nine said, handing the coin to Neil who took it and began examining it. Nine stood back up and stuck out the screwdriver in front of them, shining it as brightly as he could to reveal as much as the room as was possible. To everyone’s astonishment, the room they suddenly found themselves in was huge – much larger than any chamber or corridor they’d yet seen. Even when Nine stretched his arm up over his head, the ceiling was nowhere to be found. And at every angle before them were gigantic piles of gold that spread out before them like old country hills. There were gold coins, broaches, statues, and goblets piled on each other like mountains of metal snow. Scattered across the great gold horde were precious gems of varying color – rubies, sapphires, and emeralds.
“It’s a horde,” Nine said quietly, his voice echoing off the rolling waves of gold on and bouncing off the distant walls. “One that would make Scrooge McDuck’s look like a piggy bank.”
Then, when Pete looked at the piles of gold, his face was shot with a look of horrified realization. “The tracks!” he said, drawing the attention of the other three. “The footprints…I think I might know what made them!” Their looks asked the question for them, and Pete answered just above a whisper, “A dragon!”
“Oh for god’s sake,” Neil began, but Nine shushed him. When Neil asked why, Nine just shushed him again, and instructed them all to listen. The pounding on the door had stopped, the vampires apparently having given up in favor of waiting. What first seemed like silence changed to their listening ears. Breathing: deep, heavy, slow breathing going at a consistent rhythm.
“Jesus fucking Christ!” Amanda spat at a whisper.
“I don’t think the phrase out of the frying pan and in to the fire has ever been more appropriate,” Nine said with the biggest, fakest smile ever made.
“Great, what are we supposed to do now?” Neil asked.
“You lot, stay here. I’m going to see if I can find it,” Nine said.
“Try not to disrupt things too much,” Pete warned him. “Dragons can sense when even one piece of their treasure has been removed.” Neil and Amanda looked at him with questioning eyes. Pete just said, “What? I did write the Hobbit movies, you know.”
“Okay, stay here,” Nine ordered, and he set off into the midst of the horde and its draconic lord. With each step he took, a faint jingling rang out throughout the cavernous hall, but wasn’t much compared to the deep snoring coming from some distant corner. Taking head of Peter’s words, he tried not to disturb the piles of gold, lest the removal of even a single piece cause the rest to collapse in an avalanche of coins.
The first thing to catch Nine’s eye was smoke – weak and wary rising from somewhere to his left. With the sound of breath growing louder, Nine knew he had come to it at last: the beast’s head. Moving with more silence than he ever had in all lives, Nine followed the smoke with his screwdriver back to its point of origin – a nostril as wide as a beach ball just barely poking out of the heaps of piled gold. Even this small patch was a few feet long, and had clearly visible overlapping reddish-black scales running down the length of it. The whole creature was buried beneath mounds of treasure, but Nine had two helpful hints as to the nature of its size. First of all, the breathing was so strong that it sent vibrations running through his body, and slight twitches running down the length of the mound hinted at the monster stirring sleepily beneath. An exactly measurement was beyond even his ability to calculate, but surely over 100 feet long.
Nine’s mind was racing, his imagination struggling to piece together the appearance of the dragon from the little hints he gathered. Surely it was a creature of staggering proportions, and of a spectacle unlike anything he’d ever seen in his 900 years. “Oh you beauty!” he couldn’t help from barely breathing as he turned on his heels and silently made his way back to the others.
Left in the dark, they were glad to see him return with the little light of the sonic. “Well?” they all whispered as he approached them.
“Well, the good news is I found it,” Nine whispered with a smile.
“And the bad?” Neil asked.
“Well….I found it,” Nine said with a glance back toward the sleeping dragon.
“Well how big is it?” Pete asked.
“Hard to say exactly…but…if I had to make an estimate….eh….100 plus feet?” he said with a shrug.
They all squeezed their eyes shut in disappointment. Pete spoke up, “the foot prints we followed weren’t nearly that big! How could the dragon have gotten down here anyway?”
“Pete, we’re inside a 19 year-old’s head with dinosaurs and vampires, get some perspective.” Nine snapped quietly.
“Maybe the vampires have gone?” Pete asked hopelessly.
“Not a chance,” Nine answered. “They’re immortal, we’re not. They can wait us out. They can take turns watching the door, one at a time if they must.”
“Maybe we can try to push back the vampires with the cross?” Amanda suggested.
“If it was only one, I’d give it a try,” Nine said. “But with four of them, I don’t want to move toward them. It’d be too easy for one of them to knock the cross out of our hands.”
“Maybe there’s another way out?” Neil asked.
“There probably is, but it’s behind walls of gold. If we try going through the gold, we would almost definitely wake the dragon.”
“So what, that’s it then?” Neil asked frustrated. “We either get killed by the vampires, incinerated by the dragon, or just sit here and rot?”
“Is there any way we can destroy the vampires?” Amanda asked, and the others met her with incredulous silence. “Well, the dragon seems a bit beyond our reach, but…,” and she trailed off as the others turned away hopelessly.
Only for Nine to look up suddenly with the twinkle of an idea in his eye. “Oh! Oh! That is good, oh that is good! Dear God, I am clever!” he said in the quietest boast ever made.
“What?” Pete asked, his hope rekindled.
“It’s obvious isn’t it?” Nine asked rhetorically.
“Shut up and tell us,” Neil said, in no mood for games.
Nine rolled his eyes and said, “Guys, what kills vampires?”
“Wooden stakes?” Amanda said.
“Yes, and…?” Nine said gesturing for them to continue.
“Uh…beheading?” Pete said.
“Okay, yes, and…?” Nine said, coaxing them.
“Sunlight?” Neil said.
“Yes, alright, good, and….?” Nine said, gesturing even more frantically now.
There was a pause, all of them looking around as if the answer was lying somewhere in the piles of gold around them. After a few minutes, Pete cautiously put forth, “….Buffy?”
“Oh for God’s sake,” Nine said throwing his arms down, “Guys: what’s hot, orange-y, and burns things it touches?”
The answer now obvious, Pete couldn’t help but provide a joke answer, “Oh I know! Buffalo sauce!”
Nine rolled his eyes again, harder this time, and he exhaustedly proclaimed, “My god, you are the least helpful humans I have ever met!”
“Okay, Doctor, we get it, fire, and?” Neil said.
“Guys…and if you don’t get this one, I’ll feed you to the vampires myself….what do dragons breathe?”
There was a moment of silence in which only the dragon’s distant snoring could be heard, which was ended when Neil asked, “Okay, so you’re suggesting that – not only do we let the vampires in here – but that we also wake the dragon. And we hope…hope mind you….that the dragon goes for them instead of us?”
Nine frowned, and stood up straight, saying, “Well, when you put it like that…”
“That plan….may just be crazy enough….to get us all killed!” Neil said balling his fists.
“No, no, listen, hear me out!” Nine said.
“How is this plan any better than ours?!” Neil said unwaveringly.
“You know what’s not crazy?” Nine said. “Listening to the guy who’s been right about everything so far!” This was enough to shut Neil up, and he responded by lowering his hands and sighing heavily. “You’re forgetting, they don’t know there’s a dragon down here. They didn’t know anything was down here until tonight! We can use that ignorance to our advantage!”
“How?” Amanda asked, intrigued.
Nine began to tell them his plan. “Alright, here’s how it’s going to go….”
“You think the Doctor’s blood will taste any different from the other three?” Zach asked, sitting with his back against the wall, staring at his fingernails.
“How should we know?” Drea said, dangling from the ceiling with her hands hanging down limp. “It’s not like any of us have tasted alien blood.”
“Unless you mean Xenomorph blood,” Tobey said, and when none of the four of the others responded, he added, “you know like from Alien? Acid blood?”
