Chapter 12- Pricey Exchange
Blaze drove like the devil through the desert and toward the White Jungle as evening settled in. We spotted the line of pure albino fronds within a couple of hours and burst through the trees. True to its name, the jungle was populated with white plants of all kinds that looked like crestfallen snow had blanketed the area. Or that the plants themselves were dying. Snowy bushes and vines raced past the window, and above us, a glowing white canopy soaked in the moon’s beams and blanketed the starry sky. Shadows of creatures darted out of our path, climbing up vines or scurrying along the white bark of tree trunks.
Nobody talked throughout the trip. The soldiers were silent and seemed to be replaying Nega’s threat and the death we heard. I did the same, wishing, hoping that everyone else was all right and that we could make it in time. Blaze gripped the wheel tight enough to break it and Gardon’s worried frown deepened when he checked on her. I wanted to say some word of comfort to them both, to all of them, that I knew this Nega and we could stop him.
Then again, Nega had continued to surprise me with each new level of depravity and vile act. I never realized the depths he would sink to in pursuit of world domination. All the years with us must have festered his hateful, vicious nature under the surface. I swallowed any empty words and watched scenery pass, preparing for our encounter.
We located a trail deeper into the jungle, with muddy tire imprints that had torn up the wet ground and grass. “It’s got to be them,” Gardon said and pointed to the left. “Judging from the tracks, they went that way.”
In the distance and through the gaps of the treetops, the peak of a mountain rose above the canopy like a golden sun resting on fluffy clouds. As we neared it, we realized it was man-made. “A temple?” I asked.
“Must be,” Blaze said and looked back at Gardon. “Check the historical record, but I believe a party that was carrying the emerald was raided by a local tribe in the jungle.”
Cracking open the tome, Gardon ran his fingers through passages and nodded. “Yes, you’re right. The tribe was the Yuda Tribe, believed to have a hidden city in the jungle, filled with countless treasures they collected over the years. One captured prisoner of the party transporting the emerald said the city had a massive temple in the center that reached for the heavens, where the villages made offerings to the divine.”
“Does it say anything about how he got there or what was inside the temple?” I asked.
He shook his head. “No. The prisoner was blindfolded and released on the outskirts of the jungle shortly afterwards. Although he goes on to describe his interactions with the people and how they were peaceful, for the most part.”
Up ahead, the trees stopped abruptly at a clearing near the temple. Blaze pressed the brake down and we slowed to a stop. “We should hide the vehicles,” she said.
“Might not do much good,” Gardon said. “He could have spies among the trees and in the sky. He knows we’re coming.”
“I’m sure he does,” she said. “However, I have a plan.” She radioed the other vehicle and ordered them to follow directly behind her. Then she maneuvered between the trees, careful not to crash into any trunks and shake their boughs, alerting Nega.
“So what’s the plan?” I asked. “Come at him from the jungle?”
“Not quite,” she said, searching for a good, wide spot to park the vehicles. “I’ll talk a handful of the soldiers with me while the rest of you stay in here. We’ll camouflage the vehicles and head on to meet Nega. I’ll tell him that I took the vehicles and raced over here with the Sol Emerald.”
“No way!” I said. “That’s suicide!”
“I agree,” Gardon started, but she cut us both off.
“Listen,” she said, parking in some dark shade and shutting down the engine. “While I’m talking to Nega and distracting him, you two will each lead a group of soldiers on either flank to get behind him. With any luck, you can smuggle our people out. At the least, we’ll have him surrounded.”
“And Nega is supposed to buy that you ran off ahead of us just like that?” I asked. “He won’t at all. I know him.”
“I know him too,” she said. “He may not be our Nega, but he is still mostly the same person. I can convince him.”
“I’ve already run off before once,” I argued. “He’ll buy me doing it again.”
“You did that for your village. He’ll accept that I would do the same for my soldiers. It’s not the first time I’ve rushed into the thick of it for my people.” On her other side, Gardon nodded in agreement. “That’s the end of this discussion. Say one more word, either of you, and I’ll singe off every inch of your fur.” She chose one of the soldiers to accompany her from our group, then radioed for two soldiers from the other vehicle and the rest to stay put.
Singed fur or no, I couldn’t let her leave on her own. Risking it, I grabbed her fingertips and held her back. “Blaze,” I said softly, “please.”
