Series 7 Episode 12 The Soul Reaper Part Two Written by Zoe Lance
Alfie woke up.
He turned the corner and found himself on a dirt path. He followed it, and realised he was approaching Suncrest Hill — the place he had met Zoe. He stopped when he reached the top, and looked out at the village, basking in the autumn twilight. It was terrifying. The bloodshot moon eclipsed the desolate village, and the roars of construction echoed all around him. A breeze fluttered by and ruffled his hair, carrying the whisper of a lost child. It chimed in the air like a harmony, and reached his ears. He strained to listen.
“What’s it mean? What’s any of it mean? Tell me, cos I ain’t got a clue.”
He wasn’t sure he knew anymore, if they were operating under the assumption that he knew the answer in the first place.
He blinked, and he was stood in the Diamond Way nature reserve. Jack-o-lanterns lit up the cold night, casting flickering shadows over the trees. He listened to the gentle lapping of the pond water against the ground, and his feet moved on their own volition up the dirt path. He looked up at a tree. It towered over the rest with multiple thin, elongated branches that split off into different directions. A face was carved into the thick trunk, which seemed to become animated in the candle-light. The eyes narrowed into slits, and the mouth curled into a sneer. Rows of jagged teeth inside a cavernous maw snapped at him, yet still he approached. His eyes were glazed, his back hunched and his movements sluggish. Despite the screaming protests of his mind, and the little nicks of bloody scratches from the shrubbery that surrounded the tree, his body pressed onwards, and onwards, until the tree’s breath whipped at his face as it leaned forward with a sickening creak and devoured him whole.
Alfie jolted awake with a start. He was sitting in class with Zoe, Beth, Dan and Felix seated around him.
“Wake up,” Zoe hissed. “Teacher’s gonna be here any minute.”
“Maybe he won’t,” Dan mused. “We’re not even meant to be here! It’s Halloween!”
“Shut up, Dan.”
Alfie merely grunted in response and raised his head from his desk, wiping at his eyes to remove any trace of sleep dust.
Beth was looking at him curiously. “You alright?” she asked. “You look tired.”
“It’s nothing,” Alfie huffed. “Just didn’t sleep last night.”
“Big surprise there,” Zoe scoffed. Alfie playfully pushed her shoulders, and she grinned at him. He looked around the classroom. Dan and Felix were sat on the desk in front of him, practically joined at the hip. Beth was lounging on the table to his left, with her sister Laurel beside her, and Zoe was sat by his side contently, fiddling with a pencil.
“Had a weird dream,” Alfie murmured. “It was…”
“Tell me later,” Zoe whispered. “And wipe your nose! You’re bleeding. You’ll have me done for assault, or something.”
Alfie blinked at her in confusion, bringing his fingertips to the edge of his nose. He pulled away and stared at the scarlet droplets running down his fingers, captivated by the sight. Zoe nudged him and he looked up just in time to see the classroom door open. A man strode in, late forties, with cropped brown hair and a black smart jacket. Alfie frowned in confusion. Who was he? Where was Miss Janine?
He blinked, and belatedly realised, “I ain’t in your year.”
“Shh,” Zoe hissed.
Alfie looked up at the man nervously, who set down a briefcase and smiled brightly at the class. It was one of those high-profile, charismatic smiles he saw celebrities often use on TV.
“Good morning, class,” the man addressed in a clear voice, with a slight accent, “Can I just start the day off,” he looked down at Alfie, and his grin widened. “By welcoming back Alfie?”
The entire class turned to him with matching, disconcerting smiles. It made him uncomfortable. The man’s stare did not relent, and it wasn’t long before Alfie caught himself staring back.
The man smiled at that. “Welcome home, Alfie.”
Alfie looked down at his fingertips, and noted the hexagonal pattern left behind by the blood trail. His breathing heightened, ratcheting to new levels. “This isn’t real,” he said quietly. “You okay?”
Alfie looked to his side. Zoe was looking at him curiously. They were back on Suncrest Hill, on the bench close to the edge overlooking the village. It was, quite fittingly, sunset, and the orange twilight soothed his beating heart.
“Alfie?” Zoe pressed.
“Yeah,” he answered snappily. “I’m fine.”
“Don’t look it,” she continued. “What’s up?”
“Nothing. Just a nightmare, that’s all.”
“Wanna talk about it?”
“You’re such a waste of oxygen it’s unbelievable.”
“What?!” Alfie defended himself, raising his arms as Zoe made an attempt to pilot the swing in his vague direction.
When she failed to hit him, she huffed and angrily crossed her arms. “You know what? Forget you. You’re not worth it.” She swung the swing seat — wasn’t it a bench? — until they were perilously suspended in the air. Before it could swing back into place, however, Zoe shoved Alfie off the seat and sent him hurtling towards the forest below without a second thought. The wind whipped at his hair and face, his eyes watered from the sheer velocity, his stomach lurched violently and he barely had time to scream before his body roughly impacted the forest floor.
Alfie was back in the care home, curled up into a little ball in the corner of his room. It was stormy outside, and every flash of lightning made him jump.
A phone was in front of him, dialing endlessly and loudly. There was a set of three beeps, each louder than the previous one, in quick succession, before a computerised voice informed him, “We're sorry, you have reached a number that has been disconnected or is no longer in service.”
Alfie curled further into his ball, and the first few tears he had desperately tried to hold back trickled down his face. “I want my mum,” he sobbed.
“Your mother is gone, child,” the automated phone message informed him coldly. “No one is coming to help you. You’re mine now.”
“I want to go home,” Alfie persisted. When he didn’t receive an answer, he repeated loudly, “I want to go home!”
“There is no home for you now.”
Alfie’s prone body felt almost weightless in Sarah Jane’s arms. His eyes were wide, but the usual warmth and spark was missing. Instead, there was only a coldness. Lifelessness. The thing that she had desperately wanted to avoid had come true. She could see it now; she was in the Chandras’ living room, having to break the news gently to them. They would be suitably devastated — Gita would wish she had never given her permission, Haresh would tell her to leave the house and Rani would scream about how this was the second family member Sarah Jane had torn away from her.
With shaky hands, she gently rested his head on the carpeted floor and released a breath. She was getting ahead of herself. The ultimatum didn’t expire until sunrise. She still had time to fix things, and save her home. Sarah Jane looked at Alfie hesitantly, debating bringing him with her, before deciding his body would be safer in the barn. She just hoped the creature — the Spectre — didn’t return.
As a precaution, Sarah Jane produced her mobile phone. “Sentinel.”
The AI’s trademark colour scheme materialised onto her screen. “Yup?”
“Put a containment vortex around Alfie. Keep him safe.” It wouldn’t do much. She knew that. If the Spectre showed up again, Sentinel would be powerless to stop him if he felt like hurting the boy. But still, it was better than nothing.
“After you’ve done that, start a database scan. Find anything you can on who we’re facing.” With renewed determination, Sarah Jane turned and left the barn. She had work to do.
“How long is this gonna take?” a student — Laurel was sure her name was Serena — complained loudly. “I have a date!”
There were an undercurrent of similar murmurs. The students were getting restless of sitting around inside the gymnasium waiting for the police to arrive, but nobody really had the courage to get up and leave.
Nobody, except Christopher Orange. Laurel looked up from her inspection on her fingernails and watched as he stood up and strode towards the door purposefully.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Getting out of here,” he replied patronisingly. “What d’you think?”
“We’re supposed to wait here ‘til the police get here,” Kyle spoke up, but Laurel could tell there was no conviction behind his tone. He would be right at Chris’ heels when he felt validated.
Chris gave a single uncaring shrug and turned back to the doors. “Screw that, I’m getting out of here,” he scoffed.
Laurel rolled her eyes and looked back at her fingernails, leaning into Nathan casually. She was beyond caring about Chris’ activities. Like her sister and her friends, she wasn’t fond of him in the slightest. So, she didn’t look up as the older boy steadily progressed towards the exit.
She did, however, look up when there was a loud thud against the door. She looked around in confusion, only to find that Nathan and the others were similarly confused by the sound. There was another thud. Chris hesitated, and stepped back.
“What’s that?” somebody whispered.
“The police?” someone suggested hopefully.
“But what if it’s him?” Kyle asked with wide eyes. “The murderer?”
“You’re such an idiot, ‘course it’s not,” Chris said scathingly, but his voice trembled noticeably.
Laurel rose from her spot, edging closer towards the noise. Nobody stopped her. They simply watched with bated breaths as she cautiously pressed her ear to the door.
At first, there were a few moments of silence, and then there was a sudden loud thud that sent her flying back in panic. But there was something different about the thud, she had noticed it. The noise had been lower than before. Weaker. Less… desperate. Something wasn’t right.
She looked around the room. Everybody seemed perfectly content with staying put, but there was a curiosity that Laurel couldn’t shake. The same curiosity that had led her to question her sister’s sudden interest in daily outdoor activities.
Taking a moment to calm her racing heart, and hoping she wasn’t making a terrible mistake, Laurel tentatively pushed the door open.
“What are you doing?!” Chris hissed. Laurel didn’t respond, she was too shocked by the sight before her. Several curious students, including Nathan and Diana, both sidled up to her side to see what had captured her interest. Lying on the floor was an unconscious, singed Felix.
“What happened to him?” Diana asked with a furrowed brow.
“No idea,” Laurel murmured, looking around the dark hallway nervously. She shivered at the sight of a spider web, and the motionless jack-o-lantern at the far end. “Help me get him inside.”
Beth’s eyes snapped open suddenly, and she quickly heaved herself off the ground. She blinked, and looked around in confusion, trying to recall the moments that led up to her taking an unplanned nap in the middle of her form room. Ironically, it was probably the first time she actually had some respite from her chaotic thoughts. Now, it felt like every thought she ever had was fighting to reach the top of her mind, leaving her with one of the most awful headaches she had ever experienced.
Ignoring her throbbing head to the best of her ability, she looked around the room in a groggy haze, blinking slowly several times until everything came into focus. The classroom’s door had been blown off its hinges, leaving behind an exposed doorframe as an afterthought. Squinting through the lingering black fog and coughing to restore some feeling to her dry throat, Beth noticed the prone forms of Zoe and Dan lying on their backs, with their supply teacher hovering over them wielding an electric fan to ward off the smoke. Dorothy Mcshane, a UNIT agent. In a way, she supposed that it made sense. The calmness, the disregard for the police, the sudden disappearing acts, it was all very Sarah Jane-esque.
Dorothy finally looked down at her. For a while, neither of them spoke. Beth was still too fatigued to properly comprehend anything, and the woman seemed content to look at her, a calculating gleam in her eyes. She was probably trying to figure her out, like everybody else. The silence was awkward, but neither chose to break it.
“I’m guessing a bomb,” Dorothy replied, setting the fan down on a table. She leaned against it nonchalantly. “How are you feeling?”
“Sleepy,” Beth responded groggily. “And my head hurts.”
“It’ll wear off,” the woman assured her. She gestured towards the gaping opening. “We got lucky.”
“Still — we’re alive. That’s gotta count for something,” Dorothy retorted without missing a beat. She folded her arms, narrowed her eyes, and pursed her lips. “Just what the hell is going on?”
Before she could receive an answer, another voice interrupted the flow of the conversation.
“Oh, Miss Janine is gonna kill us.” Dorothy and Beth both looked down at Zoe, who had stirred to consciousness while their backs were turned, and was now looking around the room in disdain. As the fog cleared, Beth realised she was right. The corners of the walls were charred, and the singed posters hung loosely off the walls.
