Spheres of Influence: Part Seven
“Drake! Robin!” Hoshi cried, running to the earthen wall formed by the cave-in. Her paws were unsteady, even though the ground had stopped shaking a moment ago. She slipped as she tried to find a grip on the dirt mound, looking for any traces that her brother and sister were still alive. When she found none, she started digging.
“I’m coming!” Hoshi called, hoping either of them could hear her.
She didn’t know how long she had dug. It must have been hours. But she had found nothing. Not even the scent of either Drake or Robin came to her. When she scratched one of her sore paws on a rock, she stopped. She examined the injured paw briefly before she curled up in the hole she had created and licked the scrape, tears of frustration and hopelessness forming in her eyes.
Now that she wasn’t digging, she could feel the strange, muddled magic persistently stronger than before. The feeling of confusion and chaos that she sensed made her fur stand on end. On top of that, she was tired, and she was alone. Slate had been buried farther up the passage as he held the ceiling up to let the others escape. Drake and Robin were buried under the mound she was digging through. She didn’t know where Cole and Naia were; she only knew they weren’t here. They could have been captured, or worse. Then the thought occurred to her: Maybe Kyran suffered the same fate.
Pushing herself wearily to her paws once more, Hoshi started digging once more. If she could find Kyran, if she was held here, and if she could release her, the battle Faerie might be able to do something about this accursed place.
She dug for another hour before she suddenly broke through the other side of the mound and slid down slope on the other side. She didn’t utter a word as she got back to her paws and looked around. It was dim on this side, but she didn’t dare light the place. Someone might notice that. Even in this light, though, she saw that someone had been digging on this side as well. Whoever it was was long gone by now. With a faint curiosity, Hoshi padded quietly to one of the spots where they had been digging and took in the scents there.
“Robin!” she whispered in surprise. She tried to track the scent farther along the cave, but it was lost quickly among that scent of grey pets. She detected a trace of Drake’s scent as well, but it was even fainter. Hoshi sighed in relief. They were still alive, at least, but she still didn’t know where they were.
With all that had happened in the past few hours, she was having trouble deciding what to do. The whole thing scared her, and the relentless energy she sensed wasn’t helping matters. She let her thoughts and the energy bombard her briefly before she decided that she needed to move on. She would get nothing done by sitting there, and she might get spotted if she remained. Trying to push aside the feeling of the mixed magic, Hoshi moved down the passage on silent paws.
* * *
Robin groaned when she woke up. She felt sore all over, and she had a headache. She sat up and bumped her head on the ceiling, which made it hurt more. Slowly, she opened her eyes. The first thing she saw was a white Xweetok staring at her curiously. A quick look past the Xweetok told her she was in a cage of some sort. Outside the cage was a dead end passage that disappeared around the corner of the cage wall. Rubbing her head, Robin crouched in her spot on the floor.
“Are you okay?” the Xweetok asked.
“I’m fine,” Robin replied. “Where am I?”
“You’re in the cage,” the Xweetok said simply. “Everyone who fights the mistress is put here.”
“Who’s the mistress?” Robin asked.
The Xweetok’s eyes darkened in disappointment. “Do you remember anything before now?”
Robin thought about it for a moment. She couldn’t remember much at all. She shook her head sadly.
The Xweetok gave her a sympathetic look. “What’s your name? Do you remember?”
“Robin, I think,” she said.
The Xweetok smiled. “I’m Lin.” She looked past Robin. “I don’t know who’s who over there, yet. They’re still sleeping, and I didn’t talk to them. They were carried here with you a while ago.”
Robin looked to the corner of the cage to see two grey Kougras lying sprawled on a heap in the corner.
“Why are we here?” Robin asked. “Why can’t I remember anything?”
“None of us can,” Lin said. “The mistress says it’s a sickness, and she’s looking for a cure, but...” she hesitated, looking around. Then she leaned closer to Robin. “But Cara and I think,” she whispered, “that she made us sick.”
“Who’s Cara?” Robin asked. “And why do you two think that this mistress...?”