She sent the soldier on ahead and leaned in close to me, gripping my hand tight. “You’ve already put yourself in harm’s way enough,” she said, almost tenderly. “It’s my turn now. What kind of leader would I be otherwise?” The last part seemed to be for Gardon’s benefit, who watched us suspiciously out of the corner of his eyes.
She hopped out of the vehicle without giving us another chance to protest. She and the three soldiers covered the vehicles in branches and fronds until no one could see us and we couldn’t see anything outside “Leave in ten minutes,” she said, then they went ahead to the temple.
“I don’t like this,” I said.
“She has a point,” Gardon said. “Someone needs to rescue the other soldiers.”
“We don’t need to sacrifice her to do it.”
“We won’t,” Gardon said. He gave me a conspiratorial look and I scooted in closer with the rest of the soldiers. “I have an idea.”
* * *
Ten minutes later, my group halted at the edge of the clearing on the right side of the temple. Gardon had circled around to the other side, per Blaze’s instructions. Although we had brought walkie-talkies, we had thought it best to maintain radio silence except for an emergency in case Nega tapped into our lines.
Gardon had reasoned that Nega would also be expecting an ambush, or some sort of reinforcements for Blaze. So, we would play into that belief. Whoever reached the clearing first was supposed to back-up Blaze and hold Nega’s attention. Meanwhile, the other group would rescue the soldiers, as we figured one group was enough to accomplish that task.
I searched for Gardon’s signal on the other side of the clearing that he had finished the trek around to the temple. The trees were still and silent. Hurry up, I begged.
Meanwhile, Blaze entered the clearing with her soldiers and took shelter behind an abandoned hut, constructed of packed mud, cut tree trunks, and large leaves. The village had long been abandoned and there were ruined foundations from huts that had been destroyed in the past. The jungle had encroached on the clearing in that time and some of the homes were already separated by clusters of tall, swaying trees.
Blaze peered out from behind a corner and directed her people to other huts. No sign of Nega so far. I scanned the skies, afraid of more cloaked ships. If there were any, they were very quiet and well hidden. Normally, I wouldn’t have minded a night-time operation, as that hid our movements from enemy eyes, but it was a double-edged sword now. It shrouded any distortions caused by a cloaked ship or grew lengthy shadows for a foe to wait to spring on us. On the other hand, if there was a massive army prepared to strike, we were already in trouble and it was too late to turn back.
Carefully, Blaze crept to the temple, leading the soldiers up the stairs and to the entrance. I checked for Gardon’s group, but there was no sign of them. Where was he? This was his plan. If he didn’t show up soon, we would have to rescue the prisoners and Blaze’s group would be on their own.
At the top of the stairs, Blaze waved the soldiers to either side of the entrance. The temple was larger up close and more formidable. Nega could have an ambush waiting in the wings as soon as they stepped in. I held onto a tree trunk and bit my knuckle, worrying non-stop as they entered the temple. I wondered if this was how Blaze and Gardon had felt during my swim with the serpents.
Minutes passed. Long tortuous minutes as we waited on Blaze and Gardon, alone with only the thumping of our nervous hearts. The soldiers behind me kept exchanging unsure glances. I debated running head-first into the temple. Forget the plans. Blaze was in trouble, I knew it.
I turned around to the soldiers. “Okay, be ready to move,” I said. “Surround the temple and locate the prisoners. I’m going after the Princess and the others.”
“Wait, look,” one of the soldiers pointed over my shoulder. Spinning around, I saw Blaze exit the temple with all her soldiers intact. I placed a hand over my heart and took a deep breath. Thank goodness.
Her group seemed confused and sans any hostages. And Nega hadn’t appeared either. “Nega!” Blaze shouted, searching the surrounding jungle. “Show yourself!” No response.
This whole thing smelled rotten and I feared we really were in the center of a trap, waiting for it to snap closed.
As if Nega himself heard my thoughts, a blue laser blast struck the top of the temple, piercing through the stone and cutting off the peak. Blocks rolled down and the peak tumbled after, directing its dull, heavy point at Blaze’s group.
She and her soldiers fled down the stairs, narrowly escaping another blast that blew chunks out of their side of the temple. This time, the shot came from a different direction. Nega had us surrounded!
