Talmadge stood slowly. The beasts focused their attention on the figure rising before them. His eyes opened and looked at the dinosaur directly in front of him. It nodded its head and turned. It walked to Zero’s side and pushed him with its snout. Zero groaned.
“Zero!” Buddy yelled, still restrained by seven of the strong monsters. “I’m coming!”
“It means him no harm,” Talmadge said quietly, walking to a nearby lizard and scratching its neck.
“What the hell are you doing?” Buddy asked, fear choking his voice. “Those things are–”
“They will not harm us,” Talmadge repeated. “They thought we were invading their territory. They understand now that we intend no harm upon them.”
“I’m fine, chum,” Zero grunted.
“He’s got the power,” Oscar said in awe. “He’s got Petru’s power!”
“What?” Buddy asked as the animals released their hold on him. He ran to Alexa’s side and knelt down beside her as she lifted her head out of the sand.
“Is it safe?” she asked.
“I think so,” Buddy answered, running to check on Oscar. “But I’m not sure for how long.”
“It is perfectly safe,” Talmadge replied. “These creatures are not monsters. They’re simply protecting their children.” He pointed off in the distance. “They have a nest only a few feet from here.”
“So, am I right?” Oscar asked, struggling against the weight of his suit to stand. Buddy assisted him in getting to his feet before continuing on to check on Ryan. “Are you talking to them?”
“Yes, I’m communicating with the reptiles,” Talmadge answered, his eyes twinkling with excitement. “It’s rather…peaceful. They have such fluid thoughts, acting almost as one. It’s amazing.”
“Can someone tell me what the heck is going on here?” Ryan asked rising to his feet just as Buddy arrived at his side. He pressed a button on his wrist device as he talked. A brush appeared from a compartment on his left hip. He pulled it out and began delicately removing the sand from the joints in his suit.
“It’s simple,” Oscar answered as Buddy walked to Zero’s side. “Talmadge obviously has many of the same powers his father had. This particular one was always most amazing to me. He can talk to cryptids.”
“Cryptids?” Alexa asked.
“Cryptids are a classification of animals which some believe to exist, but have no solid scientific evidence of their existence,” Zero answered as Buddy lifted him out of the sand. “Such as the Yeti or the Chupacabra.”
“Correct, Zero,” Oscar replied in surprise.
“Are you okay, pal?” Buddy asked his injured friend. “You look like you’ve lost a ton of blood.”
“I would still be losing it, chum, if I hadn’t created a field around the wound,” Zero cringed. “It would also appear I have presently lost the use of my legs.”
“Your legs!” Alexa screamed as she appeared instantly at his side.
“Don’t fret, sweet Rose. I’m certain it’s nothing.”
“Nothing?” she responded incredulously. “Those things ripped a giant hole in your back and now you can’t use your legs, and you honestly expect me to believe it’s nothing?”
“Bring him over here so I can take a look,” Oscar requested. “My suit seems to have a damaged power cell.”
Buddy lifted Zero in his arms, but Zero turned purple and rose above the group.
“I refuse any further special treatment,” Zero yelled. “I’m fine. A few battle scars won’t cause me any problems.”
“I don’t understand why you’re so hard pressed against any form of medical treatment,” Oscar argued.
“I don’t wish to talk about it,” Zero harrumphed and then, changing the subject, “You know, I have always enjoyed the science of cryptozoology. Did I ever tell you about the time I played a game of chess against the Sasquatch?”
“Wait a second,” Ryan said as he shook his head. “Did you say Petru had this special mind connection with only these cryptid things? Shouldn’t he be able to talk to all living things or something? What’s so special about cryptids?”
“Cryptids are somewhat of an oddity in the animal kingdom,” Oscar answered. “Just like Petru himself, they possess something which makes them almost completely impossible to find. I unfortunately never quite found the time to do the appropriate research behind it, but there appears to be some sort of common bond between all of these cryptidic creatures, something within their genetic makeup, that is the cause for them seeming to be nothing more than legend. Petru, and apparently Talmadge here, share that bond.”
“That’s all well and good,” Alexa jumped in, “but how does this help us in our current situation? I’ve got sand in places I don’t even want to mention in front of my father. And the heat in here is doing some mad damage to my skin.”
“Thanks for bringing us back on topic, sweetheart,” Oscar responded. “I believe this new-found talent of our little friend here should serve us quite well in our current trial. You’re proving to be much more useful than I had anticipated, Talmadge.”
“Does this mean I can control those sand worm guys as well?”
“I see no reason to believe the Mongolian Death Worms wouldn’t respond to you in a similar manner,” Oscar replied. “Do you have an idea?”
“Yeah,” Talmadge answered. “I think I do.”
“Great,” Buddy grinned. “Then let’s find us some ugly worm creatures and get out of here.”
“Before we do that, chum,” Zero cut in. “I believe I should note how we are currently one man short.”
“Oh, yeah, Murphy. Whatever happened to him?” Oscar asked.
“He bolted up the hill as soon as we started being overrun,” Alexa answered. “I saw him being chased by a bunch of these lizard pups up the hill there.”
Zero placed a zero-gravity field around Oscar and the group made their way slowly up the sand dune in question.
“There’s no sign of him here at all,” Ryan replied, rising up into the air to get a better look.
“And the sand seems to have shifted so as to hide his footfalls,” Zero continued.
“If he’s out there alone,” Oscar added, “there’s no telling what sort of trouble he could be getting himself into. Although I’m not a fan of having the shell of Dominion in our ranks, I can’t help but think we should do whatever we can to help him.”
“How do we do that if we can’t even find him?” Buddy asked.