Lin hushed her, putting a paw to her mouth. “Cara is a friend of mine; a Kyrii. We think the Mistress is behind all this because Cara and I can still remember things. Faces, mostly. And we’re not grey like the others. Whatever the mistress did to us, it didn’t quite work on us. Cara thinks it’s because we’re too young.”
“Is that why you’re here?” Robin asked.
Lin shook her head. “No. I’m here because we ran away. I don’t think I came anywhere near home. I went down the wrong passage. Then I noticed someone was chasing me, so I ran, and ended up somewhere cold. But I met some nice Kougras there. There was a fire Kougra named Cole, and a Tyrannian Kougra named Slate...”
“Why do those names sound familiar?” Robin asked.
Lin tilted her head. “Because you were there too,” Lin said. “You’re their sister. Your brother and sister are lying over there.”
The sound of pawsteps and voices down the passage caused both Robin and Lin to fall silent. They looked outside the cage as a grey Kacheek appeared from around the corner. After him came a young, defeated looking white Kyrii, who was closely followed by a grey Kougra, who seemed more annoyed than anything else. When they reached the cage door, the Kacheek opened the cage, letting the Kyrii enter, and he shut the door after her.
“Cara!” Lin exclaimed.
Cara said nothing, but moved to a corner of the cage. The grey Kougra, meanwhile, looked directly at Lin. “You two have no idea what you’ve put me through. You know you could spread this sickness further just by being out there?”
When Lin didn’t respond, the Kougra shook his head. Then he noticed Robin. When he saw her, he froze. A spark of recognition registered in her mind. Somehow, somewhere, she knew this Kougra. Before she could figure out where, the Kougra tore himself away without a word and disappeared down the passage.
* * *
Jack paced around his quarters in an aggravated state, his claws scraping lightly against the metal floor. He didn't stop when Laura appeared in the door, giving him a worried look.
“I heard you were back,” Laura said. “You brought Cara back safely, then?”
“Yeah, she’s safe in her cage,” Jack said flatly. He continued to pace, and Laura had a hard time skirting around him to enter the room. She seated herself on a tattered cushion in the corner.
"What's wrong?" she asked. "You've never acted like this before."
"That's because I didn't know what I know now before," Jack growled. When Laura didn’t respond, he said, "You remember what happened last night? You stopped several intruders as they were entering the cave. Then J'Dar caused a cave-in that nearly buried you and them."
"It was to protect us all, and everyone in the outside world," Laura said defensively, flinching at the mention of the name J'Dar. "Under this quarantine, we can’t allow anyone in or out except under controlled conditions. The mistress has the best interests of us all in mind.”
Jack stopped and looked at Laura for a moment before he sighed. "After what happened last night, I'm not so sure anymore," he said. "She didn’t seem to care about you when she dropped the ceiling in that passage. And after that, what happened to the Kougras who were entering the cave?"
“I don’t know,” Laura said.
Jack looked Laura square in the eye. “Well, did you know that the four latest victims of this sickness are Kougras?”
"What?" Laura gasped.
"I saw them when I brought Cara in," Jack said. "They all looked familiar, but one was especially so." He stopped pacing and sat down with a sigh. "It's like she's a phantom from a past I can barely remember."
Laura didn't say anything for a moment. She looked down at her paws. "Two of the intruders seemed to know who I was," she said. "They seemed shocked to see me like this. The funny thing is, something in me told me that I knew them too."
"What are you two doing?"
Jack and Laura both spun around and faced the door, where a grey Wocky stood, glaring at them suspiciously.
"We're talking," Jack said simply. "Do you have something against that, Troy?"
"Not at all," the Wocky replied. "Except that there is still work that needs doing. The Mistress needs to see you in her chambers, immediately."
"Haven't I done enough for her already?" Jack asked. "I just finished with your little mistake from two weeks ago."
Troy snarled. "That wasn't my fault. Besides, do you really have a choice?"
"I suppose not," Jack said with a sigh. He looked to Laura. "We'll talk later."