Then I saw it. In the distance, small red ships started to rise from the jungle, giving themselves wide berths. In the empty middle, the sky itself seemed to disintegrate, allowing Nega’s flagships to emerge into being and become blood-red shadows against the starry backdrop. Two total, one to the north and one to the south. Instead of catching him in a pincer, he had caught us.
One of the smaller ships, a red biplane manned by a robot, headed for Blaze, as if to attack. I jumped forward, ready to move her and the soldiers out of the way. At the last moment, the plane stopped and so did I on the edge of the clearing, hiding behind a pair of tree trunks.
On top of the plane, lights deployed from the wings, illuminating the once-lively village. The pistol drew a pistol, aiming it at Blaze. In the back of the plane, Nega stood up and bowed to Blaze. “Ask and I shall answer, Your Highness. I’m glad you could make it.” He raised an eyebrow at her small squad. “Will the rest be joining us soon?”
“I came alone with these volunteers,” Blaze said. “We couldn’t afford to wait.”
“How noble of you,” he said, stroking his gray mustache. I hoped for everyone’s sake he bought her tale. Without Gardon, we would have to rely on Nega taking her at her word. His posture didn’t indicate if he did or not. I smacked the tree, frustrated and wondering where on Earth Gardon had vanished. If he had been found by Nega’s troops, I shuddered to think what would happen to him. Or us. “I trust in your haste, you didn’t forget the Sol Emerald?”
“I have it. I do have one question.” He nodded to her request. “How did you get here?”
“You mean, how did I fool your scouts?” he grinned. “Oh, it was nothing really.” His eyes gleamed, like a child who wanted to reveal a secret only he knew, yet was unsure if there would be repercussion. In the end, he threw up his hands. “Why not? I’ve been wanting to show this off anyway.”
He pointed to one of his flagships in the sky. “Keep your eye on it,” he said and produced a walkie-talkie from his coat, calling the ship’s radio. “Create a copy.”
Before our eyes, a second ship materialized out of thin air beside the flagship. It was an exact match in length, shape, color, even the position of its guns. “It’s a new trick I’ve had in the works,” he said, enjoying Blaze’s dropped jaw. I closed my own mouth and stared at the ship. It would be an amazing piece of technology, if it wasn’t in such terrible hands.
“My predecessor almost had it finished. He was further along than I was in my timeline. A few adjustments needed to be made to complete it and voila.”
The more I studied the mimic flagship, the more I wondered if it was the only copy in the sky. Sure, Nega could pump out robots at a rapid pace, but after his raid on the castle, could he be supplementing his forces? Blaze’s curious face told me that she had the same idea.
However, Nega dashed our hopes. “I know what you’re thinking and the answer is no. None of my ships up there are fakes. They are the real deal. I assure you of that.” He ordered the flagship’s copy to disseminate and it faded into nothingness, leaving behind a section of small fighter planes. “I’ve shown you my little secret. So let’s see that emerald.
“First, I demand to see my people,” Blaze said.
Nega nodded and ordered another ship by walkie-talkie. “Bring out the prisoners.”
A long ship, like a troop ship, swooped in low so that it hovered at the top of the jungle’s canopy. The side of the ship opened, revealing the captured soldiers and a line of armed robots behind them.
“The one on the far left,” Nega said.
Without warning, the robot pushed the soldier at the left end of the line out of the ship. He fell behind the temple and a few seconds later, we heard a dull thud.
“You are in no position to make any demands, Your Highness,” he said. “Now, the emerald.”
She pulled out the Sol Emerald, holding it high for him to see. The purple luster reflected off his sunglasses and he smiled. “Excellent. Bring it here, if you please.” He waved the walkie-talkie in his hand, warning her.
I couldn’t wait for Gardon. I had to intervene somehow. I motioned for the soldiers with me to circle around the temple to the troop ship while I crept around the edge of the tree line. If I could get close enough, I could disarm Nega and turn the tables. I ran through what little Nega had shown us about machinery in my timeline. He had walked us through repairing the dune buggy before. Whether or not that played a part here was anyone’s guess.
Blaze walked deliberately slow, holding the emerald in her outstretched hand. “That’s it,” Nega said.