Zoe rested on her elbows. “And it stinks,” she added.
“Mm, pumpkin and gunpowder. Not a good mix,” Dorothy agreed. “But you’re awake now, at least.”
“Yeah. My head’s killing me, though.”
“Same,” Beth murmured.
Dorothy pushed herself off the table and strode towards the door. “Well, you’re going to have to suck it up. We have to move.”
Beth frowned. “Move?”
“We’re sitting ducks if we stay here.”
“For the pumpkins?” Zoe asked.
Zoe and Beth shared a grim look. Neither of them felt particularly well, but they both knew that they would be easy targets if they remained in one place for too long. They shared a brief nod, before Zoe pulled herself off the ground, steadied herself, and moved to pick up her discarded baseball bat.
“Hang on,” Beth spoke up, drawing attention towards her. “What about Dan?” she motioned towards her other friend’s prone form with her hand.
“Bring him with us. He’s in more danger if we leave him like this.” Dorothy replied, after a moment of hesitation. Beth nodded, and with Zoe’s help, pulled him to his feet. Observing him more closely, Beth was starting to truly notice how sickly Dan looked. Like the others, he was covered in black soot, but his breathing was ragged and heavy, his usually spiky hair dishevelled, and his exposed arm was covered in splotches of dried blood. As they dragged him along, Beth glanced at Zoe, who looked as worried as she was. She opted to check him over when things had settled down slightly.
They left the room and turned right, the opposite direction of the boy’s bathroom. Navigating themselves through the darkened corridor with the crimson light as their only source of light was difficult, and Beth found herself stumbling several times. The journey was silent, and tense. Dorothy led the way with her back to them, while Zoe alternated between looking at the path and her two friends. They passed several rooms, but found them to be locked.
Zoe was starting to wish that they had the sonic lipstick on hand. She thought about Sarah Jane, and how she would shepherd them to safety, when her thoughts drifted to something else and, in a burst of realisation, ground to a halt. “Hey,” she said, prompting Beth to stop as well. “Where’s my phone?”
“Phone?” Dorothy called back.
“Yeah. I need to call someone. You’ll know her, she’s a friend of UNIT’s.”
Dorothy suddenly stopped walking and cursed under her breath. “Phones!” She whirled around urgently, her eyes wide in panic. “I forgot the briefcase!”
“What, you left our phones?!” Beth demanded heatedly, patting her pocket involuntarily to steady her frayed nerves, but the woman merely pushed past them hastily.
Dorothy had stopped walking again. Zoe and Beth both craned their heads around to see a jack-o-lantern looking up at them, a comical expression carved into the surface. The expression slowly dissolved into a sinister one.
“Get back,” Dorothy breathed authoritatively. “All of you.”
Zoe and Beth obeyed, slowly pulling themselves and Dan backwards tentatively, afraid that they would set the bombs off if they moved too fast. They hardly knew anything about the jack-o-lanterns, so they couldn’t rule out the possibility that they were motion activated.
“It’s getting faster,” Beth pointed out nervously. She was right. The layers of the pumpkin were being stripped back faster than last time. Dorothy produced her gun from the pocket, aimed and shot it immediately. The resulting explosion was minimal compared to the one that had devastated them previously, but before they could celebrate the neutralised threat, several more streamed into the corridor.
“At least they’re not invincible,” Dorothy said, holding up her weapon almost triumphantly, before dropping it again. “But there’s a swarm on standby. Too many for me to shoot before an explosion hits us.”
Zoe looked to the front again and bit her lip apprehensively. “There’s more over here as well.”
“And here,” Beth spoke up, gesturing towards the windows. A horde of pumpkins had gathered outside the glass, leering at them menacingly.
“Great,” Dorothy muttered. She pivoted on her foot to survey the area calmly, a calmness that unnerved Zoe and Beth slightly — it wasn’t every day they got threatened by exploding jack-o-lanterns — before she pocketed her gun again and muttered under her breath, “Sod it. Come on!”
She hastily grabbed Zoe and Beth by the shoulders and propelled them, and their unconscious friend, through the nearest classroom door. Zoe stumbled onto the ground in shock, closely followed by Dan, who slumped over weightlessly.
“What are you doing?” Beth demanded.
“Buying us some time,” Dorothy replied coolly as she slammed the door shut behind them. “Come on.” She hauled Zoe and Dan to their feet and dragged them to the back of the room, with Beth trailing behind. The room was structured similarly to their form room, except there was a door on the far left of the room leading to a small storage cupboard connected with the adjoining classroom.
She shepherded the teenagers inside, and slammed the door shut.
“Oi, Felix. Wake up!”
No luck. Laurel sighed and leaned back again. No matter how hard she tried, her classmate wouldn’t wake up. The throng of students had gathered around her curiously, eyeing the unconscious boy with unease and interest.
“What’s up with him?” someone asked.
“Is he dead?” Kyle followed up bluntly.
“No,” Laurel stated firmly. She was sure of that. Beneath the soot and ragged appearance, Felix was still breathing. She rubbed her head in irritation; she had no idea what had happened to him, so she couldn’t do much to help him. They had set him down to rest on a blue mat to make him comfortable, but other than that…
She sighed, and pushed through the eager crowd, collapsing next to the surprisingly mute Nathan. He wrapped an arm around her shoulder, and Laurel leaned into the touch. He remained silent, never asking if she was okay, which was slightly annoying, but she didn’t speak out against it.
Eventually, his hand trailed down to the spot above her chest, and he leaned in closer still. “Wanna get out of here?”
She snorted at the line. “Smooth." Her smile waned when she noticed his determined expression. “Seriously?”
“Why not?” he shrugged casually. “Beats hanging around here all day.”
“We can’t, we have to wait for the police,” Laurel protested.
“The police are taking their time, ain’t they?” Nathan retorted. “And it was your sister who told you that. Guess what? She ain’t here either.”
Laurel hesitated. “I dunno…”
“Come on,” Nathan urged. “What’s the worst that could happen? Besides,” his hand rested on the junction between her neck and chest, and he leaned in closer still. “I’ll look after you.”
Laurel smiled at him, curling her hand around his. “Oh, yeah?”
“Hmm.” She looked away with a smile. “Sure, why not?”
Sarah Jane was in the attic, rifling through her drawers, when Sentinel appeared on the laptop screen.
“Any luck?” she asked, picked up a piece of paper — a preface for an article she had worked on last year — and promptly discarded it.
“There’s nothing in the UNIT database related to this Spectre bloke,” Sentinel replied.
“What about Torchwood?”
There was a momentary blip of silence. “No dice,” he eventually announced. Sarah Jane sighed dejectedly and collapsed in her chair, her search postponed. Sentinel noticed the change in atmosphere and asked, “You alright?”
Sarah Jane swivelled the chair aimlessly for a few seconds. “I’m just worried, Sentinel. This person — this creature — he’s dangerous. I only have so long before another person is killed to make a point, and I still don’t know anything about him.” She linked her fingers and tapped her thumbs in thought. “What about Zoe, Beth and Dan? Are they alright?”
“Dunno, I still can’t get in touch. Hang on,” Sentinel paused, and there was a whir. “I’m detecting an energy pulse.”
“What kind of energy pulse?”
Sarah Jane relaxed into her chair, and turned to look out the window distantly. Josh, Clyde, Rani, Sky, Melody — all the people she had failed. It seemed as though she had to be reminded of that fact every time she wished to move on. Her thoughts turned to Alfie, a potential casualty that she would have to add to her ever-increasing list. She thought about his joy, his anger, his determination, and she suddenly felt very guilty that the one time she had considered accepting him into her life, he had wound up lost.
“Oh, Alfie. Where are you?”
No home for you.
No home for you.
No home --
As if a veil had been lifted, Alfie’s eyes snapped open, and he gasped, instantly regretting his impulsive action. He brought a hand to shield his eyes from a sudden bright glare. He slowly moved it, and squinted at his surroundings. The landscape stretched as far as he could see, and it was constantly shifting; he was stood in a forest one minute, and a hut the next. There was nothing distinctive about the areas, they all passed by fluidly, until he was left standing in an expansive room. The only defining features were the sterile white walls, and the white fog that crawled along the floor sluggishly, obscuring his trainers from sight.
“Hello?” he said quietly, shivering when his voice reverberated off the walls. No response. He coughed and spoke a little louder, “Yo, anyone out there?”
The voice was gentle, almost sonorous, and it filled Alfie with the most potent dread that he had ever experienced. He slowly turned around to see a funnel of mist materialise in the far left of the room. The funnel coalesced and formed a cloaked slender shape. Tendrils of white mist wrapped around each other to form a scythe, which the figure grabbed. Alfie watched as he sliced the air to dispel the lingering fog, and gulped nervously.
Beth flinched when she heard another crash. “They’re going to break in sooner or later,” she pointed out.
“I know, but at least we have time to think of a plan,” Dorothy responded. Zoe fidgeted nervously with the baseball bat, flipping it over in her hands. She felt like a sitting duck, a feeling that she loathed. Her thoughts turned to Sarah Jane, and she wondered if her older friend was already on the offensive, trying to find a way to deactivate the portal and get to them.
She sighed, and turned to look at Beth, who was inspecting Dan with a frown and knitted brows. He was resting on spare textbooks they had found lying around the room. His face was drenched in sweat, his breathing ragged and his hair matted to his forehead.
“What’s wrong with him?” she asked. “Why’s he like this?”
“I dunno,” Beth admitted. “Maybe something’s blocking his trachea?”
“Gas attack?” Zoe speculated.
“Maybe,” Beth shrugged. “I’ll need a first-aid kit.”
“To clean up that so he doesn’t get an infection,” Beth gestured towards the bloody gash on his arm. “And to give him something for his temperature. There should be some medicine in the kit.”
“Right,” Zoe nodded. “Smart. Except ...”
“I need to get it from the nurse’s office,” Beth finished off with a grim nod. “Yep.”
“Oh,” Dorothy breathed. “That’s lousy luck, but he looks like he needs it.”
“Mm,” Beth murmured in agreement. She turned to the UNIT agent and said, “I’ll get the first aid kit.”
“It’s dangerous,” Dorothy warned, but it was half-hearted. She was clearly aware of their extracurricular activities.
“We’re always in danger,” Beth retorted dismissively. “And I know the way. It’ll be faster.”
“She’s got a point,” Zoe proclaimed.
“Alright,” Dorothy conceded. “But be careful, yeah?” At Beth’s nod, Dorothy produced her gun, and pushed the door slightly ajar. She poked her head through the gap and, once satisfied that the room was clear, stepped forward into the classroom, with Beth trailing behind her cautiously.
“Finally,” Zoe remarked as she picked up the baseball bat and followed suit. “Something to do.”
Sentinel’s voice snapped the journalist out of her thoughts, and she swivelled around to face the computer screen. “Yes, Sentinel? Have you found something?”
“I have.” There was a whir, and the kaleidoscopic colours on the screen were replaced by scrolling green text, hovering from one side of the screen to the next. “I was scanning my archives when I stumbled across this. I cross-referenced this case with our current one, and there seems to be a correlation to this event.”
“Just a minute, Sentinel,” Sarah Jane interrupted, squinting at the screen. “What exactly am I looking at?”
It was the image of a burning village. Charred huts falling into disrepair, and large plumes of smoke polluted the air. The mere sight made Sarah Jane’s heart ache with despair, but there was something that caught her attention. In the centre of the image, the heart of the grey smoke, was a shapeless figure, staring right at her. It piqued her curiosity.
