Had it not been for the blinking LEDs on Phyllis's skull plate, it would have been pitch black in the cave. A legion of gurgs had dragged the bodies of Barlow and Phyllis into a tiny cave. They threw Eddie and Pip in after them and sealed the opening with a boulder the size of an SUV.
"What are they going to do with the young master," Pip asked. He and Eddie had been pushing at the boulder in the dark for minutes before giving up. Now they stood exhausted. Pip panted in ragged breaths.
Eddie stared at a blue pulsing light on Phyllis's forehead, his arms hugged around his chest. Kardhoom had taken them—taken Kai and Bryce both. Eddie was powerless to stop him. His friends were in the hands of the same murdering monster that had killed Tim.
"We've got to get out of here," Pip wailed. "The young master needs our help. We can't allow him to be harmed."
"You don't need to yell," Eddie said. "I hear you just fine."
"But the young master," Pip insisted. "The master."
"I can't think with all the noise."
"Help me move this boulder."
"We've tried that. What we need is..." He thought. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the cellphone. Its dim illumination looked like a beacon in the pitch black. The last message still shone on the screen. You'll understand when the time comes, it said.
"Is this the time?" Eddie muttered. "Because if you're out there, I could use the help."
Pip had worked himself up into a fresh panic. He pressed his hands against his head, his long thin fingers clutched across his skull. "What? What did you say?"
"Just wishful thinking," Eddie said. He turned on the phone's flashlight mode. The light blazed in the darkness. He searched around them, looking for something that would help. His eyes fell on Phyllis's detached mechanical arm. The gurgs had tossed the dismembered appendage in after her..
"How do you turn Phyllis back on?"
Pip threw up his hands. "She's a person, not a robot. She doesn't have an on switch."
"But the gurg did something to her. He'd done something to the back of her neck." He leaned in close to her. He realized for the first time that her human eye was open, glaring up at him.
"She's awake," Eddie said with alarm. "She's been listening this whole time."
Pip fell in front of her. "Phyllis, get up. Get up and help us."
Phyllis glared at him. Her jaw moved a millimeter, but she made no sound.
"She can't move," Eddie said. "That gurg did something that paralyzed her." He pushed Pip aside. "Phyllis, one blink for 'no', two for 'yes'. Do you know what the gurg did to you?"
"Can I undo it?"
He searched the back of her skull. and down the wires running along her neck. "I don't see anything. Is there a switch?"
Eddie relaxed and took a breath. He wasn't as outwardly panicked as Pip, but he was still desperate to save his friends. He asked simple questions. "Did the gurg damage you somehow?" "Is there a severed wire?" Phyllis blinked emphatically when they narrowed the problem down to two wires that had been crossed. The gurg had short-circuited something in her neck, and Eddie quickly found the problem, a wire stripped of its insulation, wrapped against an adjacent wire. Eddie pulled the two apart. The instant they separated, Phyllis leapt up, knocking Eddie aside.
"Finally," she cried, reaching for her detached arm. She clicked it in place, and her mechanical hand clenched into a fist. She turned to the motionless body of Barlow, stood crouched under the low ceiling, and kicked the man hard in the stomach. Barlow groaned.
She turned to the boulder, braced a foot on the rocky floor and pushed at it. The huge rock gave to her efforts, grinding across the stone floor before falling over a rock shelf away from the entrance. Pip sprang through the opening, leaped onto a column and scanned. He sniffed the air, searched, and leaped to another column and gazed into the darkness.
"They've gone into the badlands," he said.
"Makes sense," Phyllis said. "No one can negotiate that terrain like a gurg, and they can practically see in the dark."
Eddie followed her. "What do we do?"
Before Phyllis answered, Barlow appeared, crawling out of the cave. "I can help," he said.
Phyllis snarled. "You're lucky I don't put a bullet in your brain. Stay out of the way."
"I know the badlands," Barlow said, struggling to his knees. "Almost as good as the gurgs. And they stole my wife."
Phyllis turned to Pip, who shrugged.
"We can't trust you," she said.
"Maybe not, but you can trust that I want to save my wife. Look, cyborg, we may not like each other, but until today, we were never outright enemies. I won't hurt your outsiders. The only one I'm killing is the bastard that took my wife. That is something you can trust." He pulled himself to his feet, steadying himself on the cave wall.
"Fine," she said after a moment's thought. She turned to Eddie. "You need to go tell Melbourne what's happened to his son."
"What do you mean? I'm coming with you."
"No, you need to get back to Melbourne. We'll need reinforcements."
"It will take me a day to get back there. Our car is gone."
Phyllis put up a hand. "It doesn't matter. You can't help us in a fight and you'll slow us down."
Barlow pulled a flashlight from his belt and peered out into the darkness beyond the columns. "She's right, kid. We'll be on the run, and honestly, you're not up to it." He nodded at Phyllis and stumbled into the darkness.
Phyllis nodded at Pip. "Let's go."
Pip and Phyllis raced into the abyss after him. Eddie watched their lights flicker and dance down in the darkness until they turned an unseen corner. All went dark in the deep places.
Eddie turned back towards the columns that flanked the road from which they'd come. There was plenty of light that way within the glowing mushroom forests. Eddie couldn't get lost if he returned to Melbourne's house.
But to go back now would be useless. If Kardhoom wasn't stopped, he'd have his friends halfway back to Cavaheim before Eddie reached Melbourne for help.
Eddie returned to the ridge that overlooked the badlands and peered down into the darkness. The depth of the place felt endless. An immense space filled with secret ways and silent watchers awaited. Going in there alone would be suicide. He might have had a chance if he'd stayed with the others. He should have been more insistent. Now it was too late.
He felt like screaming. He ground his teeth and stared at his feet. A procession of luminous insects trailed by, descending into the darkness.
"Think, dammit," he told himself. There had to be a way to survive alone down there.
The insects continued down the far slope, creating a bio-luminous trail that disappeared in the distance. Eddie frowned and squatted beside the trail.
Ghost ants. The name came from the same place that all of his disconnected memories were stored. They weren't literal ghosts. They simply projected an eerie bioluminosity. Ghost ants were a migratory species. A hive might have a billion ants, and they migrated from one base to the next, following their queen through the dark.
He wasn't sure if it this was true or if it was a fake memory of a false fact. If he was right, this ant procession would stay on the same course, providing a consistent trail that would remain, highlighting the darkness for days or even weeks.
So, there was one certain way into the badlands, one he knew with reasonable certainty he could follow in and follow back out if it didn't lead him anywhere. Eddie blew out his cheeks, dared himself to descend, and stepped over the ridge into the darkness beyond.