When I was right behind the plane, I ran forward. Using my telekinesis, I ripped the walkie-talkie out of Nega’s hand, crushed it into a small plastic ball, then turned my attention to the robot manning the plane. As Nega rounded on me, I re-wired a few sections of the robot, going by memory.
Unfortunately, the robot short-circuited and blew a fuse, slumping in its seat. “Silver,” Nega said, snarling. I grabbed the pistol from the robot before Nega could and held him at gunpoint. “Good to see you made it too.”
“Release the hostages,” I said and I realized the poor choice of words at the same time he did. “Safely on the ground,” I added.
“And if I don’t?” he asked. “Are you really going to shoot me? You don’t have the stomach for it.”
“Don’t tempt me,” I said, acting tougher and more confident that I was. I had never killed someone outright before and I wasn’t sure if I could bring myself to, even in Nega’s case. Although he didn’t need to know that. “You killed my village and plan to destroy the entire world. You’re a monster and you need to be put down.”
“Oh, I left some of your village alive, remember?” he said. “A couple of playthings for my robots to use as target practice. I’m not sure if they are alive now. I haven’t checked on them in a while.” My grip tightened on the gun. “That reminds me, I still need to see to those gas bombs.”
“Shut up,” I said.
“Oh, don’t act like that. I deserved a small consolation. After all, I never got to deal with your pesky younger self here. Half the village’s populace was reduced to charred carcasses and ash by the time I personally landed at the town hall. He must’ve been killed in the first wave of my attack on your village. Believe me, I reprimanded my minions severely for that. And while escapees didn’t surrender without a fight, most were mowed down easily. A few got away, but they won’t survive long, I assure you. My drones will find them or they’ll die of their injuries, snuffing out the last remains of your village.” My fingers clenched and the sights of the pistol lined up with his heart. Or the empty cavity where it would be if he had a heart. “The only prizes I had were a handful of villagers. And extending the experience of my prolonged torture of your younger self to your parents instead.”
My heart froze and my nerves steadied. “What?”
“Oh, yes. Dragged that out for as long as possible. Tough ones, your parents. I see where you get your stubbornness from. They wailed non-stop over your death and cursed me, the usual. In the end, they were so battered and broken, it was a mercy putting them out of their misery.” My finger slipped on the trigger and he smiled. “A mercy I gladly granted to them myself.”
The pistol rattled and I couldn’t bring myself to fire, not even when the thought of my parents overshadowed all else in my mind. Mom. Dad. Lying there, with no one around to help them. Just like last time. All because of this twisted monster!
I yelled and threw both hands out, shoving the plane into the temple. The stone crushed the metal and the impact threw Nega out of his seat. It also shifted some boulders loose that tried to crush Nega. He rolled out of the way and I stood and watched, not caring if they flattened him to bits.
As soon as they saw their master in peril, the other ships moved in to attack. “Run!” Blaze ordered and everyone headed for the trees. I lingered for a moment before the order registered in my mind. I tore the gun apart, threw it away, and bolted. The ships strafed over us, spitting rows of laser blasts. They incinerated the tree line until it was a small wall of fire.
We turned to the temple, but that was out of the question. The structure was crumbling nonstop, caving in the entrance. If we tried for there, we would be buried alive, if we weren’t killed by the ships destroying the temple and crushing us with surface chunks.
I looked past the fire, into the jungle. The vehicles seemed so far away now. That was thinking too far ahead. To reach the vehicles, we would have to survive with no protection except for the canopy to hide our movements. The ships could easily cut through the trees and who knew the full firepower the flagships were packing. If we stood and fought, we would be overwhelmed.
The soldiers were panicking and argued about which option was better. Blaze stood in the middle, throwing fireballs at the incoming ships and striking a couple. She too was running through our very limited choices.
In the meantime, I threw up a shield bubble surrounding us as another ship made an attack run. Everyone ducked low as the shield absorbed the ship’s bullets and I felt the tremor of the impact in my arms. The shield wouldn’t hold out. I doubted it would even survive another attack from a ship, despite my best efforts to repair the cracking damage to its surface.
I met Blaze’s eyes and she had come to the same realization I had. None of our options were good and no matter which one we chose, it was certain most of us wouldn’t survive. We were essentially trapped, with no way out.
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