“Oh, I see. What is that?” she asked. “In the fog?”
Alfie clenched and unclenched his fist nervously, looking over at the figure staring at him silently. He met Alfie’s gaze motionlessly, or so Alfie thought — it was difficult to determine his expression under the hood.
It took an excruciatingly long time for Alfie to muster up the energy for his usual bravado. “So…” he started awkwardly. “How ya doing?”
The figure didn’t respond. There was something innately familiar about him that Alfie couldn’t pin down. It was as if a name was on the tip of his tongue.
“Don’t I know you?” he asked,
The figure stepped forward suddenly, crashing the bottom of his scythe into the ground. Alfie recoiled as if he had been burned, the tips of his fingers brushing against the ice-cold mist. They circled and swirled around his hand mesmerisingly, before they were dispelled by the force of a shock wave generated by the scythe.
Alfie gaped at the figure. “What was that for?”
“You are… afraid, boy,” the figure responded in a low, raspy voice, tilting his head slightly. As if a lock had been opened, Alfie’s mind jolted with recognition, and he remembered a name.
“The Spectre,” he murmured. The creature in the barn who had sounded confused. The one who had paralysed him. The one who told him that there wasn’t a home left for him anymore.
“Correct,” the creature responded.
Alfie shifted nervously. He had seen what the Spectre was capable of first-hand. Shape-shifting, paralysis, elusiveness, cryptic speech. “The ... Soul Reaper,” Alfie said.
“Correct,” the Spectre repeated monotonously.
“You trapped me,” Alfie continued, his memories rapidly unlocking in bursts. “You — you want Sarah Jane’s soul, innit?”
The Spectre merely stared mutely. Alfie wished he could see under the hood. He would be able to determine his guesses off facial expressions instead of throwing theories around blindly.
“You want Sarah Jane’s soul,” Alfie said with more conviction. “And you trapped me here as — I dunno — bait.”
“Your soul is mine now. You are trapped here,” The Spectre, in a rare act of sociability, responded. His voice was perpetually stuck between an unnerving whisper and hiss, and Alfie often found himself straining his ears.
“Here…?” Alfie trailed off, fishing for more information, but the Spectre didn’t take the bait. He sighed, before straightening as comprehension flooded his features. “Hang on. I’m here, which means that you, like, took my soul.”
“Correct,” the Spectre responded. “Your soul belongs to me now.”
“No, it don’t.” Alfie took a step back, grinned, and crossed his arms confidently. “You can’t take souls. Sarah Jane said so.”
The Spectre remained silent, but it merely bolstered Alfie’s confidence.
“You need my agreement or summat. So wherever we are, it ain’t Soul-Hell. Am I right or what?”
Slowly, finally, the Spectre responded. “Correct.”
Alfie grinned. “I called your bluff, mate. Also — no offence or anything — but your hood is manky. Why you hiding your face? Bad perm?”
The Spectre advanced another two steps forward, and crashed his scythe against the ground again. The resulting clang and shockwave made Alfie jump back in surprise, his confidence abandoning him. If his soul hadn’t been taken away, it meant that he was still alive — which implied that he could still be killed.
Before he could talk himself out of trouble, like he always did with Miss Janine, the Spectre’s bony hands moved to the grey hood. He slowly pulled it down to reveal a horrific face that made Alfie want to gag. Beneath the cloak was what could only be described as a skeleton. Black empty eye sockets sunk deep into a bony, withered human-shaped skull, with a thin curve for lips, twisted into a perpetual sneer. Bits of skin and flesh clung limply to his body, and a large slash ran from the jut of his chin to the spot where his right ear would have been located.
Alfie looked down quickly, suddenly feeling very nauseous. He tried to calm his stomach and force the bile down his throat. It wasn’t as if he was a coward or weak-stomached — he had seen multiple horror movies throughout his life — but there was a stark difference between looking at something hideous on TV, and seeing it first-hand. When he finally mustered up the courage to look up, the Spectre was directly in front of him. He could feel the creature’s breath on his face, and froze. A bony hand reached out for him and, before he could protest, tightly gripped his face.
They didn’t have a great deal of time and only had a small window of opportunity, so they made the most of it.
Kicking the door open once they were sure that the jack-o-lantern’s would be caught slightly off-guard, Dorothy emerged and shot the ones in the distance before they had the chance to detonate. Zoe appeared behind her, ducked, and swung at those that tried to lunge at them with her baseball bat. Periodically, they would stop to shield themselves from the smaller explosions, before pressing forward again, intent on clearing a path.
A minute or two into their assault, Beth emerged from the room and, with a burst of speed, hurried down the hall. Most of the jack-o-lanterns were distracted by her two friends, but several stopped to watch her and even attempted to block her path, gnashing at her with their razor sharp teeth. Beth steadied her nerves, took a breath, and leaped over the pumpkins before sprinting down the hall.
Zoe watched her go, feeling a mild sense of relief. “She’s through,” she informed Dorothy while swiping at a jack-o-lantern that lunged at them. It flew into the wall, dropped on the floor, and rolled harmlessly to their feet. The orange light flickered out of its carved eyes.
“It’s been defused,” Dorothy realised, looking down briefly from her onslaught with a curious expression. “Pick it up.”
“It could be useful.” She pocketed her gun, hurried to the classroom door and held it open for Zoe. “Come on!”
Zoe obediently picked up the defused bomb, pulled herself to her feet and narrowly avoided the remaining pumpkins by flinging herself into the room. Dorothy slammed the door shut behind her, and they ran into the storage room just before a loud explosion left their ears ringing.
“Nightwalkers,” Sarah Jane repeated, simply to see how it rolled off the tongue. It was a very ominous name for a race. She turned to the computer with a thoughtful frown. “I can’t say I’ve heard of them.”
“The Nightwalkers, as they are referred to colloquially, are a species of dream-eating predators commonly found near black holes. They are said to prowl through lost ships, preying on crew-members for sustenance. Their origins and official designation — if they have one — are unknown.”
Sarah Jane tapped her thumbs together. “What about their planet?”
“Planet of origin is also unknown,” Sentinel replied smoothly.
“While this is interesting, I don’t see the connection between the Spectre and these Nightwalkers,” Sarah Jane admitted.
“As previously stated, the Nightwalkers are commonly known as dream-eating predators, but they also have another method of operation — by taking the form of their designated target’s loved one.”
That caught Sarah Jane’s attention. She leaned forward curiously. “The Spectre also takes the form of his target’s loved ones.”
“Exactly,” The kaleidoscope of colours on the computer screen was replaced by a newspaper clipping dated 1965. Sarah Jane read it aloud:
“And though Messier 74 has been left behind, The nightmares shall linger, and walk with him eternal, They can change their face, their being, at will, They can plead “Grandfather, please” to their heart’s content But they can never replace the memory of what once was. It could be years, centuries, eons before that happened - he could change half a dozen times before then. But for her, it would only be a small measure of time.”
“By Barbara Chesterton,” Sentinel finished. “It was an extract from a book that was never published, originally thought to be a romance, but —”
“We know better,” Sarah Jane firmly stated. “So, someone’s had an encounter with the Nightwalkers and survived. Any such luck with the Spectre?”
Sarah Jane leaned back in her chair, trying to squash the hope brimming in her chest. She didn’t have a plan yet, but if Barbara Chesterton, a woman Sarah Jane knew to be a former companion of the Doctor, had managed to survive an encounter with the Nightwalkers — a species that the Spectre could very well be a part of — then she had a fighting chance.
Flashes of the past filled Alfie’s mind. The memories were quick, lucid fragments of torment and pain, but they weren’t his. He had an inkling that they were the Spectre’s memories.
Darkness submerged him as if he was underwater, blocking out any source of light. The memories dripped into vision like drops of rainwater cascading off a rooftop. There was a ceremony of some sort, with a handsome, square-jawed man waving at a cheering crowd while he was crowned.
Then there was a large black beetle, scuttling towards him eagerly as a Chinese woman watched with a callous smile.
The image was replaced by a woman with flowing blonde hair and a septum piercing, her hazel green eyes twinkling in the darkness like a pair of precious emeralds. Her wine-red lips parted into a smile to reveal bloodstained teeth, and she screamed right at him. He collapsed into himself in pain. It felt as if a door had been ripped off its hinges and thrown straight at him, leaving him winded. The force of the scream was as devastating as a hurricane, and the noise made his ears ring loudly.
Then, the image was replaced by one of a burning city. It might have been glorious, once, with the gleaming sapphire jewel atop a domed citadel like a beacon, the winding, complex, intricate transport systems, and the snaking river travelling throughout the city, but all of it had been burned and wilted before his eyes. People screamed loudly in pain and fear, and fiery explosions destroyed everything in their path. It was a devastating display. A figure stood over the chaos, like a messiah, obscured by a black cloak. A shiver travelled up his spine when he heard the figure laugh. It was a deep sound that reverberated around the air commandingly, filling his being with dread and fear.
Alfie pulled back with a gasp, tripping over his feet and landing in the cold white mist with a thump. “What was that?” he uttered, looking up at the Spectre accusingly. “Why’d you show me that?” He heaved a gasp and continued. “Was that… your past?”
The Spectre didn’t respond. He merely watched as Alfie struggled to control his shuddering breaths with an unreadable expression. Even without the cloak, there was no way to determine what the soul harvester was thinking. He advanced on Alfie again, towering over him with an empty stare. He raised his scythe, tapped the floor twice, waited until the ringing stopped and sliced the air.
With reflexes that surprised even himself, Alfie rolled out of the way before it made contact with his torso, his eyes wide in surprise and fear. He had almost died. If that scythe had made contact, he didn’t know what would have happened. His heart hammered in his chest. He had the peculiar feeling that this wasn’t the first time his life had been threatened. Alfie clasped the dog tags wrapped around his neck for support, and he pulled himself to his feet and ran. He didn’t know where he was going, but he knew he had to get away from the murderous alien with the scythe.
The fog wrapped around the Spectre as he watched the boy flee, his body slowly melting away into the shadow. Alfie spared a glance behind him, gulped, and gained speed. The thought of being hunted through the shadows, where he couldn’t see his assailant, made him nervous. His loud footfalls reverberated off the walls, and his heart beat loudly in his chest.
He had to get away.
Zoe and Dorothy sat in silence, both immersed in their individual activities. Zoe kept an eye on the door with her baseball bat in hand, placed protectively over the sleeping form of Dan and the entrance in case they were compromised. Dorothy sat hunched over the pumpkin, poking and prodding intently for any hidden mechanisms.
“It’s quiet outside,” Zoe said, partly to alleviate the quiet.
“Yeah, it is,” Dorothy agreed, her lips curving into a smile. “Maybe they saw sense and did a runner.”
Zoe laughed at the thought. “Tail between their feet?”
“Exactly.” The pair shared a brief laugh, before Dorothy returned to her pumpkin-studying.
Carefully, Zoe set down her baseball bat and sat down next to Dan, gingerly pressing a hand to his forehead to check his temperature. He had cooled down marginally, to her relief. She pulled her hand away, grimaced at the clammy sweat that clung to it, and wiped it on her jeans.
“How is he?” Dorothy asked without looking up.
“Getting better, hopefully,” Zoe responded.
“Yeah.” Zoe looked at the pumpkin curiously. “Is it dead?”
“Yup. Well, as dead as a pumpkin can be, I suppose.”