“Oh right, good point,” Zach said, “I don’t think it’ll be anything like that.”
“Now that’s a spicy meat-a-ball!” Meghan said in the most exaggerated Italian accent she could summon. Drea smacked the back of Meghan’s head. “Hey!”
“You are no fun!” Zach said pointing at Drea.
“Why, because I don’t say dumb shit?” she asked venomously.
“Because you have no sense of fun!” Zach said.
“Oh, I have a sense of fun,” she said turning to look at him, “It just doesn’t involve making stupid jokes.”
“Well, I thought it was clever,” Zach said, giving Meghan a nice look.
“Yeah, that’s because you’re a dipshit,” Drea said without even looking at him this time.
“Look, this is getting ridiculous, why don’t we just go out and get something! Sunrise’s still a couple hours away, we can make it if we hurry!” Toby suggested.
“We can’t,” Olivia said. “Their…creature things…are still up outside. They sensed that I was a vampire when they saw me.”
“Oh what is that bullshit!” Tobey said slamming his hands down by his side, “How come animals can sense evil like that! That doesn’t make any sense!”
“Tobey – we’re vampires!” Zach pointed out. “What about this makes sense?”
“Okay fine, let’s just use one of the back doors and go around them?” Tobey asked.
“No!” Drea shouted, “I refuse to be outsmarted by an idiot with an aardvark’s nose and a baboon’s ears!”
“But I’m hungry!” Tobey groaned, stroking his belly.
“It’s not just about food!” Drea said. “It’s the principle of the matter. We haven’t let a single thing get away yet, and I’m not letting that record be tarnished by those dumbasses. I don’t care if we have to wait a hundred years we are-,” she was interrupted by a sound coming from the door. They shot up to attention, and Tobey pressed his ear to the door. There were footsteps getting louder and louder. The wood of the door groaned and knob – it looked like it was twisting.
Drea looked smugly at all of them and said, “See?” but others shushed her. They were poised to strike, waiting for the exact moment when a crack appeared in the door. They wouldn’t waste any time, and would get a foot hold. push open the door, scatter the four of them. No cross would stop them this time.
The door clicked open, and they sprang. As they leaped forward, the door swung inward, leaving the threshold clear and open. Surprised at this turn of events, they looked around into the dark, but didn’t see anything.
They spun around to see Pete, holding both the cross and the sonic screwdriver. He locked the door, and stood guard in front of it, holding out the cross and keeping them away. Not one of them had any idea of why.
“Oi, you five!” Nine called out, and the turned again to find him standing in front of them. “You really should have picked a better meal!” he said smiling.
They were all unsettled by this series of events. First it appeared as though they had been let in, only to be locked in. Surely this was suicide, and yet the Doctor was smiling with the same deathly confidence he had for all his enemies.
“Tell me , are you familiar with the phrase, ‘never poke a sleeping dragon?’” he said to them, holding up one of the hairless rambutan he had picked earlier in the day. The vampires looked on without a clue between them as Nine tossed the fruit behind him without even looking back.
The vampires heard the small fruit land on something jingly. Similar sounds followed it, until it sounded like a thousand little bells were all ringing at the same time. After a minute, the pile of gold behind Nine settled down, but not after filling the room with a cacophony of metallic clanging.
“Guess what I just did?” Nine said with his most self-satisfied smile yet.
Drea was about to answer him, but her retort was drowned out by a thunderous roar that exploded from somewhere in the shadows behind Nine. Still shrouded by darkness, they couldn’t see what it was stirring before them, but they heard it. They heard something moving against the mountains of gold, coiling and slithering like a giant snake. It was followed by the hard thud of giant footsteps, sharp claws scraping against the stone floor. There was a continuous growling drumming through the air, the sound so powerful they could feel the waves moving through their bodies. They were all so focused on the shapeless peril forming before them, they didn’t notice Nine dash off to some random corner of the room.
Suddenly, the five vampires looked up and saw two orbs blazing like wildfire hovering far above them. And in an instant, the whole room was alight with an explosive inferno bursting forth from the dragons gaping jaws. The light of the fire danced off the glittering surfaces of each gold coin, and the form of the dragon became clear. The body was elongate, like a worm’s covered with scales colored like old dried blood. The length of it was coiled like a striking viper, except for the four lacertilian limbs sticking out and gripping the ground around it. And on its shoulders were two bat-like wings so huge that even when folded they appeared to have enough volume to carry the giant beast aloft, even though it must have stretched at least 150 feet. The skull alone was a sight to behold, and was bigger than a small car. It was rife with scales, scutes, and horns except for the burning yellow eyes, blackened only by the slit of a cat’s pupil.
Though their pituitary glands had long since stopped working, the vampires were no less susceptible to the flight or fight response. In this case, they chose the former – quite literally. The transformation might have been a greater spectacle if they had even a second to spare, but in their haste it was done in a flash. Their clothes unfolded from their bodies, and melded together to form membranous wings. They became naked with their garments now being used to flap furiously into the air. Their bodies were an unhealthy gray-white, and all their vampiric features stood out on their faces.
The flock of five was able to clear the blaze just in time, but they now had the dragon’s full attention, and more spouts of fire came charging out of its open maw.
Meanwhile, crouching low beneath a mound of gold, Nine rejoined the other three members of the group. With the room shaking at the dragon’s every footfall and waves of hot air hitting them every time it unleashed its fiery wrath, they tried to execute their next move.
“What do we do now?” Amanda asked.
“We have to get out of here as quickly as possible, but we also have to keep from being seen by either the vampires or the dragon. If the vampires see us, they’ll lead the dragon’s attention toward us,” Nine said.
“Where are they now?” Neil asked.
Nine poked his head out to se the dragon snapping at the vampires as they flew past its head. Calculating their speed and direction, Nine risked the chance, “Okay come on, over to that pile there,” he said pointing.
They made it just in time for the vampires to fly overhead, the dragon’s neck sweeping the air above them in pursuit. Fortunately, its shadow passed over them without taking any heed. Less fortunately, a careless step of one of the dragon’s forelimbs struck the top of the gold heap, causing it to collapse all over them. They were instantly assaulted with aching joints as the hard gold struck their soft bodies, and they desperately tried to keep their heads above the flowing waves of golden coins.
Deposited on the floor, Nine could make out the door, not fifty feet away, revealed by the light of dragon flame. “Come on, the door!” he called to the others. Forgetting their pain for the moment, they all scrambled to their feet.
When they reached the door, Nine turned to Pete. “Give me the cross,” and Pete obeyed. Nine took it by the chain, and wrapped it around the door handle in a tight knot. They rushed out the door just as the vampires swooped around the dragon’s head, soaring straight for them.
The vampires landed, folded their wings and made for the door, only to gasp in horrified fury as they noticed the cross dangling carelessly on the handle. Before they could even conceive of another course of action, their non-life was completely extinguished as a terrific jet of brilliant orange flame engulfed them completely. As their lifeless bodies crumbled into a fine ashy powder, the demons within were released into an invisible nothingness which consumed them, uttering horrific shrieks that were drowned out by the dragon’s thunderous roaring.
The four company members kept running down the corridor away from the horde as the dragon’s fire blew over the vampires, past the door, into the hall behind them. It was only after they’d successfully gone around two corners did they finally stop. At first, they crouched with their hands on their knees panting (except for Nine, who’s binary vascular system kept him much more fully oxygenated), until Pete began laughing, immediately infecting the other three.
After a full minute of laughing, Neil said, “Okay, okay, I think that ends our little side trip…so let’s go find the way out, huh?”
