“He’s nearby,” said Nectra, hopping back from Zack and twirling her staff. She set it into the soil and leaned into it, almost clutching it, with the shimmering blade of Virellium energy curving over her head. Zack carefully stood and inspected his pistols for damage.
“Near enough that he heard us planning, or near enough that we’ll find him in five, maybe ten, minutes?”
“The second,” she said. “Maybe longer if he sees you coming. He’s got sharp eyes.”
“I’ve got deep shadows,” said Zack. “We’ll see which one wins. Baurik? Or… Barik? Bar… Chala’s friend?”
“I’m calling someone, I think his name is Baurik. He’s a Sthenite.”
A gentle shake of leaves sounded and the yellow and green-scaled Sthenite stood between them, ruffling his feathers and tasting the air with his tongue.
“Oh, look at him!” said Nectra. “Oh, he’s adorable! Don’t you think?”
“Yeah, you only get teeth like that on the cutest puppies and venom like that on the nicest echidnas. Hey, Baurik. Shtothro Nostrauhara?”
“Vashtara thaul Tzak vash.”
“You can tell what they’re saying?”
“No, but I’m good with sounds. I think I’m asking if we can leave and chase the Phantom Matador without all of Baurik’s friends in the bushes making us pin-cushions. I think he said that it’s fine. Where to?”
“Just across a stream west from here,” she said. “Will your friends come along to help us?”
“I doubt it,” said Zack. “This is part of my trial now.”
“Okay, then. Follow me.”
The Phantom Matador paced beneath the jungle canopy, his black mask and hat still covering his face despite the incredible heat. The shangmere had taken too long, and he wondered if he would have to rescue her again.
The snapping of a nearby twig brought a stop to his pacing. He stared in the direction of the disrupted foliage, wondering what kind of animal would care to stay so still after making a careless noise.
“It’s you, then,” he said. “Very well. Step out of your hiding place so that we might settle this face to face.”
An arrow sailed from the underbrush, but missed the Phantom Matador by over a foot. The black-garbed man tossed his head back and laughed with a musical tenor voice.
“The Phantom Matador won’t fall so easily! From the moment you laid eyes upon me, you were already deceived. It may be a breach of etiquette when I ask you to stop hiding when I continue to do so, but the conversation will be much less tiresome for both of us if you comply!”
A rustle of leaves to the left of the Matador announced the arrival of a human woman with black hair and a bow made from a machine. She neared the Matador, who raised an eyebrow.
“I confess, I expected you to be hiding elsewhere… was the twig snapping a diversion?”
“I moved after I shot the arrow,” she said. “I almost didn’t believe Zack when he said how you dressed. That cape has to be sweltering.”
“Fashion is always worth a little suffering,” he said. “It is a pleasure to meet you. I expected the only other human on the planet, and was not disappointed. It is curious that you know Zack Gamma, but not entirely surprising, given the circumstances.”
“Why did you kill the Sthenites near my hut?”
“They were trying to stop me,” he said. “They seemed very taken with the idea of preventing me from leaving.”
“Give it back.”
“Give what back?”
“What you stole.”
“Can one truly steal in a world with no laws?”
“There are more laws here than you know,” she said, nocking another arrow.
“Yes, yes, the tribal concerns and rules of the wild and all that,” he said. “You and I know better, though. Miss…?”
“Miss Chala, I come from a more civilized and enlightened world view-”
“Most visitors to this planet feel that way. They all believe the Sthenites are worth exploiting.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said. “I wasn’t saying that humanity is more refined than the Sthenites, though from a biased point of view one might make that case. No, I was saying that within humanity I am more refined than your average individual.”
“Which led you to murder innocents in a village.”
“It was self defense,” he said. “And I certainly wouldn’t have been there if someone hadn’t been stockpiling a highly dangerous substance.”
“It isn’t dangerous if handled properly. And they would have only attacked you if you were handling it improperly. It’s not a secret to them. I’m not exploiting them. They know I have it, and that I can treat it with care.”
“So you DO believe that I stole Virellium from you.”
“Yes, of course,” she said. “Assuming you’re not just an insane murderer, you must have taken something, and Virellium is what there was to steal.”
“Are you sure you have… the Facts straight?”
Chala lowered her arrow.
“Don’t play coy now. You heard me, and there was legitimate need to clarify when I did it. Do you have your Facts straight?”
“So you did steal something,” she said. “But not the Virellium. …Why would you steal that?”
“I knew what it was the moment I saw it,” he said. “It may not be in my field, as it were, but the value is unmistakable. And say what you will about not exploiting these people… you KNEW the value of it. Why else would you even have it?”
“Give it back to me,” she said. “Give it back, and I won’t kill you right here.”
“Miss Chala, you are more than welcome to try,” he said.
Chala pulled back her arrow and released it, launching it directly at The Phantom Matador. The Matador seemed to vanish just before the arrow struck, allowing it to embed itself in a tree.