Zack released the vine and dropped to Xorn’Tal’s asteroid. The rock beneath his feet was comforting, and the strange plants growing about its surface were strangely welcoming. He’d been in deep forests before, and if Murk was to be believed he’d experienced the Underjungles of Ravelar, but this felt safer. The vivid flora on this asteroid weren’t growing from the asteroid but rather growing upon it, with unearthed roots stretching across the surface. The environment felt like a garden or greenhouse, strangely even warmer than the chilly atmosphere on Carmen’s asteroid.
He took a step and the vines and leaves in front of him began pulling back and shifting to the side, creating a gentle, meandering path. Zack laughed and felt genuine relief about being in a strange, new environment where not everything was calculatingly menacing. He started walking along the path, picking up his pace as he went. The path revealed by the plants was a fast one, and generally avoided the trickier rises that Zack might have been tempted to take to save time. Even the rumbles as Xorn’Tal’s asteroid bumped into the Phantom Matador’s seemed distant and harmless.
He continued walking until a particularly dense clump of bushes parted in front of him, revealing Xorn’Tal, a root-like entity that shared elements with pitcher plants and avocados in Zack’s mind. Zack almost stumbled back, surprised to so suddenly be right in front of the alien.
“Gamma: welcome. Hold.”
“What?” asked Zack.
“Hailing: Carmen,” said Xorn’Tal. Zack noticed the blinking device near what might have been one of Xorn’Tal’s necks, a device that resembled the communication devices he’d seen so far.
“Present: your guest,” said Xorn’Tal. “Safe.”
Zack smiled. It was strange to think that he was about to get down to Mandrake without any more complications.
“Negative: here,” said Xorn’Tal.
“What?” asked Zack. “What’s negative?”
“Carmen: belief,” said Xorn’Tal. “You: there.”
“I’m… where? Back on the Phantom Matador’s asteroid?”
“Asteroid: Carmen’s,” said Xorn’Tal. “Belief: Carmen, you: with Carmen. Belief: me, you: me. Belief: me, eye-fronds: mine.”
“As opposed to Carmen’s eye-fronds?”
“Ha,” said Xorn’Tal, though the translator gave it a hollow, metallic sound no different from the rest of his monotone. Zack couldn’t tell if Xorn’Tal actually found it humorous, or if the laugh was sarcastic.
“Why does she think I’m there?”
“Feels: others,” said Xorn’Tal. “Two.”
“Two? Nectra didn’t take me back to…”
Zack retraced the scene in his mind. There hadn’t been only two people on the asteroid when he’d left. There’d been three. And Nectra wouldn’t leave someone to just die, not if Zack was any kind of judge of character.
“I forgot the Phantom Matador,” he said. “Xorn’Tal, you’ve gotta tell Carmen that it’s not me, it’s the Phantom Matador! Nectra must’ve rescued him after I forgot about him when I was trying to escape!”
“Nectra: good person?”
“Debatable,” said Zack. “Tell her.”
“Phantom Matador: with you,” Xorn’Tal said, speaking into the “headset.” “Entities Nectra and Phantom Matador: your rock.”
A few moments of silence passed while Xorn’Tal listened to a reply. He rolled in place, facing Zack as well as he could.
“Carmen: understands,” he said. “Instruction: from Carmen: jump.”
“What?” asked Zack.
“Gamma: Jump,” said Xorn’Tal. “Sky-dive: perform. Seek: thrill.”
“Carmen task: handle Carmen. Carmen: capable. Carmen message: Jump!”
Zack looked at Xorn’tal and then back at the asteroid. He closed his eyes for a second, took a deep breath and turned back to the alien plant.
“Right,” he said. “It’s a racer problem now. Good luck putting this guy away, he’s tricky. He can… he can be in two places at once. Or… he can make illusions or something. He’s either making himself invisible and making it appear like he’s somewhere else, or he’s clouding people’s minds when he’s nearby.”
“Gratitude,” said Xorn’Tal. “Task: clear path. Follow. Handy launch point: not far.”
Branches and leaves parted, revealing another clear route. Zack looked at it and nodded.
“Good luck out here,” said Zack. “Sorry that the race didn’t go well.”
“Race: went well,” said Xorn’Tal. “False racer: apprehended.”
“Not yet he isn’t,” said Zack. “But here’s hoping.”
Zack turned and ran along Xorn’Tal’s path, putting Carmen out of his mind as he worried about his jump.