“Couldn’t agree more,” Nine said, holding out the sonic screwdriver in front of them. Navigating their way through the underground crypts was easy, if tedious. Every time they turned a corner, there was another passageway for them to explore, seemingly identical to one they’d just come from. But eventually they found stairs, and after repeating this process three times for three levels, they were rewarded with the way out.
“Oh finally!” Amanda said with an exhausted voice. Passing through the pillars and out into the open streets of the ruined city, they met their spirit creatures – still standing vigil where they’d been left. The night was still far from over, and darkness still held a firm grip over the scene. But there was no mistaking the deep breathes and faint hisses of the apes and the alien.
Pete gave a tremendous yawn, and said, “Sorry Doctor, but I don’t’ think I could go another step without collapsing…”
Nine didn’t have the energy to argue, as even he was finally beginning to tire, “Fair enough. We can sleep, but lets play it safe and stick with the spirit creatures this time, eh?”
“Fine by me!” Neil said, going over to his Kong.
“No arguments here,” Amanda said.
The two giant gorillas stretched their arms out around each others shoulders, keeping their outer arms resting by their sides. Neil, Pete, Amanda, and Nine all cuddled up against the huge, warm, soft bodies of the huge primates. The instant their heads touched the black fur of the apes, they were lost to sleep.
They were so tired, that even with their mission pressing against them, they slept well after sunrise, and they began their trek out of the city only after some much-needed yawning and stretching. There was no breakfast (or second breakfast as Pete jokingly asked), and Nine urged them to go at a quick pace to make up for lost time.
Fortunately, the end of the city was actually directly in sight, and they would have seen it last night if it hadn’t been so dark out. The irony of this caused many a groan and irritated sigh from the four of them, but they were glad to be out nonetheless. The light of the afternoon sun vanished beneath clouds of pure green as the canopy came over them once more. The easy going was officially over – they were back to clearing away dense layers of bush and tangled vines.
“This is going to make things decidedly slower,” Neil said, sticking his hand into a thorn as he swiped at the foliage in front of them.
“Beats potentially fatal side trips,” Nine said.
“You’re never going to let that go, are you?” Neil asked.
“’Course I will!” Nine said happily.
“Really?” Amanda asked.
“Sure! Eventually you’ll do something even dumber, and I’ll focus on that!” he said with yet another sarcastically goofy grin. Neil and Amanda both rolled their eyes.
“Not if you do something stupid first!” Pete responded.
“Yeah, like that’d ever happen,” Nine said.
“You know, Doctor,” Pete began, “I can think of at least 8 times before when you’ve done stupid things…the sixth is particularly notable…,”
“Oy, shush!” Nine said with a finger to his lips.
“Oh this I got to hear!” Neil egged Pete on.
“The sixth time the Doctor regenerated, he tripped and hit his head on the TARDIS control console!” he said giggling.
Amanda and Neil laughed so hard that Neil accidentally sprayed Nine with a stream of spittle. Nine embarrassedly wiped the saliva off the back of his neck and said, “There are worse ways to go, you know!”
“Maybe,” Neil said still laughing, “but let it never be said the almighty Doctor, the last of the Timelords, isn’t guilty of stupid shit!”
Nine gave him a half smile, and said, “Fair enough I suppose,”
“Eh don’t sweat it, Doc,” Amanda said, lightly punching him on the shoulder, “just makes you as bad as us!”
Nine smiled at her and said, “Can’t think of a worse fate!” and she returned his smile.
Venturing on ward, all four of them noticed one new particularly striking addition to the scenery. As they all took their first step out into a small clearing in the trees, they all beheld groves of spectacular purple flowers shining against the green backdrop. In any other, more ordinary jungle, this might have looked quite pretty. What made them much more unsettling was the fact that, from the moment the four of them and their spirit creatures came out into the clearing, the flowers all turned to face them in perfect synchronization, their violet petals twitching like botanical satellite dishes.
“O-….-kay,” Neil said quietly. “Uh, anyone else feel like those flowers are staring at us?”
“Could be, but let’s face it – it isn’t the strangest thing we’ve seen in this place,” Pete said with a shrug.
“Strangest, no. Creepiest? Well, it’s got my vote,” Amanda said, eying the closest flower to her. The petals were subtly angled, and the dappled light glistened off them like blown glass. They were attached to bulbous green stems with what appeared to be tufts of white fur growing out the backside.
“Please tell me you’ve seen flowers like this before?” Pete asked hopefully.
Nine shook his head, “Unfortunately no.” He stared at the sinister-looking grove for another moment, as if waiting for them to make the next move. When they proceeded to behave much like most other plants, Nine decided to test the waters, and he stepped forward.
The instant his foot touched the ground, a sharp hissing sound sounded form the closest flower to him, followed immediately by a black blur that struck Nine on the neck. “YOW!!” Nine said indignantly as his left hand shot up to investigate the area of impact. He felt around and grasped two small objects dangling from his flesh. He pulled on them, but they resisted his strength. It was only with one final jerk of his arm, as well as one final wince, that he dislodged the two small objects. Looking at them in the palm of his hand, he saw that they were thin and black, with pronounced barbs at their tips. Apart from the small drops of his own blood dripping of the barbs, he noticed another, yellowish liquid oozing outwards onto his hands. He sniffed them once, and a disgusted look came over his face.
“What is it?” Amanda asked, keeping one eye on the flower nearest her.
“Stay back, all of you!” Nine warned. “This is a venomous barb.”
“What the-? Doctor, are you okay?” Neil asked.
“I’ll be fine sure. This hemotoxin is mild to a Timelord, but lethal to humans,” he said. The other three all took a step back away from the flowers.
“So we should go around then, right?” Neil asked.
“Sure, or we could push on through,” Nine suggested.
“Ummm, you do remember that you just told us that these flowers shoot poisonous barbs, right?” Amanda asked.
“I never said that!” Nine defended.
“Yes you did!” she shot back.
“No, I said they shoot venomous barbs. Poison has to be ingested. Venom is injected.” When he finished, she raised her middle finger directly at him. “Oy!” he shouted, and the next closest flower shot two more barbs at his neck, “Agghh, son of a……..what I was going to say is that if you just stick close to the spirit creatures, just let them take the barbs, you’ll be fine.”
“….uh, call me crazy, but wouldn’t that just kill them instead?” Neil asked.
“Don’t be stupid, of course not! Creatures as big those apes, it’ll barely be as bad as a bee sting, and I doubt they’d even get through the queen’s exoskeleton,” he said waving Neil off.
Ignoring Nine’s snide remarks, Neil turned to the other two and asked, “What do you guys think?”
“Well, we didn’t have much luck the last time we decided to go through something and not around it…,” Pete pointed out.
“True, but we really don’t have much time – we have to get back to the camp in three days. Every second counts,” Amanda said.
“Good point,” Neil said. “Yeah, okay, why not, we’ll just go through. Fellas” Neil called to the apes. The gorillas strode over to Amanda, Pete, and Neil, and one of them stood directly over them. They all took to one of the gorillas massive limbs, using it as a barrier between them and the flowers’ artillery.
“Alright, off we go,” Nine said, striding out into the clearing with not a single apprehension. The apes and the queen followed him, the three humans making sure to keep up with each foot step. The flowers proved to be much less efficient with moving targets than with standing ones. Even at a brisk walking speed, the vast majority of barbs whizzed past Nine without even so much as blowing on his leather coat. A few did hit their mark, but even then almost none of them broke the skin. Even so, Nine was smart enough to keep his eyes shielded.
The Kongs proved most effective shields. Their dense layers of matted hair, growing out of thick skin, sitting on top of tough, sinewy muscles were more than a match for the flowers’ feeble darts. The little plant projectiles bounced off the gorillas’ limbs. The passing apes didn’t even feel so much as a prod or poke as they sauntered on through the clearing. The queen trailed behind them, and might as well have been wearing chainmail for all she felt of the barbs.