“I suppose,” Zoe agreed. Her eyes narrowed accusingly at the inanimate object. “It was in the toilet with us when we found Lee. All that time and we never considered it.”
“No. Well, I was close enough,” Dorothy said. When Zoe raised a quizzical brow, she clarified. “When you were all heading to the gym, I thought that, maybe, the murderer was under our nose the whole time — hiding in a toilet stall.”
“So, that’s where you went?” Zoe inquired. “To check the toilets?”
Zoe drew a breath. “Never even thought of that,” she admitted. “Smart. I guess you have to be to join UNIT.” She looked up at Dorothy, a new question on her mind. “Why’d they send you here, anyway? You didn’t know about the body or anything.”
“I didn’t. I was sent here for a different case,” Dorothy said. “Last night, our monitors picked up an energy pulse in the area. Baffled even the best and brightest of our lot.”
“Seriously?” Zoe frowned. “I don’t remember anything like that. Maybe you should check with Sarah Jane.”
Dorothy stirred with renewed interest. “Sarah Jane?”
“Smith. Heard of her?”
The UNIT agent nodded. “She’s popular within UNIT. Like an urban myth.”
“What, like Batman?” Zoe said jokingly.
Dorothy chuckled at the thought. “Something like that.”
“She should have been here by now. She’s always here by now,” Zoe said nervously.
“She’ll come. I might not have met her, but I know that she’ll show up sooner or later. She’s an old friend of Kate’s. That’s gotta mean something.”
“True.” “She told me all about you lot, too.”
Zoe blinked. “Us?”
“Yeah.” Dorothy gestured towards Dan with her right hand, her left inspecting the edges of the pumpkin’s carved eyes. “You and him, Beth, Luke and all the rest.” She smiled at Zoe’s confused expression. “Didn’t think you’d get recognised?”
“Well, yeah, in a way.” Zoe looked down and fixed Dan’s shirt collar absently-mindedly. “Just — I didn’t think UNIT would actually know who we are. I only met her last year.”
“You’d be surprised.”
Zoe hummed in response. She believed Dorothy. There was always something new around the corner, good or bad, to surprise her.
“And,” Dorothy said, “Josh spoke of you, especially.”
Zoe rolled her eyes. “Carter? That makes sense.”
Josh Carter was a UNIT agent, and Kate’s right-hand man, who had stormed into Sarah Jane’s house during an investigation and incurred her wrath. Zoe had butted heads with him and traded witty quips whenever they got the chance. The blame fell squarely on his shoulders for provoking her by unwittingly patronising her intelligence.
She tensed when she heard a crash on the other side of the door, immediately grabbed the baseball bat and spun to face the door. She, along with her new friend, waited with bated breath, expecting something to jump out and attack them.
Zoe relaxed and slumped back onto the ground after a few minutes had elapsed and nothing happened,. “Thought something was gonna happen then,” she muttered. When she didn’t receive a response, she craned her neck to look at Dorothy, who was staring at her with an undecipherable expression. “What’s up?”
The corners of Dorothy’s lips curved into a smile, as if she was indulging herself in a private joke. “Baseball bats really come in handy, don’t they?”
Zoe was taken aback by the spontaneous question. It took her a few seconds to formulate an answer. “Er, yeah. Really useful for beating up aliens and losers.”
Dorothy snorted at that. “I agree.”
“I got a bat from my cousin, James,” Zoe revealed quietly. “Not this one, The one at my house. He got it for me at Christmas. Says he learned from —,” her breath hitched, “From my mum.”
If Dorothy had noticed the pause, she didn’t mention it. “And did she beat up losers with a baseball bat?”
“I wouldn’t put it past her,” Zoe chuckled sombrely. She pressed her gold necklace between her fingers automatically. It provided her with a semblance of comfort. “She’s been gone for a while now. I still miss her. Not as much as I used to, but… it’s still there. I don’t think I’ll ever really be over it.”
“You must have loved her.”
“All my heart,” Zoe said, repeating a phrase her mother often used. She hated repeating it. It was too sappy and the words didn’t feel right when she said it but, at that moment, she felt that they were apt.
“Me and my mum, we were like a pair of nuclear bombs ready to go off. God, how we used to row. I hated her growing up. She wouldn’t let me do anything. Not even Chemistry.” Dorothy put her hands on her lap, her eyes glazed over by painful memories, the pumpkin forgotten. “But then she died and I — I couldn’t —” Her hands tightened into fists and her nostrils flared.
“It messed you up, and you hated that you couldn’t go back and help her,” Zoe said quietly, thinking back to her own thoughts three years ago.
“Uh-huh.” It took several seconds for Dorothy to compose herself. She took a shuddering breath, and resumed her inspection of the pumpkin.
Zoe let it drop. It was the most emotion she had seen from the UNIT agent since they had met, and she had a feeling that if she tried to pry too much, the woman would raise her barriers and close herself off. She looked up at the ceiling, basking in the quietness for a brief second. “I hate Chemistry,” she said offhandedly. “Just saying.”
Dorothy chuckled at her abrupt statement, which was what Zoe was aiming for. “I loved it. Didn’t stop me failing it, though.”
“Seriously.” Dorothy’s glum mood quickly dissipated and she smiled cheerily at Zoe. “Still, who needs school? I flunked, and I learned how to make explosives.”
“Respect!” Zoe moved over to high-five her new friend. They shared a grin, in spite of the situation. Dorothy looked at Zoe again with that unreadable expression. A small cough caught their attention, and they turned to see Dan stir restlessly. Zoe smiled. “He’s definitely getting better. Hope Beth’s made it to the office okay.”
“I’m sure she’s fine,” Dorothy reassured her. “It’s been dead quiet.”
“Yeah. Yeah, it has, actually.” Zoe’s smile faded and she looked at the door distractedly. “Why is it so quiet?”
“Well, they’re either looking for another way in… or…”
“Or?” Zoe turned to her, puzzled. “Or what?”
“Or they’re going after someone else instead.”
Zoe’s eyes widened in alarm. “Beth?”
“Not just her. The other students. You said they were in the gym.”
“And they don’t know they have to defend themselves,” Zoe realised. She cursed under her breath, grabbed the bat, and bolted for the door. “I’ve got to go.”
“Knock ‘em dead!” Dorothy called out after her. There was a trace of amusement in her tone. “And be careful!”
Zoe spared a thumbs up, left the storage room and hastily made her way to the front of the classroom. Pulling the door open and checking the coast was clear, Zoe turned left and hurried towards the staircase.
She passed her form room, and abruptly stopped. The phones were still locked in the briefcase. She pushed the door open and made a beeline for the desk, staring at the board as she went. Beth’s name was still scrawled onto it, but the atomic numbers were starting to fade. Pulling the bottom drawer open.
Thankfully, the brown briefcase was still intact, after a quick check, so were their phones. Zoe pulled her phone out, and clicked the case shut. Scowling at the low battery, she snapped a picture of the board for later examination, grabbed the case and left the room. She still had to save her classmates.
Beth crept down the hallway as quietly as she could. It was eerie — shadows cast by seemingly nothing danced off the walls, and darkness seemed to stretch on as far as the eye could see. She didn’t dare turn her phone’s light on, in case the jack-o-lantern army noticed it. The air was thick with the stench of explosives and burned objects, and the brittle wallpaper crumbled at her touch.
The caretaker’s going to have a field day, Beth thought ruefully, She sighed in relief when she turned a corner and finally reached the infirmary. Her elation was short-lived. She tensed as soon as she heard something shuffle behind the infirmary door, out of her sight. She hastily looked around the corridor for a weapon, and scowled when she couldn’t find anything useful. Deciding to wing it for Dan’s sake after hearing another shuffle, Beth furtively pressed herself against the wall adjacent to the infirmary entrance and, after noticing that the door was slightly ajar, peered in through the gap. When her eyes landed on the source of the noise, her expression hardened, and she pushed the door open aggressively.
Jolting away from each other with remarkable speed were Laurel and Nathan. Both were stood by the nurse’s oak desk
“Beth!” Laurel, who looked the most chastised of the two, squeaked nervously. “It’s ... not what it looks like.”
“Mhm.” Beth swiftly moved to the shelf on the left side of the room, roughly pushing past Nathan as she did so.
“Honestly, it’s not,” Laurel continued, wringing her hands awkwardly. “We were —”
“I know what you were doing,” Beth interrupted scathingly. She stood on her tiptoes and retrieve the green first aid box from the top shelf. She fluidly flipped the cover open and checked the contents; recently-updated paracetamol, bandages, non-alcoholic wipes — everything that she needed.
“Well, you’d be right for once,” Nathan drawled lewdly.
“Shut up,” Laurel hissed furiously, utterly mortified by the turn of events. “Seriously, let me explain.”
Beth waited for an explanation as she double-checked the first aid kit. Satisfied, she turned back to her sister with an arched brow, but Laurel’s attention — as well as Nathan’s — was fixed on something outside the window. She followed their gaze, and her breath hitched when she realised they were staring at the moving jack-o-lanterns.
“I need to lay off the brownies,” Nathan muttered offhandedly, but Beth was too occupied by her self-deprecating thoughts to pay him any attention. She had forgotten all about the jack-o-lanterns outside of the classroom, and had assumed the red barrier prevented anything from entering, instead of pondering on what had already entered the premises.
“Aw, it’s cute.” Laurel’s face contorted in puzzlement. “Hang on, why’s it glowing?”
Beth’s head whipped to the window again. The pumpkin at the front of the horde was glowing a whitish-gold. The outer layers of its case peeled away like the skin of an orange. Its eyes narrowed into slit pupils, and a sinister sneer curled onto its face. Acting on the adrenaline pumping in her veins, Beth grabbed Laurel and Nathan by their sleeves, and dragged them out of the room.
“Beth!” Laurel protested.
“We have to move,” Beth snapped, breaking into a sprint. “Run!” she commanded over her shoulder. Laurel and Nathan exchanged a brief confused glance, before Laurel ran after her. Nathan hesitated for a second longer, but he chased after them as soon as the window in the infirmary shattered from the force of the resulting explosion.
Laurel shrieked in terror, and Beth winced. This wasn’t what she wanted; she didn’t want her sister to be endangered by her lifestyle. “Come on!” she yelled with more conviction.
“Where are we going?” Laurel cried out.
“Just follow me!”
“You cannot run, Alfie.”
Alfie ignored the voice, and mustered an extra burst of speed. He shot through the murky white fog as fast as he could. The environment continued to shift before his eyes, from jungles to desolate cities. There was small pockets of shadow wherever he went, slowly stretching towards him.
“Why are you doing this?” he demanded. “Don’t you have a reason? Tell me!” He turned a corner, and stumbled into an abandoned office block, the ground covered in large sheets of white mist. “Those people — you know them, didn’t you?”
“They were my people,” the Spectre’s raspy voice drifted into his ear.
Alfie’s sweaty brows furrowed in confusion as he ran. “Your people?” he panted, leaping out of the window and rolling into a decrepit city shrouded in fog as if he had jumped off a ground-floor balcony. “What are you, royalty?”
“Once,” the Spectre conceded. “I was a... prince. Then they came and showed me the light. Showed my people the light.”
“They were destroyed,” Alfie noted. “That sucks, man.”
“They were not destroyed,” the Spectre countered, his voice more assertive in Alfie’s ear. “They were … offered salvation.”
