Zack twirled his Purcellian Striker pistols and scanned the trees around him. He’d waited for more than two hours, and was hoping that he wouldn’t have to wait until the end of the six he’d been given by the Suzerain.
“Should’ve asked Chala for some ice water,” he said.
A distant squawking creature made itself known in the distance.
“I wonder if Chala even has ice on this planet,” he said.
“Good question,” said a voice from above. Zack tensed and started to look up, but not before Nectra dropped onto him from above, slamming into his back and pinning him to the leaf-covered, peaty soil. She twirled her staff triumphantly, and brought it down on top of one of Zack’s arms to keep it from moving the pistol, and one of her clawed feet pinned the other arm. Zack heard a familiar buzz of energy and realized that her staff was likely energized from its contact with him, meaning it had again turned into the Virellium Scythe.
He started to twist his head to look up at the shangmere, but Nectra kicked off his hat and held down his head with her other foot.
“Hello again, Zack,” she said. “You ran off from the cave. It’s a shame you delayed my progress.”
“Nectra, how are you even planning on getting off this world?” Zack asked. “If you kill me, how’ll you get back to Veskid to prove your theory?”
“My theory about Virellium trackers? Well, obviously, we’ll need to take whoever was coming to pick you up. You worked so hard to get to Mandrake, Zack, and a smart guy like you will have a plan to get off again. You probably arranged for a ride. It’s an educated guess, but I feel good about it.”
“Here’s another educated guess for you, then,” said Zack. “You’ve been in contact with The Phantom Matador. What’d you do, fly him all the way down to the planet from Carmen’s asteroid? That must’ve been quite the fall.”
“Oh, I was right about you being smart… yes, he’s been helping me to find you. With my tracker, he’s very capable of figuring out not just where you are but where you’ll be by observing how the signal changes. I can’t condone villainy, of course, but he’d have a huge future as a criminal mastermind if he applied himself.”
“He’s already a criminal,” said Zack. “He’s a stalker and a trespasser, and he also assaulted me with a boulder once. I can see how that last one might not count against him, though, since it seems like the universe has agreed that I’m a fair target.”
“I’m sorry about that,” said Nectra. “But it gets us back on track. Now, I don’t want to go to the trouble of smuggling you off this planet and back to Veskid while you’re dead, but you’ve got a habit of getting away while alive. So… Zack, do I kill you now? How would the DMA do that?”
“I didn’t work with the assassins,” said Zack. “I did the honest jobs. But yes, the assassins would probably kill me now.”
“Oh,” said Nectra, her excited tone suddenly slowing and losing its bright edge. “I see. Yes… well then. I guess this is goodbye, Zack? Zack, I’m… this is embarrassing. I know I just met you yesterday, but I’m really going to miss you.”
“Well, there’s a way other than killing me right now,” said Zack.
“Good!” said Nectra. “I mean… what?”
“I need to know some things first. When the Phantom Matador was using your tracking device, or helping you to use it, or whatever, did he kill anyone?”
Zack listened to Nectra’s breathing. It slowed. The sounds of jungle insects and beasts filled the air.
“I think so,” she said. “I think he used that energy sword of his. He wouldn’t say it directly, but I saw the bodies whenever I left. All he said was that they ‘saw him’ and he ‘needed to get away.’ They might have killed him, Zack.”
“I get that,” said Zack. “And they might’ve. They’re not unreasonable, though. Look, Nectra, I need your help in catching The Phantom Matador.”
“What? But he’s helping me.”
“Right, but he’s killed Sthenites. Nectra, he’s a murderer. Beneath that dark, mysterious persona, The Phantom Matador is a parasite on any society he’s in. I mean, in less than twenty-four hours he became this region’s most notorious murderer, and that was almost pinned on me.”
Zack felt the claws at the back of his neck loosen and lift. He looked over his shoulder and saw Nectra, looking confused.
“He said I should kill you here. He said you’d cause trouble for us if I saved killing you for later.”
“I would,” said Zack. “He’s right about that. But that’s not really the issue, is it? You shouldn’t kill me at all, Nectra. And the Matador’s gotta face justice from the Sthenites. One other issue: these bushes are filled with sthenite warriors. They’re mostly here to make sure I don’t escape… they didn’t believe my story about a winged lady swooping in to hunt me down… but they’re also here for you. Kill me, and they’ll attack you.”
“Zack? You set a trap for me?”
“No, no I set a safety net for myself. The flip side is this: I’m still in the middle of a weird trial thing. Help us catch The Phantom Matador, and I’ll agree to combat against you overseen by the Suzerain of the Sthenites, a combat that the Suzerain declared to be a sufficient conclusion to my trial if you turned out to exist. You win that combat, I’ll be your prisoner. I win, you leave me alone.”
“And if I try to abduct you or kill you now, I lose either way,” said Nectra, sounding crestfallen.
“Well… don’t look at it like that,” said Zack. “I’m the one in a trap here. You could always just fly away. So… help us find The Matador?”
Nectra closed her eyes and took some deep breaths. Soon she opened them again and nodded.
“Sure,” she said. “Let’s find that Phantom.”