It wasn’t too long before they were well out the flowers’ range, and Amanda, Neil, and Pete came out from underneath the gorilla. “Hey look! Something worked!” Neil said.
“Yeah, that’s been known to happen on occasion,” Nine said, not noticing the thin, green form slithering beneath the undergrowth and slowly wrapping itself around his ankle like a constrictor. He only noticed when it forcefully pulled him by the ankle, hoisting him off his feet and high into the air. The sound of rushing air, and of Nine’s body briefly brushing past the underbrush, alerted the other three to his predicament. They looked up and saw Nine pulled up high over their heads by a thin, lime-green tentacle-shaped creature. He was dragged by the ankles upside down to a spot about fifty feet away, where a gigantic yellow pod-plant opened up its four, tooth-studded tendrils, coiling in anticipation for the meal it was about to consume.
“Oh shit!” Amanda shouted, perfectly capturing the feelings of Neil and Pete as well.
“Hmm, this feels like it could be problematic,” Nine said, staring down at the gruesome pod writhing beneath him.
“’Could be?’ You’re about to be eaten by a giant, man-eating plant!” Neil cried out.
“’Man-eating’ you say? Oh that’s good news, guess that means he’s in for a little indigestion in about three hours from now!” Nine said maintaining his cool.
“Can’t you just sonic your way out of there?” Pete asked.
“I can’t, plant’s vine’s too close to wood,” Nine said.
“…so?” Amanda asked confusedly.
“It doesn’t work on wood,” Nine said.
Amanda had no response ready for that. “Oh for the love of God…would you get him out of there, please?” she asked turning to her alien queen. The Xenomorph obliged, swinging it’s spine-tipped tail like a great bullwhip, slicing through the pod’s vine. She quickly caught Nine as he began his descent, dropping him safely on this two feet.
The yellow pod shrieked in perceived agony, recoiling its vines and tendrils back into its roots, the pod petals slammed shut. Nine looked at the failed plant and said, “Sorry mate, either you or me,” and added a shrug at the end.
“Right, off we go,” Pete said turning back to their path, only to stop at the sight of a grove of towering, spiraling plants colored a pale orange.
“Ohh, helicordians!” Nine said with a smile, striding over to the strange plants.
“These aren’t carnivorous too, are they?” Neil asked skeptically.
“No, they are,” Nine said. “It’s alright though, they stick to flies. Or rather, flies stick to them,” and he laughed. The others were not as impressed. “Get it? Stick?...because they…stick to…..,” they didn’t get it, and Nine just sighed. “Well come on, you’re alright,” and he took a step forward toward the helicordians.
At the sound of his first footfall, five of the helicordians suddenly recoiled into their short stems with nothing but brief, tan blur and a soft thumping sound.
“Oh, that’s right! I remember these things from Avatar!” Pete said, following him fearlessly. Amanda and Neil followed suit with a shrug and a, “what the hell?”
As the group strode easily through the helicordian grove, the flowers began recoiling into their stems at every step they took. The shortest of the helicordians was five feet tall, and the largest specimens reached up to the Kongs’ elbows. The four of them were enjoying having the plants actively get out of their way for once. Some of the flowers had slower reaction times than others, and so the four of them would occasionally brush up against their smooth, silken fleshes before they vanished in an orange flash.
Suddenly, all of the helicordians around them began recoiling into their stems one by one. They all looked around for the disturbance, and all of them settled on the same source - a gigantic creature staring directly at them. 11 meters in total length, the titanic behemoth stood firm and strong on six powerful legs arranged in the traditional pandoran formation. The legs were as thick as tree trunks, ending in flat feet tipped in fat, robust unguals. A broad, powerful shield grew over the creature's back and around the neck, giving it even more protection in addition to its armor-plated, slate grey skin. By far the most distinctive feature of this animal was its head - nearly half as big as the animal itself. There was as enormous bony protrusion growing outwards from its face, forming into a colossal, hammer-shaped appendage. On top of the 'hammer' were a series of bright violet feather-like structures flared up like a peackcock's tail.
It wasn't alone - there were over a dozen other individuals clustered closely around it. None approached the lead beast in size, but many were much smaller, undoubtedly juveniles. The others were much less confrontational than the lone giant staring at them with four yellow eyes and bellowing fiercely at the group. It pawed at the undergrowth by its feet, crushing anything even remotely close by.
The intensity of its threat display was not lost on the three humans and their Timelord companion. The hammerhead titanothere was poised at the peak of agitation, and they were afraid that any movement would only aggravate it more. Even compared to their spirit creatures, this was an immensely formidable beast. It matched the size of both apes combined.
After a few tense moments when the only thing passing between them were the titanothere's fearsome roars, Nine whispered to the others, "Do. Not. Move!"
"Yeah I think we got that much," Neil whispered back.
"It's a territorial threat display, if we make any quick movements, he'll charge," Nine continued, ignoring Neil's remarks.
"Well, what are we supposed to do?" Pete whispered. "That thing's too big even for our Kongs to fight."
Nine looked around them, making sure to turn his head slowly and cautiously. The trees around them seemed too small for what he was thinking until - there it was. A gigantic tropical specimen dozens of feet around at the trunk. "Okay, here's what we're going to do," Nine said, still whispering. "We're going to make a break for that tree," he said, pointing to the huge tree a few hundred feet away. "When I give the signal, we're going to run for the tree, and the bull will charge. Neil, Pete - have your Kongs try to hold him off just long enough for us to make it up the tree,"
"What about Queeny?" Amanda asked regarding the Xenomorph.
"She'll climb up with us," Nine answered. "Okay, we all ready?"
"Ready," the all answered, the gorillas preparing to charge forward.
Nine footed himself precisely so that he wouldn't waste any time. He stared at the titanothere straight into its four eyes, as if desperately hoping that it would give up its assault and let them go. Its continued fan flapping and ferocious bellowing proved his hopes too great.
"NOW!" and they all charged toward the tree, as the titanothere charged after them. It sprang with near impossible agility and speed from where it stood, practically galloping along its six legs and crushing anything unfortunate enough to be in its way, with two exceptions. The Kongs reared up as the hexapod charged forward and reached around its torso with their gargantuan arms. They used all of their combined strength to pull back against the hammerhead as it struggled against them.
Nine, Neil, Pete, and Amanda, along with the Alien Queen, all raced to the tree with the longest strides and fastest steps any of them had ever taken. Just as they reached the base of the trunk, the six-legged titan broke free of the two apes' grasp, ramming one of them in the chest with its eponymous protrusion. The gorilla's rushed over to the tree, taking the humans - and Nine - in their hands. Amanda was hoisted off her feet by the queen's smaller pair of arms, and all three creatures began clambering up the side of the tree as quickly as they could.
They were only just able to clear the reach of the titanothere as it crashed its hammer right into the trunk. They all felt the tree shake as they rested on their respective branches. Leaves were shaken from their twigs, and the weaker limbs broke off and crashed to the ground. As vicious as the titanothere's attack was, the tree stood firm against its constant poundings.
Nine watched the animal as it relentlessly rammed its head against the tree. He had never personally dealt with these creatures before. All of his knowledge of Pandora came from third hand accounts of its alien visitors. But he knew enough about animal behavior to find the ferocity of the assault more than a little suspicious. Even if they caught if off guard, it was positively furious.
He began scanning the beast meticulously, leaving no skin cell unchecked. The bull was clearly a veteran - an old alpha who'd seen better days. There were no shortage of scars, mostly concentrated along the hammer. No doubt these were from other males - rivals he'd seen off in previous battles. There were other scars toward the back of the creature, very old and faded. They looked most like claw marks, and Nine figured they were from the bull's younger, smaller days. Once reaching his size, few things could pose a real threat.