The terrain steadily crumbled and thinned from the sturdiness of whatever he was standing on, to weaker material that he couldn’t describe. It felt like sand under his feet, but from the brief glimpses he caught from beneath the fog, it looked like concrete. It was like a solidified ice cube left at room temperature, gradually disintegrated from a solid, to water, to gas, until there was nothing left at all.
He cried out as the ground gave way beneath his feet, and he shot out his hand, desperately flailing for something to latch onto. His slippery hand grasped onto something solid, halting his chaotic descent, and he used it to hoist himself up. It wasn’t until Alfie was stood on solid ground — or whatever passed for solid ground in the fluid realm he was stuck in — that he realised that he had held onto a lamp post for dear life.
“You’re off your head.” Alfie stooped over to catch his breath. “You need help, mate.”
“And in turn, you must learn to stop running. It is futile, Alfie. I am coming for you.” The Spectre’s voice lowered even more, until he was barely a whisper. “Give me your soul.”
Unsettled, Alfie started running again.
Sarah Jane turned to face the computer — she had become distracted with researching potential locations for her meeting place with the Spectre — with interest. “Found something?”
“I have.” It might have been Sarah Jane’s imagination, but Sentinel sounded incredibly reluctant. The computer screen wallpaper was replaced by a line of undecipherable black text, like a computer code, and an image popped up.
It was a grainy quality image of a burning village, with large futuristic apartment complexes instead of huts with thatched roofs. Sarah Jane squinted, and could determine a figure shrouded in the thick black plumes of smog. “The Spectre, I presume?” she said, though she didn’t require an answer.
“Yup. On the Sunset Planet of Athena Major.”
Sarah Jane furrowed her brow in confusion. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“You wouldn’t have. It was destroyed thousands of years ago. I only found this image from an info-pack issued by the Shadow Proclamation,” Sentinel explained. “Apparently, they were slaughtered. Not a single living creature remained. The planet was left as a barren land of corpses.”
“That’s awful,” Sarah Jane murmured sympathetically, shuddering at the thought. A wasteland of bodies. Maybe that was how he could change his appearance so easily. She shook her head in an attempt to rid herself of the thoughts and refocused on the situation. “Anything else?”
The image shifted to a small pink and blue planet, barely larger than the size of her thumb on the screen. “The pleasure planet Shinto. Documents state that the renowned Sakura Springs Recreational Resort was built on the remains of a slain village, with nothing but a row of deceased bodies.”
“How’s it linked to the current situation?”
“Kami eyewitness reports state that the bodies had pale faces, with drool running down their cheeks.”
Sarah Jane sighed, feeling the small glimmers of optimism disappearing. “Just like the french teacher.”
“Exactly.” There was a moment of silence, before Sentinel asked the contemplative Sarah Jane, “What are you thinking?”
“Are there other — similar — cases?” Sarah Jane asked, her voice quiet.
“Yes.” Sentinel was blunt, but Sarah Jane wouldn’t have him any other way.
The journalist sighed, and swivelled on her chair for a few seconds, in deep thought. “There’s no other way, is there, Sentinel? I have to meet him. I have to meet the Spectre.”
“We could still think of another plan—”
“He told me that I had until the sun’s end,” Sarah Jane retorted. “That doesn’t give us a great deal of time.”
“You’ve succeeded under more extenuating circumstances. Remember Androvax? I wasn’t there, but you stopped him.”
“That may be so, but he still has Alfie.” Sarah Jane exhaled a long, drawn-out sigh that she hadn’t even realised she was keeping. “I have to do this, Sentinel. Maybe I can trade myself for Alfie’s survival.”
“There’s no stopping you, is there?” Sentinel asked as Sarah Jane rose from the chair. He sighed audibly. “I’ll take that as a no, then, shall I?”
Sarah Jane ignored him and picked up her phone. “Any luck with Zoe, Beth and Dan?”
“None,” Sentinel replied. “And I couldn’t match the energy pulse to the ones in my database.”
Sarah Jane bit her lip to contain her frustration. Just something else to add to her growing list of things that were going wrong. “If you do get through to them,” she said slowly, “Make sure you tell them what’s going on. And that they shouldn’t come after me and… if things go wrong, tell them that I’m sorry. And thank them for everything they’ve done for me.”
“I will,” Sentinel vowed.
“Thank you,” Sarah Jane breathed as she pushed the trapdoor open and stepped out of the attic. “I’ll see you soon, Sentinel.”
I hope. The words lingered on her tongue, but she didn’t vocalise them. She didn’t want to believe that this time, she wouldn’t be coming back. And she was certain that, beneath all his sarcastic antics, Sentinel didn’t want to believe that either.
“It wasn’t what it looked like,” Laurel said. They had evaded the pumpkin army a few corridors ago and were now walking back to the storage cupboard at a fervent pace.
“Course it wasn’t,” Beth scoffed in disbelief.
“I swear! We were gonna, but then you showed up!”
“Oh, sure, that makes it better,” Beth retorted sarcastically. She pushed the classroom door open roughly and barged inside, not waiting for Laurel or the surprisingly quiet Nathan. She stormed into the storage room, to find it empty apart from the unconscious Dan. Neither Zoe or Dorothy were present. Beth looked around in confusion.
Laurel and Nathan poked their heads through the door, puzzled. “What’re we doing here?”
“I can think of a few reasons,” Nathan said salaciously, prompting Beth to roll her eyes.
Laurel threw her hands up in exasperation. “Look, Beth, let me just —”
“Beth?” The party of three looked down to see Dan, rolled onto his side, staring up at them with big doe eyes, a flicker of confusion evident in his features. His voice was hoarse, and his face had a grungy pallor. “Oh, my head’s killing me. What’s going on?”
Beth knelt down beside him, and gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “You passed out,” she explained gently.
Dan made a small noise that sounded distinctly like a whine. “Great. That’s not embarrassing at all.”
The corners of Beth’s lips tugged into a smile. She popped the first aid kit open and produced the paracetamol. “I’ve brought you some painkillers for your head. How’re you feeling?”
“Like... I’ve been running for days without... water,” Dan said slowly, taking deep, prolonged breaths between his speech, like a man on his deathbed.
Beth pursed her lips, popped a paracetamol tablet out of the packet, and looked around for her backpack. She cursed under her breath, realising that she had lost it somewhere in the school during the chaos. “Anyone got water?”
“Here.” Laurel slid her backpack off her shoulders, rummaged through it, and produced a half-empty water bottle. She moved over to sit by her sister. “Use mine.”
Beth wordlessly took the water out of her hands, helped Dan swallow the tablet and drink some water. He didn’t immediately look better — even though she wished that was possible — but he stopped shaking as violently. He even managed to muster a small smile.
“How’re you feeling, Dan?” Laurel asked softly. Despite their few short interactions, Laurel considered him a friend.
“Like Zoe whacked me with a baseball bat,” Dan said weakly. Beth and Laurel chuckled at his joke, while Dan looked around in confusion. “Where is she, anyway?”
The smile faded from Beth’s face. “I dunno,” she admitted. “You should get some rest, though?”
“Don’t know?” Dan repeated in alarm. “Is she okay? Is she hurt?”
“She’s probably fine,” Beth assured him. “You know Zoe. Come on, Dan. You look like you’ll pass out any minute.”
“I’m fine,” he mumbled petulantly, but allowed Beth to guide his head back to his makeshift pillow. He shuffled into a more comfortable position, and looked at her intently. “I feel like we’re playing doctors and nurses.”
Beth rolled her eyes. “We never played doctors and nurses.”
“If we did, this is probably what it’d feel like.”
Beth smiled, and gave her friend’s hand a gentle squeeze. “Go on. Sleep. I’ll explain everything when you’re up.”
“Sleep… yeah… sleep sounds good right about now…” Dan murmured as his eyes slowly closed. He fell asleep almost instantly. Laurel moved back to sit by a cabinet, Nathan was sat by the door, and Beth rested her head against the stack of folders next to Dan, quietly wondering where Zoe and Dorothy had disappeared to.
Zoe stampeded through the hallway energetically, her heart pumping vigorously in her chest. The suitcase and baseball bat flew back and forth wildly in her hands, and traces of a spider’s web stuck to her hair from when she accidentally ran straight through one. She turned the corner, and froze.
The gym was in sight across the darkened hallway. The twin doors were shut, and surrounded by several lit jack-o-lanterns, who turned to face her, their emotionless carvings sinisterly casting elongated shadows along the walls.
Zoe cursed her luck, but maintained her composure. She was determined to protect her classmates. Taking a deep breath to steady her nerves, she started running before her impulsive, adrenaline-fuelled actions were betrayed by rational thoughts. She thundered across the hallway and when she was a stone’s throw away from the pumpkins, propelled herself upwards and leaped over them.
Her plan worked, and soon she was securely planted right next to the gym. She threw herself at the doors and tried to pull them open, but they refused to budge. She grunted and exerted more strength, but the doors did not yield. The pumpkins seemed to finally realise where she was, and slowly spun around to face her.
“Oi!” she cried out. “Let me in!”
The jack-o-lanterns were slowly advancing towards her, the outer layers of their shells already peeling away. Zoe continued to tug at the door with renewed vigour. Eventually, she stopped and turned to face her assailants, choosing fight over flight. She raised her bat, ready to hit them, when a pair of hands gripped her arm and pulled her backwards. Zoe stumbled into the gym, and spun around, wildly flailing the bat around.
“Woah!” Felix ducked just in time to avoid getting hit, and looked at Zoe accusingly. “Watch it!”
“Oh!” Zoe relaxed instantly, setting the briefcase down to punch Felix on the arm. He looked at her in betrayal, but she merely scowled. “Don’t sneak up on me like that!”
“I didn’t,” he countered grumpily. “Man, you hit hard.”
“Well, next time, don’t sneak up on me.”
“I didn’t —”
“Yeah, yeah, I heard you the first time.” Zoe looked around the room, and was surprised to realise that, as far as she could tell, all the students were still present. Diana was sat at the back alone, looking at her curiously. Zoe ignored her, turned back to Felix, and realised he was drenched in sweat and soot, like Dan. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” He paused, scratching the back of his head almost sheepishly. “I got attacked by pumpkins.”
“Same,” Zoe agreed. “They’re outside right now.”
“I know. That’s why nobody’s leaving.” He squinted at her. “What’s going on? There are exploding pumpkins walking around and — I tried to leave the school but there was this… thing stopping me — like a barrier.”
Zoe briefly considered telling him the truth, but chose not to, deciding that it would take up more time than they had. She rummaged through the briefcase, pocketed two iPhones — Beth and Dan’s mobiles — and pulled out a Blackberry — her phone. She pressed a few buttons, hoping Sentinel would show up. To her delight, the kaleidoscopic colours flickered onto her screen, dimly curling around the centre.
She turned away from Felix and hunched over her phone. “Sentinel?” she whispered.
“Finally!” Sentinel whispered back. “I’m furious with you lot! Why didn’t you keep your phones on? The one time you decide to be rebels, and there’s a murdering shape-shifting alien running around the village!”
“It’s a long story,” Zoe hissed back, before considering his statement. “Hang on — what?”
“Never mind that!” Sentinel squawked. “Where have you been? And what’s this energy pulse I’m detecting?”
“Energy pulse? Probably the energy barrier keeping us trapped in school.”
“Oh, and we’re being attacked by murderous pumpkins,” Zoe added casually.
“Obviously,” Sentinel remarked dryly, though he grew pensive when there was a loud crash outside the door and several students cried out in fear. Felix retreated further away from the door, and looked over at Zoe, expecting her to do the same.