“I guess we just have to hurry up and complete the trial,” Oscar answered. “The room should fade away as soon as we get our hands on the jewel, just like the others.”
“Okay, so, let’s find us some worms. Talmadge,” Alexa cheered.
“Follow me,” Talmadge spoke. He walked away toward a tall sand dune in the distance. Two of the Arican monsters walked at his side. The rest of the group followed. As they neared the dune, it became apparent there was a flurry of activity occurring just below the surface.
“Holy crap,” Ryan exclaimed. “You’ve found sand worm central!”
“The Aricans told me where I would find the territory of the worms,” Talmadge said softly. “They also warned that these beasts may be more difficult to communicate with due to their inherent rage and territorial instincts. I suggest you all stand back as I attempt to commune with them.”
Alexa leaned into Buddy, “Does the kid seem a little extra weird to you now that he’s found out he’s got powers?”
Zero, listening in from above, responded weakly, “Petru would often appear quite different when in the midst of his creatures. It seemed to me almost as though the creatures would speak through him as he was connected to them. I see a lot of Petru in this youngling.”
“Shh,” Talmadge said as he moved toward the shifting dune.
The group instantly silenced.
Talmadge walked to the base of the mound, the Aricans still at his side. He closed his eyes and stretched out his arms in front of him. The movement within the dune ceased. Without a noise, the group stood in wait, tension building in their limbs as they hoped Talmadge’s plan would succeed.
Just as Buddy was about to speak, the ground beneath Talmadge burst open and a worm slid out directly underneath him, raising its head into the air with Talmadge standing squarely on top of it. The beast sank into the sandy sea, taking Talmadge with him.
“Holy Muad’Dib, Bumblebee,” Ryan exclaimed.
“What?” Zero asked, looking at his young compatriot with confusion.
“Nevermind, it’s…well, nevermind.”
“As you wish,” Zero complied.
“Umm. . .“ Alexa began, “so, where’d he go? Do you think he’s coming back? Or, you know, still alive down under the sand?”
“I’m sure he’s fine, darling,” Oscar answered. “At least I hope he is. While we wait, do you want to see if you can reconnect my power, Ryan?”
“Sure thing, pops,” Ryan said as he walked to just beneath his father’s location.
“Zero,” Oscar attempted to rouse his friend. “You can put me down now.”
“Zero?” Alexa asked.
“Wha-?” Zero replied finally. “Sorry, must have dozed off a bit there. What do you want?”
“Buddy, we’re going to need to get Zero some medical attention fast,” Oscar stated flatly. “And can you put me down, chum, so I can get my power turned back on?”
“Certainly,” Zero said as the purple field disappeared around Oscar and he tumbled the three feet to the sandy ground.
“Yeah,” Oscar stated as Buddy lifted him out of the sand and to his feet, “he’s going to need help before we are going to be able to get down to the bottom of this thing.”
“I have a feeling we all will,” Buddy said grimly.
Ryan, from behind his father, said cheerily, “Well, at least there wasn’t much damage to your suit. They just snagged the solder back here. Give me one sec,” a light fitzing glowed from Ryan’s suit’s fingertip, “and done.”
Oscar’s suit whirred to life in response to the minor correction. The lights turned back on all across it.
“Thanks, son,” Oscar clapped. “Now, I guess we just wait to see if Talmadge can figure this damned thing out before Zero here gets any further injured.”
The group stood staring at the last known location of their newest ally. Five minutes passed as they stood in wait.
Buddy, looking at his watch, “How long do you think we should wait before we call it? The kid’s been gone for a while now and Zero’s eyes haven’t opened in minutes.”
“Give him time,” Oscar answered. “I’m sure Talmadge is fine. Zero, unfortunately, will have to wait. We can only pray time is on his side.”
“I’m fine, chums,” Zero added meagerly.
Buddy looked at his watch again. “Okay, ten minutes it is.”
Another ten minutes passed with no sign of Talmadge or of the beast which had taken him away. The dune in front of them continued to surge with activity.
“So, yeah, I’m really not liking being so close to those Death Worm things,” Alexa spoke. “Has it been long enough for us to try to just figure out this room on our own?”
“Give it time,” Oscar replied again.
“I’m with Alexa on this one,” Buddy added. “I’d prefer to be as far away from those things as possible. I don’t think Talmadge is coming back.”
“I’m bored and hot,” Alexa whined. “Maybe we could find an oasis hidden out here or something.”
“I’m actually pretty comfortable,” Ryan sneered.
“Yeah, you would be, considering you’ve got A/C inside that suit of yours. I wonder how you’ll feel once that suit runs out of power and you’re stuck lugging around a few hundred pounds of metal behind you for the rest of our adventure.”
“Kids, kids,” Oscar cut in. “It’s hot and we’re all tired, I get it. But we can’t start battling against ourselves. I’m certain that any minute now Talmadge will–” Tones sounded through the hot desert air and everything melted into darkness. “See, just like I was saying, he’s found it.”
As the sands disappeared, Murphy was found curled into a ball nearby. The group walked over to him and heard him muttering to himself.
“I didn’t sign up for this. I’m just a pencil pusher. If God could just get me through this one thing I’d–”
“Hey, Murph,” Ryan laughed. “Hot enough for ya?”
Murphy jumped at the sound of Ryan’s voice, looked around and saw that the desert had departed. He stood and brushed himself off.
“Oh, um,” he said, clearing his throat, “so, you figured out the trial I see. Congrats and all that. Can we get out of here now, please?”
“We have to find Talmadge first,” Buddy responded.
“Hey, guys!” the voice of Talmadge came from behind them. They turned and saw Talmadge standing in the doorway, holding the orange jewel above his head. “Got the rock, let’s go!”
Go to Chapter Twenty-One