But then, something caught his eye - what appeared to be a metallic glint shimmering off one of the chest spiracles. It would flash for a second as it passed through a stray sun beam. Nine strained his eyes to make out the shape of the object - like some kind of razor sharp tuning fork. "Of course...," he whispered to himself.
After several minutes of mercilessly bashing against the tree, the stubborn old bull finally gave up, turning away cautiously and rejoining his herd. They all began lumbering off into the forest, clearing away any plant matter in their way.
Once they saw all the animals vanish from sight behind layers and layers of jungle foliage, they slowly and quietly descended from the tree.
"The next time I see Jim Cameron," Neil said, "I'll have a lot more to complain about than the stars at the end of Titanic."
"Oh I wouldn't be too harsh," Nine began. "After all, that bull is being hunted."
They all looked equally confused by this and Amanda asked, "Uh.....what?"
"Figures. Guess that means I was the only one who saw the broken-off spear tip embedded in the right spiracle?" Nine asked sarcastically.
"Guess so," Amanda said, not wanting to humor him anymore.
"Well I did," Nine said, "And I also know what sort of creature it belonged to," and he paused for dramatic effect before turning to face all of them. "A yautja." Their silent response didn't surprise him. Instead of denigrating them for the billionth time, he decided to just continue with the explanation. "A fearless species of intergalactic trophy hunters, scouring the cosmos for the biggest, rarest, most dangerous game."
"Wait a minute...," Pete said, remembering, "...by any chance, do they have...like, sort of mandibles on their faces, with dreadlocks?"
Nine shot him a look, "How'd you know that?"
"Oh those are the Predators - from the Predator movies!" Pete said remembering, eliciting a few signs of recognition from the other two. "They were never really given a name in the movies, so I didn't recognize the name."
Nine shrugged. "Not surprising. They're not the most talkative species out there, and they've got more than enough weapons to do the talking for them."
"And you think one of them is hunting that....hammerhead elephant cow thing?" Neil asked.
"Hammerhead titanothere," nine corrected him, "And no I don't think it's being hunted. I know it's being hunted. That was a yautja spear tip, no doubt broken off when it tried to pierce the titanothere's armor plated skin."
"Okay, so what do we do now?" Amanda asked.
"We follow the herd," Nine said definitively. "Yautja never give up. It'll track the bull for as long as it needs to. If we follow the bull, then we'll find the yautja."
"Uhhh," Amanda said, "Call me crazy-,"
"You sure? I thought you said your name was Amanda? Oh well, if you're sure, then go ahead, Crazy," Nine interrupted quickly and with a smile.
She continued, ignoring him, "But why do we want to follow this thing?"
"Because the whole reason we're out here in the first place is to look for creatures to ally, and the yautja would make very powerful allies," Nine said.
"I think what Amanda was asking was more along the lines of how do we know the yautja's not going to kill us when we find it?" Neil asked.
"We don't," Nine said simply. "But that's a risk we'd have to take with anyone we met. And we're running out of time. We can't afford to be picky right now. When an opportunity presents itself to us like this, we'd be foolish to ignore it."
Neil sighed heavily, but the Doctor's logic was more than enough to win him over, and Amanda and Pete followed suit as Nine lead them along the huge, obvious game trail left by the titanothere herd. The powerful creatures had ravaged the vegetation in front of them, leaving an easy path for the four of them and their creatures to follow. It was easy to tell whenever the herd had veered to the left or drifted to the right, as it was reflected by the shattered branches and crushed ferns left behind. It was also easy to navigate since the titanothere's didn't leave behind anything big enough to stand in their way. It was like walking down an open road.
After a half hour of trekking, they could make a faint noise coming from somewhere up ahead. It was distant, but even from about a mile ahead of them, it was very obviously distressed and powerful. Nine motioned for the rest to stop for a moment before turning to face them. "Okay...you three follow me. For now, keep your creatures here. I don't want to spook it."
They motioned for their spirit creatures to stay behind, and then continued along the fringes of the game trail, keeping out of sight behind tree trunks and dense shrubs. It wasn't long before they found it - the hammerhead titanothere as angry as they had found it. It appeared completely frenzied, charging randomly around itself, colliding with tree trunks and mowing down anything too weak to stand before it. There was no apparent reason for its charges - as if it was chasing an invisible adversary. Nine held out his hand, telling them to say where they were.
They kept watching the distressed titanothere as it kept on swinging its hammer in every direction, often times swiping at thin air. It reached a point where there wasn't any piece of foliage left un-trampled, and the only plants left were the trees too large to smash. All the while it roared and bellowed at the nothing that was antagonizing it so relentlessly. After about an hour, it finally began to show signs of weakening. The roars were let out between bouts of labored huffs and puffs out of its chest spiracles. The charges were slower and shorter until finally it stood still in the middle of the small clearing it had created. Finally, it collapsed onto its four forelimbs, the back legs still standing. The 2 eyes on either side of the skull began to glaze over as the eyelids dripped, and globs of thick saliva began lazily dripping from its horny beak.
They all heard a loud thud somewhere near the titanothere, as if something had dropped from the trees, but they didn't see what it was. A few moments later, something appeared in front of the beast, as if spontaneously forming from the air around it. Though still dwarfed by the weakened titanothere, the figure stood an impressive seven feet tall with what appeared to be thick, black dreadlocks draping down from its head. The titanothere gained a brief shot of energy as it laid eyes on the newcomer and it desperately tried to scramble back to its feet, but only managed to drain its last bits of strength. It fell down on its hind legs and let out low, poignant whimpers.
The figure took out a spear, which extended in its hand with a startling sound as clear and loud to them even from a few hundred feet away. With one huge thrust, it drove the tip of the spear deep into the chest spiracle, twisting the spear in its hand as blood began pouring out of the wound in gallons upon gallons. The titanothere let out a loud, agonized wail as its eyes rolled back into its skull, and the hammer collapsed on the ground with a tremendous thud and small shake of the earth beneath their feet. Only when there wasn't a sign of life left in the creature that the killer pulled out its spear, shining red. Then it stepped back, threw its head back and let out a triumphant roar that carried for miles. It rang through all of them and caused Pete to shiver. Then it walked back up to the carcass and began cutting into hide of the neck with a knife.
At that point, Nine stepped out from behind his tree and gestured for the others to as well. "AHOY!" he called out, striking terror into the other three who froze in their footsteps.
The being ceased its butchery and spun around to face them, a blade shooting out of a gauntlet on its right arm. Nine put his arms up, and the other three instinctively followed suit. "No, no, it's alright. We're unarmed. We just want to talk."
The creature looked at them intensely from behind its dark grey mask. After a few moments, it seemed satisfied enough to lower its weapon. It maintained a stressed, ready stance. Nine led the other three over to the being, taking slow, careful steps over the broken vegetation. It stayed where it was and waited for them to approach it. At this closer range, they all had a better view of the creature. The mask - along with all its armor plating - was made of a strange, aged metal with a dull sheen under the filtered sunlight. There was shielding on the shoulders, legs, and along the upper torso. Its forearms were encased in bulky gauntlets. The only actual clothing it had were a loin cloth thankfully dangling over its titular region, and fish net body coverings wrapped its entire form. It had several skulls dangling around its armor. There was no shortage of weapons sticking out from every angle - along its waist, from its forearms, on its back - and on its shoulder: a small, gun-like device that twitched on its own as if it was alive.
"An impressive kill," Nine said, gesturing to the fallen titanothere. "A beast like that must have made for a spectacular hunt." The creature gave no obvious hint of understanding, and just stared blankly out of the eye holes. "Not much for small talk....guess I'll just get to the point. My colleagues and I are in need of help. We need speak to your clan leader."