Instead of following suit, Zoe turned back to her phone desperately. “What do I do, Sentinel? Dan’s out for the count, and Beth’s taking care of him. I have to take care of these guys by myself against these… these… aliens. And I’m on my own.”
“Get a grip, Zoe,” Sentinel said flatly, and she suspected that if he had a corporeal body, he would be rolling his eyes at her. “Seriously, get a grip. And do what you do best.”
“What’s that?” Zoe demanded. There were many things she excelled at.
“Duh, it’s obvious! Knock them out!”
The words stuck Zoe, and her eyes sparkled with clarity. Her hand automatically gripped the baseball bat. Sentinel was right — for once. She turned back to the door, and raised the bat.
Several murmurs rippled among the students, prompting Felix to speak up. “Zoe, what are you doing?”
“Just keep everyone back.” Zoe assumed the stance of a baseballer and mentally prepared herself.
“What’re you gonna do?” Felix hissed incredulously. “Knock ‘em out?”
Zoe shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time. Just keep everyone back.”
The room was charged with an tension that nobody was willing to address. Laurel had pulled her feet up and was resting her arms on them. Nathan was by the door, fiddling with the hem of his coat and muttering occasionally.
“Gonna let me talk now?” Laurel directed her question towards Beth, who had spent the last few minutes staring intently at the rhythm of Dan’s rising chest and wiping his face with antiseptic wipes, before casually tossing them into some unknown corner of the room When her sister didn’t respond, Laurel shuffled forward. “Beth! Seriously, we weren’t doing anything.”
Finally, Beth sighed in frustration. “That’s not what I’m getting at.”
“Then what are you trying to say?”
“I don’t care what you get up to. It’s your life. But what I don’t get is — why him?” Beth jerked a thumb in Nathan’s direction.
He glared at her. “Oi.”
The twins ignored him. “Seriously, why’d you even bother with that loser?”
“Oh, yeah, sure. Just talk like I ain’t here, you —”
“Shut up,” Beth and Laurel hissed simultaneously, effectively silencing the boy. They turned back to each other. “Is this one of your phases?” Beth speculated.
“Not really. I just…” The flushed Laurel shrugged nonchalantly. “Think he’s cute.”
“That’s it,” Laurel confirmed. “Anyways, it’s not like we’ve been sneaking around for ages. This was the first time. Swear.”
Beth’s line formed a thin line, and she rested her head against the stack of folders again. “Fine,” she said exasperatedly. “Do what you want.”
“Sure, why not? You always do.”
Beth flinched at her scathing remark. Her mind cast back — not for the first time — to last year, when she’d left her sister by their dad’s gravestone on their annual visit, the incident that Laurel was most likely referring to. She looked down, and wrung her hands together, trying to ward off the bitter memory without avail. “Look,” Beth sighed. “I am sorry.”
Laurel looked at her in mock-confusion. “About what?”
“About… what I did,” Beth forced the words out of her mouth, and instantly felt relief once the words were out in the open. “It was stupid. Leaving you there like that. I get that now.”
Now Laurel truly looked confused. “Eh?”
Beth didn’t notice. She continued her passionate tirade. “And it wasn’t fair on dad, on that day, the ten year anniversary. Family’s important, I get that. But I guess I was just…” she shrugged. “Not thinking straight. Story of my life, huh?”
Laurel’s eyes cleared as she processed the statement. “Oh,” she said in comprehension. “Beth, it’s fine. I’m over that.”
Beth whipped her head around in confusion. “What?”
“Yeah.” This time, Laurel looked down sheepishly and tugged on the bracelet around her wrist. “Like, I still care, and I still think it was stupid, but… I get it. I saw the look on your face when Melody phoned you that day, but I didn’t care. Now I do. You looked scared. Like something bad was about to go down.”
Beth felt something coil inside her stomach. She had never realised her sister could read her face so easily. “Yeah, it was.”
“And then Melody was gone a month later, and you wouldn’t tell me where she went. I dunno what, but it was something to do with her, wasn’t it? Dad would get it — you were helping a friend. He can’t hate you for that. And neither can I.” She grinned awkwardly. “So, let’s like, forget about it and move on.”
“Yeah,” Beth nodded, but she was distracted. “Hang on, what were you talking about, then?”
“When you said I always do what I want,” Beth reminded her.
“Oh, yeah. I was talking about the way you talk to mum.”
Beth’s face immediately soured. “Oh. That.”
“Yeah.” Laurel’s tone was unyielding. “That. What’s the deal, Beth? Why are you always looking for a row with her?”
“Don’t be daft, of course it’s something,” Laurel scoffed. “Come on, then. What’s it all about?”
Beth bit her lip, wondering whether or not she should inform Laurel about the nature of her disconnect with their mother, and the cause of it. She wasn’t certain of how Laurel would take the revelation, and the last thing she wanted was to turn her against Chrystal as well. But at the same time, it had been therapeutic to vocalise her feelings about the Black Guardian incident.
“Come on,” Laurel urged. “Just tell me.”
Before she could stop herself, Beth spoke. “She lied to me.” Before Laurel could react to the statement, words tumbled and spilled out of Beth’s mouth as easily as water from a faucet. “On the night dad died, she told us we were together, right?”
“D’you actually remember that?”
“Well, yeah. She said so —”
“But do you actually remember it?” Beth interrupted. Laurel frowned, her expression growing contemplative. She opened her mouth, and then closed it again. That was all Beth needed. “You can’t remember, can you? Because it never happened. I wasn’t with you at that time, I was with dad.” “Oh… my god.” Laurel’s hand shot to her mouth to cover her gasp. Nathan fixed his gaze on them from the other end of the room, intrigued by the conversation. “Wait, so that’s why you’re mad at her?”
“Why?” Laurel’s tone was blunt, and she truly looked confused.
Beth narrowed her eyes. “Did you seriously just ask that?”
“Yeah? I don’t see what the big deal is? The way I see it, right, is that she was doing it to... protect you.”
Beth gawped at her dubiously. She couldn’t comprehend that Laurel was justifying their mother’s actions — all the years of uncertainty and conflicting thoughts — as protection. She had been told all her life that what she thought to be true was wrong, that it was an inherent illness talking and manipulating her, when in reality the manipulator was the woman who was meant to be raising her to the best of her ability.
“If you ask me, she was doing you a favour.”
“Well, I didn’t ask you,” Beth snapped. “Okay?”
“Alright, I was just sayi —”
“Well, don’t.” She slumped back against the folders. She was livid, but contained her angry rant. The last thing she wanted was to become blinded by her own emotions and compromise the entire situation.
Laurel looked at her, hesitantly, and glanced over at Nathan, who shrugged. She opened her mouth to say something, when a loud explosion rocked the room.
The sheer noise rose Dan from his slumber, and he jolted awake with a start. He looked around the room, dazed. “What’s going on?” He mumbled groggily.
“Dunno,” Beth admitted, hauling herself off the ground. “I should check it out. You lot stay here.”
“Wait.” Dan staggered to his feet and stumbled into her. “I’m coming with you.”
“You can barely walk!” Beth protested, but Dan persisted. He threw a hand over her shoulders with a grunt. Beth grudgingly supported him as they both hobbled out of the storage room. She turned back to Laurel and Nathan, who looked confused and scared. “Stay here, we’ll be back soon.”
“But Beth —” Laurel said.
“Just stay here!” Beth interjected snappily. Laurel snapped her mouth shut and nodded. Beth gave her a reassuring nod, turned back and helped Dan out of the classroom.
If she was correct, the explosion had originated from the gym.
Zoe had not expected the gym doors to be collapse inwards by the surprise explosion. They crumbled before her eyes, and several jack-o-lanterns stood amongst the rubble, their candlelit faces shining in the fog. Students retreated backwards in terror, but Zoe stood her ground.
She mentally collected herself, tightened her grip on the bat, and swung in an arc the moment a pumpkin lunged at her without hesitation. The bat connected with the face, and sent the orange time-bomb flying out the door. It fell to the ground, smashing into pieces.
A student whooped in the background, cheering Zoe on as she hit another. The jack-o-lanterns were intent on making her their sole target, so Felix and her other classmates were safe. She continued striking the pumpkins every time they lunged at her without slowing down, even when her arms started to ache. She persevered through the fatigue when the room started cheering her on. However, the cheers quickly morphed into gasps of terror. Zoe saw somebody slump to the ground in her peripheral vision. She craned her neck to look, and she gasped when she realised the figure was Felix.
“Fel —” she tried to cry out, but was thrown to the ground when a pumpkin dived straight into her stomach. She gasped, sucking air back into her winded lungs. The bat was knocked out of her hands and was sent clattering to the side. The carved expression in the pumpkin curled into a sneer, and the layers started to peel away before her eyes. Zoe struggled to get away, but was held in place by the pumpkin. Even if she had managed to overpower it, there wasn’t enough time to dive for suitable cover before the explosion.
Suddenly, a blur appeared in her periphery and kicked the jack-o-lantern away. It rolled across the room and collided with the others. Zoe covered her face with her hands to shield herself from the large explosion that shook the room. The jack-o-lanterns had all perished in the explosion, leaving behind a smouldering crater as an aftermath. When Zoe finally looked up, she realised her rescuer was Diana. She wasn’t able to keep the surprise from leaking into her expression and gawked at the other teenager. Diana simply regarded her with a reticent expression.
“Er…” Zoe managed. Before she could say anything else, Beth and Dan staggered into the room, surveying the situation with a confused stare. Relief washed over Zoe, and she pushed herself to her feet. “You’re awake!”
Dan looked at her. “Who?”
Zoe rolled her eyes. “You!”
“Oh, yeah.” He waggled his fingers at her cheerily. “Hi.”
“What was that noise?” Beth interjected, getting straight to the point. “It sounded like an explosion. And what happened in here?”
“Oh, yeah, that.” Zoe drew out a breath. “That was the pumpkins.” Beth looked at her for elaboration, but Zoe could only offer a shrug. “They blew up the school. That’s literally all that happened.”
The group looked down to see Felix — who Zoe belatedly realised hadn’t fallen unconscious — staggering to his feet. He practically flew across the room and embraced Dan, taking him off Beth’s hand and supporting him by wrapping an arm securely around his waist.
“You’re okay!” Felix said elatedly, brushing soot off Dan’s face with a grin.
“Yup!” Dan happily leaned into the embrace. “So are you. I couldn’t see you after the pumpkins — you know — and I panicked and I…” Dan smiled sheepishly at Felix’s questioning gaze and leaned up to rest their foreheads together. “I’m glad you’re okay.”
“Me too.” Felix fondly tousled Dan’s hair and pulled him into a warm hug with a laugh. Chris rolled his eyes in the background.
“Aww,” Zoe pouted playfully at Beth. “They’re so cute.”
The moment was broken when Kyle gasped. “Look!” Beth whirled around to see three more jack-o-lanterns hopping into the room. Alarmed, she grabbed Zoe by the sleeve of her shirt and pulled her back, closely followed by Felix and Dan. Their attackers advanced on them, herding all of the tense teenagers to the back, away from the storage room. She had a feeling that if they didn’t figure out something soon, they would all end up like Lee — who, she guiltily realised, she had basically forgotten about.
“Well, it’s about time.”
Beth looked down at Zoe’s pocket with wide eyes. “Sentinel? What do we do?”
