Zack Gamma slowly turned his head, feeling the shifting of the sand under and around him. The dense foliage of the jungle surrounding the pit of quicksand gave ample hiding places for The Phantom Matador, and coupled with the psychic ventriloquism in play there was no way to tell where the Matador had gone, or if he had even been anywhere nearby when the rock caused Zack to jump into danger.
Irksome though it was, Zack found his mind racing over exactly what the Soul Survivor predicted. If he relaxed, wouldn’t he float on top of the sand? Or was that just a myth? No, it couldn’t be a myth. Struggling was what made you sink faster, so being calm was the way to go. He’d read reports of dust and sand on some worlds that could make people submerge faster than water, but this quicksand was acting more like the quicksand and mud pits of deserts and jungles more commonly seen across known space. It was probably fed by an underground spring, or from some other water source that was present in the jungle.
It was even possible that if he sank low enough, his feet would touch the bottom and he could wade out. He didn’t want to risk that, though; a little more than a foot of sinking and is nose would be below sand level.
“Anyone out there?” he yelled. “Matty? Mat-Mat? Phantom Matador? …if you don’t like being called Mat, you should give me a name that doesn’t sound so pretentious! …Hello? Anyone?”
“Here! I’m here. Sorry, should I… should I come out now?”
“Nectra? Yeah, yeah, come out.”
The shangmere dropped from the canopy and landed at the edge of the pool, her wings opening at the end of the drop to catch just enough air to allow her stop to be painless. She twirled her staff and held it out for Zack to grab.
“Sorry,” she said. “Sorry, you said you wanted to talk to him yourself, I didn’t know if I should step in if you weren’t ready…”
“No, this is great,” he said. “Perfect timing. I think he’s gone.”
“Can’t you check the tracker?”
Zack looked at his right hand, or rather the sand that obscured his right hand. After a moment’s effort he lifted his hand out of the sand and demonstrated the sand-logged tracker, a motion that caused him to sink a little deeper.
“I might not’ve given it a fair shake, but I assumed it wouldn’t get me very far.”
“Ooh. Yes. You might be right. I’ll take a look at it after we get you out of there. Grab the staff.”
Zack nodded and reached for the proffered staff with his left hand, but Nectra quickly pulled it back.
“Wait! Hang on.”
Zack slowly pulled his hand back while Nectra observed the staff. After a quick perusal she rotated the staff ninety degrees and held the staff out again.
“What’s different now?” he said, reaching his hand out. He touched the base of the staff and an iridescent blade of Virellium force energy emerged from the other end of the staff, cutting up and away from where Nectra thanks to how she was holding it.
“Oh, I see. Yeah, that makes sense.”
“Yeah, I didn’t want to, uh… cut my hand.”
“Right,” said Zack. “So.”
“Pull me out?”
“Right!” she said, slowly pulling the staff. Zack felt the quicksand flow around him as Nectra pulled the staff closer and, in just moments, his foot brushed the base of the pit at the edge. He reached for the solid ground, pulled himself out, and crawled onto the comparatively firmer soil, feeling itchy and sandy and damp. He took a few deep breaths, turned over, and looked at the trees overhead. His vision was soon blocked by Nectra, moving into his eyesight, and holding up a finger.
“Could I, uh… take a look at the tracker?”
“Right,” said Zack, handing it to her. “Sorry, forgot about that.”
“No problem,” she said, taking it and dusting off the sand. “It’s probably fine, but I should make sure. It seemed to work pretty well!”
“Yeah,” said Zack. “I couldn’t pin him down, but I could keep him close. If he hadn’t got the drop on me with that boulder, I wouldn’t have fallen into the sand.”
“Hmm… you’re okay, right?”
“Apart from the jungle deathtrap I just avoided?”
“The Phantom Matador said that you were slower… and I’ve heard you cough since you started tracking him, it doesn’t sound good, I think.”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just been a little woozy the last day or two. Ol’ Matty’s tryin’ to get in my head. Plus he’s crazy.”
“Heh, yeah, he’s crazy,” said Nectra. “He said a lot of things. Lots of crazy, crazy things.”
She popped open the back of the tracker and started looking over the inner workings of the device while she talked.
“Yeah,” said Zack. “I think he’s feeling desperate. He’s used to being on the run, but he’s not used to it in this kind of place, I think.”
“Right,” said Nectra. “So, he’s getting desperate and he’s a good talker, so he’s saying anything he can think of to stall us.”
“Sure,” said Zack. “Yeah, that’s it.”
“I think we can really just ignore anything he’s saying today, honestly. It’s probably not important.”
“Probably,” said Zack. “And keep that in mind going forward. Even if some of what he said back there was true, he was saying it to rattle me. Maybe to rattle you if he thought you were listening. Telling the truth with the wrong context can be pretty damaging, and I think that’s what he’s goin’ for.”
“Right,” said Nectra. “Good point. So what he said was, uh… yeah.”
“He said I’d panic and not be able to remember what was true about quicksand. And he wasn’t exactly wrong. But let’s wrap up fixing that tracker so that I can show him that he wasn’t exactly right.”