The Yautja cocked its head curiously, and let out a low clicking sound. Then it spoke, in a gargled, ugly sounding voice, "What are you?"
Nine was only half expecting that question, but was ready with an answer nonetheless. "Timelord."
This seemed to get the creature's attention as it stood up straight. "And what does a Timelord want with my people?" it sounded almost afraid.
Nine sighed before saying softly, "There's something big coming. You, your people, and everything else in this world is in danger. We need your help so that we can help you."
If anything, the Yautja just seemed even more afraid. "You threaten us?"
Nine rolled his eyes and said, "No, not danger from us! But believe me, you are all of you in grave danger unless you take us to your clan leader."
The Yautja merely looked at them, obviously unsure what course of action it should take. It stood up taller, looking down on them, and said, "And why should I trust you? Soft meat such as yourselves can't make me do anything."
Nine turned around to look at the other three and said, "Perhaps a little demonstration is in order."
Neil nodded and turned to face where they'd just come from, and shouted "HEY!! OVER HERE!" Amanda and Pete followed his lead and called out as well. Within a few moments, they could all feel the ground underneath begin to tremble, signaling the approach of the two giant apes and the Xenomorph Queen out of the jungle. The sight - and sound - of them was more than enough to cause the Yautja to raise its spear and stand in a ready to fight position. Even when the creatures calmly made their way to their companions' sides, it didn't quite feel safe. It was dumbfounded at how three such powerful prey animals - one of them the most fearsome game the Yautja had ever known - were standing loyally next to these three humans as if they were pets.
"It's not the strangest thing you've seen in the last week," Nine said assuredly.
The Yautja lowered its head and growled, "We thought....we thought we had reached paradise."
"Not exactly," Nine said frowning. "Look, take us to your clan, let us speak with the Elders. We'll be able to help you make sense of this."
The Yautja looked up at the three looming spirit creatures, confirming that it didn't have much of a choice in the matter. "You will follow me," it said firmly, "But first-," it said, taking out a knife. It walked over to the titanothere carcass and quickly carved a few symbols into its hide. Then, without another word, it led them into the jungle.
"What was that about?" Amanda whispered to Nine.
"He carved his name into the titanthere so any other Yautja who might stumble across it knows it's his kill. It's part of their honor system. Which reminds me," he said looking at all of them, "When we get there, don't say anything unless I tell you to. The Yautja take their code of honor deathly seriously. Even joking about dishonoring it is enough to start a fight." They all nodded in agreement.
They Yautja led them for another 23 miles before making it to the borders of the Yautja's city state. The forest was cleared away, and the city state stood up proudly under an orange sky. The architecture they could see was elegantly constructed with aesthetics both new and ancient in mind. Everything in it seemed to serve a practical purpose, but the Yautja had not let the need for practicality keep them from making everything beautiful. Every domicile, factory, shop, and temple was ornately furnished and perfectly kept to the finest details. There were great pyramids to rival the spectacle of any on earth, and huge flying ships zooming in and out from every direction. Neil, Pete, and Amanda wanted to vocalize their appreciation for the splendor of the city, but they were all of them wary of Nine's warning.
Their guide led them into the city, where many a curious Yautja looked on with wonder at the new arrivals. It was here that Nine, Neil, Pete, and Amanda got their first good look at a Yautja's face. The Yautja themselves were grotesque to look at. They had a vaguely humanoid shape, but their skin was thick and scaly with a green or yellowish hue, depending on the individual. . They had four insect-like mandibles that were rested over a lower and upper gum line studded with sharp teeth and they wore little clothing due to the tropical nature that shaped their evolution. Their tall foreheads sloped downwards over their brows, giving them eternally-furious expressions. The females were distinguished from the males by being roughly half as big again, and by their obvious, uncovered breasts. The youngsters seemed extremely precocial, as none of them were seen near any apparent parents. Some of the bigger individuals bore the same symbol burned into their foreheads, a feature noticeably absent from the smaller ones.
There were many things worth noting as they traversed the city, for their sheer beauty if for nothing else. Of all the things they saw, the temple of the Yautja god, Paya - as pointed out by Nine - was the most spectacular. A grand pyramid, with a staircase running up the side of each face, and whole stories carved into the solid rock walls. On the outside, there was a statue, carved from blackest stone, of a Yautja figure standing bravely against a Xenomorph Queen exactly like Amanda's in every detail except its comparatively smaller size.
Finally, they reached the biggest building, near the opposite border of the city. It was largely dome-shaped, topping out at a little over 5 stories. The smooth black sides were metallic, and carved on their sides were the forms of many a fantastic beast. Most were completely unfamiliar, but others were easily recognizable. The Xenomorph stuck out the most, but the dinosaurs were also easy to identify. One species stuck out as much too recognizable - a human male. All of the species were carved beneath the two figures of Yautja standing triumphantly over all the other creatures.
At the front gate there stood a lone sentry, who stared at the strange party making their way right to him. He didn't flinch, but there was no masking his intimidation as he held up his spear.
The Yautja leading them spoke to the guard, "I seek audience with the Clan Leader," he said simply.
The guard looked from him, then to the humans, then to their creatures where his gazed stayed, even as he answered, "Your business?"
"These creatures....they claim to know what has happened to the world," he said, bowing his head.
After a moment staring at the Queen in particular, he said, "I shall bring this to her attention," he said, backing away and keeping his spear at the ready until he was well inside the dome.
Their guide turned back toward them and spoke to Nine, "If she accepts you, then I shall leave you. I have a trophy to collect."
"Of course," Nine said, bowing his head.
The sentry didn't take long to return. "The humans will follow. Their prey will stay here," he said, not a hint of compromise to be found anywhere in his garbled, growling voice. Nine nodded his head, signifying to the others that the instruction was acceptable. Each of the three humans turned to their creatures and motioned for them to stay. When the four of them followed the sentry into the palace, their former guide left just as he had indicated.
As they made their way down a modest hallway, all four of them felt just a bit undersized, as if everything were made on just a slightly different scale. It was a very humbling - there were scratches and patches that indicated an age beyond memory. Every tiny detail seemed to have been meticulously forged with the kind of care that one wouldn't expect from such brutish creatures. The walls were carved with a series of inscriptions detailing the stories of many a long-dead clan's leader, each story accompanied by even more engravings.
The hallway branched off along the sides into many smaller halls, but they followed it straight to a large open room. The first thing that struck them all were the skulls - thousands upon thousands of skulls of every kind imaginable, as well as a few that were quite unimaginable. Once again dinosaurs and human skulls had an obvious presence, in addition to several different kind of alien creatures, so many as to make a game for the Doctor to identify them all. At the opposite end of the room was a throne, over which three Xenomorph queen skulls hovered ominously. In their shadow sat an single yautja: Her dreads were a dull, dark gray, and hung long over her broad shoulders. Besides the typical yautja garb of fishnets and armor, she had a long silken red cape tied around her neck and draping down to her feet. She was big - the biggest one they'd yet seen at nearly eight feet tall, and her skin was rife with aged scars.
The guard stopped about 10 feet in front of her and kneeled on his right knee, holding up his spear, point on the ground and straight up in both hands. "My Lady, these are the beings who seek audience."
"Leave us," was all she said in response. He immediately followed her direction, getting up. When he was gone, Nine repeated the guard's gesture, and the other's knew well by then to follow his direction. They all got down on their right knees.
"In the name of Paya, God of the hunt, I submit myself and my colleagues to the Clan Leader. I pray - hear me, if you will," and he bowed his head.