“Oi! You chauvinistic bilgebags!” The voice wasn’t Sentinel, but Dorothy’s, who energetically burst into the room with a pumpkin in one hand, and the discarded baseball bat in the other. Laurel and Nathan were in tow, and they both hurried over to their classmates. She bellowed at the pumpkins, her posh English accent replaced by a cockney dialect. “Come and have a go, then! Show me what you’re made of!”
The pumpkins all spun on the spot to face their new target, but Dorothy struck them all with the bat in one strike and sent them flailing across the room. Before they could recover, she shot each of them, grinning when they each erupted in a small contained explosion.
“Where the hell were you?” Beth demanded when Dorothy grinned victoriously at them. Her voice was loudest among the whispers circulating around the hall amongst the students about their surprisingly awesome supply teacher.
“Science lab,” Dorothy replied coolly. She held up the pumpkin resting in her hands. “I had to do something to this.”
“Which was?” Dan inquired.
“Oi, never mind that!” Sentinel’s voice, muffled by Zoe’s jeans, huffed. “Why didn’t you lot tell me you were trapped in school by a force-field while fighting alien pumpkins?”
Beth whipped her phone out of Zoe’s pocket and glared down at it. “We couldn’t!”
“Yeah, it’s not like we hid it on purpose,” Dan supplied.
“And anyways,” Zoe interjected snappily. “Instead of having a go at us, why not deactivate the portal so we can get out of here?”
“Well, I would if I had information on it!” Sentinel snapped in response.
“What, you mean you can’t deactivate it?” Zoe hissed.
“I see you’ve learned basic inference, Zoe,” Sentinel commented dryly. “No, I can’t deactivate it!”
“Er, who are you lot talking to?” Chris asked.
The trio turned around to see everybody else staring at them as if they had three heads. “Siri,” they replied simultaneously, and left it at that.
“Siri likes to back-chat,” Kyle muttered offhandedly. Murmurs of agreement travelled among the group. Felix looked down at Zoe, Beth and Dan with furrowed eyebrows, not believing their Siri excuse.
“Right, come on, you lot,” Dorothy announced loudly, shepherding the class out of the gym. “Let’s go to the front hall. Leave these three with Siri. You never know, the police might be through by now!”
Surprisingly, the students complied without argument. The prospect of freedom from their school-shaped prison was tantalising. They milled out of the room in orderly groups, until only Zoe, Beth, Dan and Dorothy remained.
“I’ll keep them in-line.” The UNIT agent slipped something into Zoe’s hands in exchange for the briefcase, winked, and left the room with the pumpkin in tow.
Zoe held up the object up so her friends could see. It was a smooth metal stick, like a USB stick, but it was slimmer with a retractable tip. “What do we need this for?”
Beth’s phone whirred, and Sentinel gasped. “Plug that into the phone!”
“Why? What is it?”
“A data stick!It has information on the barrier. Information I can use to deactivate it!”
“When did she find the time to scan it?” Zoe wondered. Beth ignored her, plucked the stick out of her hand and plugged it into her charging port. It fit perfectly. The screen flickered for a moment, and then there was a distinct whoosh outside. The trio clamoured to a window, and peered outside.
Small crimson lightning bolts untangled and dispersed from each other, sizzling through the air in a semi-circle before convulsing inwards. The force of the collision caused the barrier to explode in a shower of sparks, raining down onto the playground like tiny drops of rain.
They collectively breathed a sigh of relief. “Finally,” Zoe said. “Now we can get out of here.”
“Yeah, it’s important that you do,” Sentinel replied gravely.
“How come?” Dan asked curiously.
“You need to find Sarah Jane.”
“Where is Sarah Jane anyway? I thought she’d be here,” Beth mused.
“She’s in danger. Remember the murderer out there? It’s this alien called the Spectre. And he’s here for her soul.”
“What, and he’s got her?” Beth’s eyes were wide with panic.
“No. She’s gone to meet him and give herself up.”
“What?!” Zoe exclaimed. “Why would she do that?”
“To save Alfie. He was kidnapped.”
Zoe immediately straightened, and a potent determination filled her so quickly and suddenly that it caught her off-guard. Alfie was in danger. “Where’s she headed?”
Sarah Jane parked the Mini Cooper a little distance away from the cemetery. She took a few minutes to steady her frayed nerves. The following encounter had the capability of veering towards a direction that she wouldn’t be able to control. Despite that fact, she knew that she had to do this, for Alfie’s sake, and sake of the village. Her village.
She stepped out of the car, slammed the door shut, walked through the black wrought iron archway, and down the cobbled path. While Foxgrove already had its own graveyard beside the church, it also had a cemetery near the nature reserve; it was one of the few remaining remnants of the original Cottage Row village. Thin wisps of mist trailed lazily around the path, and coiled around the gravestones like a blanket. Not a single bird moved in the tree branches above, and there wasn’t a single trace of wind to rustle the grass, despite the noticeably cool temperature.
Then, she saw him. Stood by the old crumbling mausoleum was the Spectre, his face obscured by the hood and his robe swaying despite the lack of breeze. He had his back turned, but as she slowly approached him, he turned to face her.
“So, here you are,” Sarah Jane said quietly. She didn’t receive a response. Her eyes drifted down to the grass beneath his feet, and her heart stuttered at the sight of the prone form lying unconscious. “Alfie!”
The Spectre raised a bony hand to halt her when she tried to rush forward. “I will kill him if you take another step unprompted.”
Sarah Jane ground to a halt. She was rooted to the spot in fear that he would go through with his threats. “Why are you doing this? I’m here. You don’t need him!”
“He is… protection.”
“Protection?” Sarah Jane repeated blankly.
“Insurance,” the Spectre clarified. “So that you do not go back on your word, Sarah Jane Smith.”
“You don’t need to do this,” she pleaded. “Look, I’m here. You can let him go —”
The Spectre hissed at her when she attempted to edge closer. He outstretched his bony fingers. Mist poured out and snaked around Sarah Jane’s ankles, paralysing her into place. “You are not in a position to make bargains, for your life or anyone else’s. You are mine now.”
The front doors flung open and students flocked out excitedly, chattering amongst themselves about their newfound freedom. Dorothy watched them go, expecting them to head straight home, but instead they all crowded around the front entrance with their friends and phones, gossiping about the day’s events. She made a mental note to have Osgood remove any incriminating online messages. She looked up at the sky with a smile. The teenagers had managed to deactivate the force-field with her data stick. She made another mental note to thank Osgood for her extensive knowledge on barriers.
Dorothy turned to see Zoe, Beth and Dan hurrying towards her, looking distressed. She frowned. “What’s wrong?”
It was Beth who spoke. “We need your help. Our friend — Sarah Jane — she’s in trouble.”
Dorothy pursed her lips. “My car’s out back.”
The group nodded, and made their way to the school’s car park. Dorothy’s flashy sports car, a black Hyundai Genesis, gleamed in the sunlight — which was starting to recede.
“Where to?” Dorothy asked as she slid into the driver’s seat. Dan and Beth clambered into the back seats, while Zoe settled in the front.
“The cemetery. Go straight down this path,” Zoe advised.
“Gotcha. Here, hold this.” Dorothy handed a confused Zoe the pumpkin she had been holding. The engine roared to life, and the car sped down the path and through the gates, leaving the school behind.
A few minutes later, three black jeeps rolled into the front of the school. Laurel and Chris, who had been conversing with their friends, and Felix, who had been anxiously waiting for Dan to reappear, all turned in surprise. The jeeps parked in a triangle, and the door of the first jeep opened. A woman stepped out. Her pale complexion was reminiscent of a sheet of snow, unsullied by muddy boots and gloves, and contrasted sharply with her black coat. The doors of the other cars opened, and men dressed in similar black attire and a dark-skinned woman with golden eyes stepped out.
She smiled at them. “Hello, children.”
“Who the hell are you?” Chris blurted. He took a step forward, but the dark-skinned woman appeared before him in a flurry of movement, staring down at him impassively. He took a step back, intimidated.
The pale-skinned woman laughed. “You can call me… Miss Walters.” She undid the clasp of her gold coat buttons, and several small aerosol cans popped out. “Don’t worry. It won’t look like it now, but I’m doing you a favour. Honest.”
“What’s that?” Laurel asked nervously.
Miss Walters ignored her, and started advancing on the students. Those who tried to escape were restrained by the men in black. “It’s better to forget about this. You'll live happier lives. It’s better.”
Sarah Jane watched as the Spectre slowly glided over to a grave next to the mausoleum. He clenched his bony hand into a fist, and the covering collapsed into a raging abyss. He pulled Sarah Jane closer — it was like a hand was gripping her waist and dragging her across the field — and pointed down at the grave. Inside the grave wasn’t a decomposed body, but a gaping abyss. Emerald green water interlaced with traces of glowing red blood swirled and sloshed wildly, shaped like a funnel and travelling down as far as she could see. A loud gust of wind was expelled by the water funnel and ruffled her hair. As it brushed past her, the sound of wailing people filled her ears.
She gasped at the horrible sound. “What is that?”
“The River Styx,” The Spectre revealed after a lengthy pause.
“Are you going to send me down there?” Sarah Jane asked fearfully. The Spectre’s silence was all the confirmation she needed. The figure moved away from the River Styx and advanced upon her. “Wait!” Sarah Jane cried out desperately. “At least tell me more about yourself first.”
The Spectre tilted his head, almost curiously.
“Oh, come on!” Sarah Jane urged. “You’ve got me! You have nothing to lose if you tell me!”
The Spectre made a hissing noise. “Very well,” he obliged, and floated backwards. Sarah Jane fought back a sigh of relief. She had brought herself more time. Her eyes flickered over to the Spectre when he started speaking. “I am the Soul Reaper. I harvest the souls of others.”
“For my own ends,” he responded callously. “Or for the schemes of others.”
A soul-reaping bounty hunter, Sarah Jane thought ruefully. “And then you send them down there — the Styx?”
“Their eternal hell.”
“You’ve damned them,” she said in horror. The Spectre didn’t respond. He wasn’t much of a talker. “Why did you come after me?”
“I have come for you, Sarah Jane Smith.”
“Yes, but why?”
“There is a bounty on your head.”
A shiver trailed up her spine. “By who? Who put the bounty on my head?”
“It does not matter,” the Spectre replied, frustratingly. “I was coming for you regardless.”
“And why’s that?”
“Vengeance. For my master. My creator.”
Sarah Jane internally pondered the statement. She had upset many creators over the years. “Who exactly is your master?”
The Spectre uttered a name adoringly, and it sent a chill up Sarah Jane’s spine. Old memories were reawakened, and a latent fear that she hadn’t felt in a long time was revived. She repeated it, quietly, to confirm her suspicions.
Dorothy parked her car behind a blue Mini Cooper under the instructions of the teenagers, and the four clambered out and hurried into the cemetery. They kept their heads down, and crept as quietly as they could.
They stopped a short distance away from Sarah Jane and the Spectre, behind a row of graves, so they could see the transpiring events without detection. Zoe, Beth and Dan all breathed a collective sigh of relief at the sight of their friend.
“She’s alright,” Beth noted.
“What’s she talking about?” Dan mused.
“Be quiet,” Dorothy hissed, and the pair complied. They strained their ears to listen. Sarah Jane was saying something. She sounded desperate.
“You’re a member of his Brigade, aren’t you?”
“What’s she talking about?” Zoe wondered.
“He’s gone now. He’s trapped. He’ll never come back. There’s no need for this. Just let us go, you don’t need us.”