The Kougra roughly shoved Troy aside as he passed. The Wocky said nothing to Jack, but turned to Laura after Jack left.
"I'll be watching you two," he said. Then he left.
Once she was alone, Laura moved to a corner of Jack's quarters and curled up there, resting her head on her forepaws. Her head was too full of doubts and misgivings to do anything else.
* * *
Jack grudgingly took the direct route to the Mistress’s chamber, which led through a massive cavity underground. It was here where most of the grey pets affected by this sickness stayed. When he entered the chamber, Jack took a moment to have a good look around. On the ledges and along the lower level, there were a hundred or more pets of varying species. Some were conversing with one another, while others just sat where they were, dozing, daydreaming, or otherwise contemplating their meager existence. When he saw them all, anger welled up in him again. If he was right, it was all because of J’Dar that they were all here, and not because of some so-called sickness.
He moved on again, stepping over several smaller pets who lay in his path. One way or another, he was going to figure out what was going on. As he entered the passage that led to J’Dar’s chamber, a terrible thought crossed his mind. What if she found out what he knew?
He didn’t have much time to think on this before he found himself outside her chambers. A grey Lupe was standing guard. He gave Jack friendly nod.
“The mistress is expecting you,” he said.
“I know,” Jack replied with a sigh. “How’s her mood?”
The Lupe shrugged. “Hard to say. When she passed me earlier, her expression was unreadable.”
Jack shook himself and licked down a few lose strands of fur. “Alright, let me in.”
The Lupe opened the door, and Jack stepped into the Mistress’s chamber. He had been in here only a few times before. The room had square angles, and was the most artificial looking room anywhere among the caves. Gray curtains hung from the ceiling, dividing the room into various areas. Beyond the divided curtain in front of him, Jack knew, was the path to the Mistress’s common area; the only area she allowed anyone into without invitation. Taking a deep breath, Jack pushed his nose between the curtains and entered this area.
Standing across from him, Jack saw the Wocky, Troy, standing on one side, a grey Gelert named Chad stood on the other, and between them was the grey Faerie Jack feared to face: the Mistress, J’Dar.
Her skin was almost gray, and she was dressed in gray clothes. An unusual silver pendant was hanging from a silver chain around her neck. The pendant seemed to be glowing slightly. When he looked again, it seemed to be glowing a different color than it was before.
“Welcome, Jack,” J’Dar said, drawing Jack’s attention away from her pendant. “You’ve accomplished your task in a timely manner, and I applaud your effort.”
“Thank you, mistress,” Jack said, nodding to the Faerie.
J’Dar smiled. “I am told that you have been a bit out of sorts since your return.”
Jack’s fur prickled slightly. “I’m not sure I understand.”
“Are you uncomfortable with the task I had appointed you?” the Faerie asked. “Do you feel uneasy that you had to capture and return those two young pets?”
“We’re under quarantine,” Jack stated. “They shouldn’t have left in the first place.”
“But that’s not all that’s bothering you,” J’Dar said, leering at the Kougra before her. Jack’s tail bristled. He didn’t like where this was going.
“You don’t seem to trust me anymore,” the Faerie said. “You’ve served me faithfully all this time, and now you start to second guess yourself? I’m surprised at you. My other helpers didn’t last nearly so long.”
Jack’s jaw dropped open. Other helpers?
“Did anyone ever tell you that this sickness of yours can wipe your memory repeatedly?” J’Dar asked. “It’s not uncommon. Unfortunately, the other pets who assisted me were afflicted by this, and I had to find new ones. I’m afraid that you’re one of those special cases.”
J’Dar signaled with her hand, and Troy and Chad moved from her sides, advancing toward Jack. He backed away nervously. These two weren’t pushovers. He would have a hard time fighting them. And though he could easily outrun Troy, Chad could chase him down anywhere. Even as he unsheathed his claws, he heard a growl behind him. In that moment, Jack thought it was all over, until he heard J’Dar exclaim the last thing he expected:
“How did you get in here?”
To be continued...