There was nothing but silence as she examined them thoroughly, keeping her attention firmly on Nine. At last she sat up and said, "Rise." They obeyed. She rose from her seat, standing tall over all of them. She slowly stepped down from the throne toward them. "I have hunted for many seasons. All of the prizes you see before you -," she said, holding her arms out and gesturing to the totality of trophies around them, "-were won by my own skill. When I took over leadership of this clan, I traded the privilege to hunt to protect the good of my people. Do you know how it is we have endured for so long....Timelord?" she snarled that last word. Nine kept his gaze away from her eyes, staring blankly at her chest plate. "We do not war on mere whims. And it is from you, and your kind, that we've learned this." and she leaned forward, her face mere inches from his. He kept his eyes away from hers.
"...Wait a minute...," the voice caught both Nine and the Clan Leader off guard. It came from Amanda, who was looking at the Clan Leader with a confused look on her face. "You don't like to go to war?" she paused, and when no answer was given - save for a plea from Nine's face begging her to shut up - "But....you love killing?"
Nine scrunched his face as if in anticipation of something painful. The Clan Leader, on the other hand, had a look of incredulity on her face, as much as they could tell from the yautja's strange facial features anyway. She let out a low growl, and sharp, metallic scraping signaled the deployment of dual, jagged blades from a gauntlet on her right forearm. In a flash, Amanda's neck was held firmly in her left hand, and the blades were inches away from her chin.
Neil and Pete were stunned into silence, shocked looks frozen on their faces. Nine was breathing very heavily, but very quietly, just waiting for the next move to be made, his right hand poised to grasp the sonic.
To their surprise, the Clan Leader didn't strike. In fact, she smiled, as much as a smile can be made with a mouth that's vertical instead of horizontal. She released Amanda from her grasp, and she fell about a foot back to the ground. "No," the Clan Leader said simply. "We do not love killing," and she turned away from them, walking toward the trophy-covered walls. "It is the hunt which we crave. The thrill. The challenge. The kill is just the inevitable conclusion to the act, but it is the act in its entirety that is our purpose." She reached out and grabbed a human skull, taking it off of its stand and holding it up in fashion that was bizarrely reminiscent of Hamlet.
Then she turned to look at Amanda again, "I could kill you as easily as you'd squash an insect," she said. Not one of them had a response to that. "But there would be no challenge. Nothing to gain from your death. A kill without the hunt is meaningless." She put the skull back on its stand, and turned to look at Nine, "But it is you, Timelord, who seeks audience with me."
Nine nodded slowly and said, "Yes, I do. I take it you've noticed the change in scenery."
"You mean our ascension to Paradise," she said.
"Well...I suppose that's one way of looking at it. And for a species such as yours, I guess that's the most obvious way to look at it, but it's not quite that simple. I'm afraid...," and Nine paused, clearly for dramatic effect, "I'm afraid you've all entered the Battle-Dreamtime."
The meaning was completely lost on the other three, but the Clan Leader appeared to understand completely. She let out a long sigh and closed her eyes as she spoke. "Is that so?" Nine nodded. "And why should I trust your word?" The bitter suspicion in her voice wasn't lost on any of them. The only one who seemed unfazed was Nine himself, while the others were all thinking to themselves why exactly shouldn't you trust his word...?
And yet, as much as he seemed to understand her resentment, he pushed on with his explanation. "Well, see now, that's the best part. You don't have to trust me. That's what's happening, whether you believe me or not," he said very coolly.
"Uhh...," Neil began, very cautiously selecting his next words so as to avoid what happened to Amanda when she spoke up, "Pardon my....my ignorance, but....what exactly is the Battle-Dreamtime?"
The Clan Leader didn't seem as put off or surprised by this question. At the very least, there was no lightning-fast move toward his throat. Instead, she began pontificating. "We Yautja are the greatest hunters - the very pinnacle of the universal food-web - in all of the mortal coil. However, beyond the world of the living, there are two greater hunters - Paya, who grants favor to skilled, honorable hunters, and Cetanu, the Black Warrior. Paya taught the first Yautja the ways of the hunt, and is responsible for the prosperity and dominance of the various clans for thousands of years. But in the end, no matter how great the hunter, Cetanu wins in the end. "
Nine interjected, "To the Yautja, the Black Warrior is a lot like the Grim Reaper. A personification of death. Every Yautja is engaged in a constant battle with Cetanu every time they hunt, and - give him enough time - he always wins."
When Nine was finished, the Clan Leader continued, "The only hunter great enough to stand against Cetanu is Paya. They have forever waged war upon one another. The Yautja have long known that, one day, their eternal war will reach its epic climax. They will meet in the world of dreams - the space in between the living and the dead. The Yautja will be brought to bear witness, and the greatest of all will have the honor of fighting alongside Paya himself." She stood proudly, with her chest out.
The legend was starting to make sense in the heads of the thee humans, or as much as any other myth at any rate. After the pause in her speech, Pete asked her, "What happens after the Battle-dreamtime?"
She looked at him as if he were a child, a young child learning the most basic facts of life. She said, "No one knows for sure. It all depends on who achieves victory. All that is known is that it will signal a new age for the Yautja."
"You all woke from this, yeah?" Nine asked her. "You all went to sleep, and when you woke up - bam: paradise." The Clan Leader looked down at him, very unwilling to answer at first. The pause was broken by a nod. "Okay, well Battle-dreamtime, takes place in the world of dreams, so..." and he trailed off, allowing her to connect the dots on her own.
She said, "If you are to be trusted, then tell me: what is it you ask of me?"
At this point, Nine stood up, as if sensing her thawing disposition. "The Yautja aren't the only ones called upon to fight this battle. All of the greatest hunters and warriors from all of the universe's most powerful species have been chosen. As we speak they are gathering in a far off place, mobilizing against the forces of Cetanu."
She shot him a scared, confused look and said, "Cetanu has forces?"
Nine nodded. "Whole armies. Millions strong,"
A grave look fell over her face like a shadow as she looked down at the ground. Then she looked back up with curious glance and asked. "My guards tell me that you come with creatures by your side. And you-," she pointed to Amanda, "they say that the Queen of the hard meat walks with you."
Nine stepped in to answer, "Yes, well, as you well know, the humans are soft meat. Paya sends greater, more powerful creatures to aid them in the battle."
Despite coming from the deepest, darkest corner of Nine's ass, the answer seemed to fit with the Clan Leader's particular line of logic. She looked at each one of them deeply before saying, "Not all species abide by our code of honor," and she looked hard on Nine, "I will not allow my clan to fight alongside Bad Bloods."
Nine put his hand out and said, "You have to trust in the will of Paya. He has chosen which creatures will fight alongside you. Do you think He would have chosen creatures without honor?"
Once again, this seemed to placate the Clan Leader as she let out a low growl and her expression softened. "And he has called upon you?"
This was the question that seemed to give Nine the most cause to stop and think. He was only able to give an answer after taking a deep breath. "As I said - neither you nor I can know the Will of Paya. I can't know why he would choose someone tainted like I am. All I can do is to serve the greater cause - pave the way for the greatest among us to lead on." His voice carried a dark, genuine shame and he lowered his gaze to the floor.
The Clan Leader stood over him as if in judgment. She said in a low voice, "Tell me what you know, and we shall see if Paya has had any use for you." She stuck out her spear, extending it in a flash of metallic scraping, placing it under Nine's chin and bringing his view back to hers.
Nine felt the cold metal against his chin, shivering at its effect on his body. When he looked into the stark, red eyes of the Clan Leader he could only bring himself to obey. "Cetanu has many forces at his command. Orcs, trolls, balrogs, humans, cybermen, and daleks, so far as we know. As I speak, my companions are scouring this world, looking for the most worthy creatures to fight at your side. We must return to our camp in three day's time."
It was at his mention of daleks and cybermen that the Clan Leader took a step back in apparent shocked-horror. "The great exterminators...and those who forsook the flesh...Cetanu must be truly cruel to call on such creatures to fight for him." Then she looked back into Nine's eyes and said, "The slaughter wrought by both your race and the daleks is the universe's greatest travesty of life. I know that it is not the will of Paya to engage in such devastation. And yet there are more still than just the two. You speak not of war, but of certain death."
"And that may be the pre-destined end to the Battle-Dreamtime," Nine said quietly. "But as with any hunt, the end - whatever it is, is meant to be. If you are worthy, then the hunt is yours to win."
She lowered her shoulders slightly, letting out a long, deep breathe that came out as a low growl. "Very well. I shall find the greatest hunters in my clan, and will join you and the Chosen others in the final battle."
Nine bowed his head, the only visible reaction given by any of the four. Amanda, Pete, and Neil all could feel their increased pulses, but said nothing. They could feel just how delicate the dance with Clan Leader was, and were very eager to maintain what Nine had worked so hard to build. "As I mentioned before, we have to meet back with the others in three days time."
"Two days should be enough time. The greatest are all very well known, but every Yautja has the right to earn their place at Paya's side," she said, holding her spear by her side like a walking stick. "The ships will take us to your camp on the third day. In the meantime, I would have you all remain here. You are all....curious. And I wish to keep an eye on all of you," she said, eyeing Nine the most fiercely. "Now, if you will excuse me, I must convene the Clan at the Temple of Paya," and she left them standing alone in the throne room as she exited through the hall toward the front gate.
When the last of her echoing footsteps faded away, they all breathed a huge sigh of relief.
"You alright?" Neil asked, turning to Amanda.
"Hmm? Oh, oh, yes, yeah, no I'm fine, thanks," she nodded. Then she paused, turning to look at Nine and, choosing her words carefully, said to him, "That....seemed a bit...underhanded...,"
"What, you mean manipulating them by taking advantage of their belief system?" Nine said, the guilt evident in his voice. "I'm not proud, but do you really think anything else would have worked?"
"I don't know...," Amanda said, shaking her head, "...but it still doesn't feel right."
"Well, I mean, for all we know, maybe this is the Battle -Dreamtime," Neil put forward. "Is it really any more ridiculous than our Conceptivore hypothesis?"
"It still feels like lying. I mean, it's not as if we believe that," Amanda said.
"Well, let's be honest, this is as close as they're ever going to get at any rate," Pete said. "What with being fictional. Why not let them have their Battle-Dreamtime?"
"If it makes you feel any better," Nine said to all of them, "Sooner or later, the truth of what's happened will show itself. And hopefully, after that, we'll all be returning home," the last word was spoken with a slight hint of regret.
“And at least we convinced them,” Pete added. “I really had my doubts for a while there, but looks like our job is done.”
“Not quite yet,” Nine said, holding up a warning finger. “We’ll most likely have to remain while the Clan Leader chooses her warriors. We’ll have to be on our toes for all of that, that means you choose your words carefully, all of you.”
“No worries there, Doc,” Amanda said rubbing her neck, “That message hit right home.”
“So what should we do now?” Neil asked Nine.
“For now, we should probably head out and make sure all your spirit creatures have protection. No doubt they’ve gotten a lot of attention, and we need to make sure every Yautja in the city knows they’re off limits.”
They stayed in the Clan Leader’s Palace that night, though rest was hard to find. The robust Yautja seemed to make due with very hard, very flat surfaces for sleeping, surfaces that didn’t agree well for what the Yautja somewhat condescendingly refer to as, “Soft meat.” If it weren’t for the fact that they were all so wiped from the trails and tribulations of the previous day, they probably wouldn’t have slept at all.
They still didn’t get as much sleep as they were hoping to. The Clan Leader woke them at dawn, and dressed them in what Nine assured them were ceremonial robes of blood-red. They and some of the other, more-stately members of the clan all preceded to the Temple of Paya, arriving about an hour before anyone else. It was a very distant sight to that of any earth temple. There was a large, open space surrounded by rows upon rows of seats, making it look more like an athletic stadium than a church. Nonetheless, the ornate carvings lining the walls and going across the ceilings reinforced its sacred aspect. They seemed to tell some epic story, one that it was assured every young Yautja learned at a very early age. For them however, the story was lost.
The Clan Leader had, as might be expected, the best seat from which to view everything in the room. The four of them sat in a row just beneath her, several aged, graying Yautja seated proudly all around them. The seats weren’t terribly comfortable, carved as they were from black stone that shone brilliantly in the flickering torchlight that blazed all along the walls. It felt as if the Yautja hadn’t allowed a single modern convenience taint the inside of this holy place.
Within the hour, the first of the challengers began to trickle in. They kept to themselves, staking out corners along the side of the arena to set themselves up. Not long after them, the spectators began to fill up the stands. Where human crowds would cheer, Yautja crowds roared, and very loudly. Even the audience was armed to teeth, flailing their blades all around them in support of whatever champion they happened to be supporting.
Eventually, the Clan Leader stood up and held up a hand. Despite their apparent rowdiness, the crowd and contenders alike instantly fell silent. That’s when she spoke, “Hunters! All of you! We gather here in sight of both Gods, and in the midst of the Battle-dreamtime to find the greatest among us. Those hunters whose skill is worthy of Paya himself. It is with these challengers that we place our faith – our commitment to Paya and his campaign against the Black Warrior and all who follow him! Now, my hunters – it begins!” And her speech ended at the beginning of thunderous roaring from all Yautja in the temple.
The first rounds of competition amounted to little else than tall talk. Each warrior-to-be would strut confidently into the center of the stadium and boast about their greatest hunts, often tossing out skulls and other trophies from their respective quarries. It was admittedly impressive at first, but it became very old very fast to for newcomers. The Yautja however seemed to love it more with each new prospective candidate to swagger on stage.
They were all of them blinking their way into a sitting nap when the Clan Leader stood up once more, about 2 hours later. “I have seen the strong, and I have seen the weak. I shall now call for the worthy,” and she pressed a button on the gauntlet surrounding her left arm. The effect was simply and instant. There was an answering red blinking on some of the challengers corresponding gauntlets, while others remained as they were.
So began the second round, which had the four of them mourning the dullness of the previous round. The second part consisted of the remaining challengers being locked in the arena one at a time as some terrible creature was let loose on them. These confrontations always ended in the death of at least one of them, though not before gallons of blood were spilled onto the stadium floor. In addition to blood, there was a disturbing amount of other fluids, skin, organs, and even bone. Sometimes it came from the Yautja, and sometimes it came from the prey. Pete and Nine watched stony-faced, even as both Neil and Amanda became more than a little light headed.
It wasn’t until the day had long ended, when the only thing keeping the four of them from sleeping was the continued display of graphic violence still unfolding before the crowd. That, combined with the vivid memory of the previous slayings pretty much crushed any hope of sleeping for the three humans. Nine could only shrug it off because of the worse horrors he’d already seen. The audience on the other hand seemed just as eager for blood as any of the opponents. The more of it was spilled, the harder they cheered.
However many hours had actually passed, there did at last come a point when there were no more hapless creatures to be slaughtered, when about 500 warriors stood drenched in green gore. It was then that the Clan Leader stood again and proclaimed, “My kin – we have found the chosen hunters!” and the crowd erupted into his most powerful set of roars. The winners raised their balled fists into the air and joined the cacophonous celebration. All Nine, Neil, Pete, and Amanda could do were to let out four huge sighs of relief and sink back into their seats.
“Well…,” Nine began warily, “at least the ride back will be easy…”