“Us?” Suddenly, Zoe remembered. “Alfie.” She looked around, and caught sight of his body a distance away from the other two. “We have to do something.”
“And we will,” Dorothy assured her. “We just have to wait for the right moment.”
“What you say is irrelevant,” the Spectre whispered. His voice sent goosebumps prickling up Zoe’s spine. He turned and spread a bony hand across the door of the mausoleum. It swung open to reveal a blindingly blue swirling fissure. “You will step through this portal.”
“Why?” Sarah Jane’s tone was suspicious. “Where does it go?”
“The River Styx.”
“But you can’t take my soul without my agreement.”
“Correct. But I can trap you in eternal damnation.” The Spectre almost sounded gleeful.
Zoe, Beth and Dan looked at each other, mentally agreeing that they couldn’t sit back any longer. Beth and Dan leaped from their hiding spot, momentarily catching Dorothy by surprise, but she managed to reach out and grab Zoe before she could stand.
“What are you doing?” Dorothy hissed, her tone sharp.
“We can’t sit back and do nothing,” Zoe insisted.
“You’re not going to!”
They both looked up to see Beth run towards the Spectre. He craned his neck to look at her, but Sarah Jane kept her back to them. Meanwhile, Dan bent over and flung the unconscious Alfie’s arms around his shoulders, dragging him back to their hiding spot. He hurriedly dropped down, and Zoe cradled Alfie’s head in her lap. He was cold to the touch.
“Leave her alone!” Beth continued, defiantly glaring the alien down.
“Beth?” Sarah Jane called out. She sounded scared. “What are you doing here?”
The Spectre merely stared silently at her. His grip on the scythe tightened, and he outstretched his fingers. Coils of mist wrapped around Beth’s legs and held her in place. No matter how much she struggled, she couldn’t move her limbs. The Soul Reaper steadily advanced on the girl.
“No!” Sarah Jane cried out. “Don’t you touch her!”
The next thing Alfie knew was that he was standing up. He blinked, wondering when that had occurred, when a flash of light shone so brightly he had to cover his eyes with his arm. When he was able to see again, he focused his attention on the two glowing levers inserted into a wall of pulsing flesh. The levers were comprised of a sleek black metal component, with wooden clamps keeping them in place.
Unable to sate his own curiosity, Alfie moved toward the levers and ghosted his fingers over them. They were cool to the touch. He looked behind him, and only saw a foggy expanse. He knew, somehow, that the levers didn’t belong. Clasping the left lever in his hand, he yanked it down.
At first, he was certain nothing had happened, but then he saw the wall of flesh thrum at an accelerated pace. A vast assortment of colours — reds and blues and yellows — seeped into the room before dissipating into a dull monotonous grey, like the system was at war with conflicting information. A shrill noise filled his head. It was so loud and deafening that he tried to drown it out by covering his ears, but the noise persisted The volume grew to a crescendo, and Alfie slowly felt himself slipping away from consciousness. His eyes fluttered close, blackness consumed his vision, and he collapsed to the floor in a heap.
The Spectre froze, inclining his head to look at his hands in confusion. Before the group could question the action, a shrill klaxon reverberated around the air. It sounded like the emergency siren for an air raid. The Spectre doubled over in pain, howling pitifully. They looked around, wondering what the source was, but they couldn’t find anything.
“Is this you?” Zoe asked Dorothy.
“No,” Dorothy replied honestly. “But now’s the time.”
“Time for what?”
“Use it, Zoe.” Dorothy pointed at the pumpkin in Zoe’s hands. “Use it!”
Zoe looked down at the pumpkin with furrowed brows. She had forgotten that she was still holding it. It was smaller than the other jack-o-lanterns, and light enough to hold and, presumably, throw. She looked up at Dorothy. “Use it how?”
“Throw it!” urged the UNIT agent. “Throw it at him now!”
“Sarah Jane and Beth need you,” Dan said above the din.
Zoe was still hesitant. “But —”
“Aw, come on, Zo.” The duo looked down to see Alfie smiling weakly at her. He was pale, and there were dark circles under his eyes, but he looked unharmed. “Since when did you back out of a challenge?” His smile strengthened, and it looked like his signature impish grin. “Knock him out.”
Zoe looked at the pumpkin once again, and slowly rose to her feet, emboldened. She aimed at her quivering target, blocked out the shrill noise and hurled it with all her strength. The pumpkin soared through the air, and made contact with the Spectre’s midriff. It exploded upon contact and the force propelled the surprised alien through the mausoleum and into his portal. It devoured him whole, and the portal coalesced before dispersing into a shower of blue sparks.
As if a spell had been lifted, Sarah Jane and Beth stumbled backwards. Dan went to help them, while Zoe let out a sigh of relief. She looked over at Dorothy, who nodded in approval, and Alfie, who grinned warmly at her.
“You did it,” he said softly.
Zoe smiled back. “Yeah, I did.” She looked down at Dorothy in confusion. “What was that?”
“What do you mean?” Dorothy asked innocently.
Zoe narrowed her eyes. “The bomb didn’t have a countdown like the others. It exploded upon contact. Is that what you meant when you said you had to do something?”
Dorothy shrugged nonchalantly, but Zoe could see the flicker of a smile on her face. “Maybe.”
“What did you do?”
“Oh, I just tweaked it a bit. Reverse-engineered the compounds and replaced it with my own chemical formula. Told you I loved it. Nitro-9, I call it. Dead useful at times like this.”
Zoe, Dorothy and Alfie all tilted their heads to see Sarah Jane, Beth and Dan approaching them with matching grins.
The journalist placed her hands on Zoe’s shoulders. “Oh, you were brilliant!” she gushed warmly. “You all were!”
“Thanks,” Zoe responded sheepishly. “But it was her idea.” She jerked a thumb in Dorothy’s direction, and Sarah Jane turned to look at her.
“Oh.” Sarah Jane’s eyes went wide. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there. Mrs…?”
Dorothy chuckled at that. “Miss,” she amended, outstretching a hand. “McShane. Dorothy McShane.”
“Oh!” Sarah Jane gasped, her eyes lighting up in recognition. She shook Dorothy’s hand eagerly. “I’ve heard of you! Oh, it’s brilliant to meet you after all this time!”
“The feeling’s mutual, Miss Smith. It’s an honour to meet you and your young friends. They’re quite the catch.”
“Yes,” Sarah Jane agreed. “They are.” They looked at the teenagers, who were squabbling amongst themselves about whether Alfie needed support standing or not. They chuckled at their antics, and Sarah Jane spoke up amongst the chaos. “Are you okay, Alfie?”
“It’s been a trippy day,” he grumbled, keeping Zoe and Dan at bay. “But that don’t mean I need you guys to hold me like a baby.”
“You can barely stand!” Dan argued.
“Er, yeah I can.”
“Er, no you can’t,” Zoe retorted.
“Push off, Chloe.”
“ZOE. Z-O-E,” she growled. “You know what? Fine!” She tried to move away, but Alfie collapsed into her side, grinning impishly at her annoyed expression. “I actually hate you,” Zoe declared.
“Come on,” Sarah Jane laughed. It had been a long day, and she was tired. “Let’s go home.”
Sarah Jane led the way with Dorothy by her side. The two were talking earnestly about something. Dan followed them, and Zoe deposited Alfie into the unimpressed Beth’s arms to talk to him, her phone in her hand.
Beth watched them go, before fixing her unimpressed frown on Alfie. “Great, I’m stuck with you.”
“You love me, really, midget,” Alfie drawled with an easy grin.
Beth fondly rolled her eyes. “Can you walk?”
“Yup!” He straightened and gave her a jaunty salute. “Cheers.” They turned to leave, when Alfie caught a glimpse of a figure in his peripheral vision. He whipped his head around, half-expecting it to be the Spectre, but in reality, it was a girl about their age. Her figure was silhouetted by the receding sunlight, like an ethereal halo. She had a cracked white mask covering half of her face.
“Ow,” Beth complained, having run straight into her friend when he abruptly stopped. “What’s up?”
“Who’s she?” he asked, pointing at the mysterious girl.
Beth followed his gaze and frowned. “Dunno. Never seen her before.”
“I think I have…”
The girl turned and walked away, her brown hair dancing in the wind. Alfie and Beth watched as she disappeared around a corner and the boy found his hand tightly wrapping around his dog tags.
“That was weird,” Beth announced dryly.
“Yeah,” Alfie agreed. “Come on, let’s go.”
“Hang on.” She strained her ears. “The noise stopped.”
“Oh, yeah,” Alfie said slowly, looked around with a bemused expression. “Funny, that.”
“You two coming?” Sarah Jane called out to them.
“Yup!” Alfie gave her a thumbs up, but he couldn't mask the unease from his expression. “Be right there!”
A few minutes later, Dan staggered into his house and collapsed against the front door. He gasped heavily, and clutched at his chest, trying to will the pain away. It was excruciating, like he was being stabbed repeatedly, and he felt lightheaded. His vision blurred, before refocusing like a camera lens.
“Dan?” Clarissa Orange poked her head out of the doorway curiously. Her curiosity shifted into concern when she noticed her son. “Are you okay, sweetheart?”
“Yeah,” Dan croaked. “I’m fine. Didn’t think you’d be back so soon.”
“Oh, we came home early. There’s something we have to tell you.” Clarissa frowned, unconvinced.
She opened her mouth to speak, but was drowned out by Andrew. “Is that Dan? I’ve just finished packing his bag!”
Dan looked up at Clarissa questioningly. “Packing?”
“Ah, yes, the thing we have to tell you. You see —”
“They’re taking us up to Scotland!” an annoyed Chris announced boisterously from the top of the staircase.
Dan’s eyes widened, and he gaped at his mother. “What?!”
Beth scuffed her trainer against the ground as she begrudgingly opened her front door. She was going to have to face her family sooner or later and confront the day’s events, even if it was the last thing she wanted to do.
As soon as she walked into the house, Laurel cheerfully bounded down the stairs. Beth winced, expecting her to start asking difficult questions about the pumpkins, and about her feelings.
“Hiya!” she said exuberantly. “How was school, then?”
Beth’s head snapped up in confusion. “What? Is this a weird joke?”
Laurel paused her trek to the kitchen. “What do you mean?”
“Are you getting back at me for what I said about Nathan and... stuff?”
Laurel frowned thoughtfully. “Nathan Drake? Cute guy in class? What did you say about him?”
Beth stared at her in bewilderment. “The stuff at school? In English?”
Laurel laughed, and slapped her sister lightly on the shoulder. “Very funny.”
“I didn’t go to school today!”
“What are you on about? ‘Course you did!”
“On Halloween?” Laurel sniffed contemptuously at the thought. “Yeah, right. I was home all day. You feeling okay?”
She walked away without waiting for an answer. Beth watched her go, struggling to comprehend the conversation.
Zoe trudged up the hill leading up to the uppermost slope on Suncrest Hill somewhat nervously. She did her best to hide her nerves. The last thing she needed was to show weakness. The first thing she noticed upon approach was the setting sun, which cast a mix of an orange and purple hue across the sky. The second thing she noticed was the soft soil that gave way beneath her weight and caked her trainers in soil, and the final thing she noticed was the smell of dried leaves lingering in the air.
Zoe turned to see Diana sat on the bench, staring distantly at the sunset with a cigarette placed between her lips, inhaling and exhaling periodically. She stuffed her hands in her pockets and muttered, “Yeah.”
“Didn’t think you’d show,” Diana admitted, flicking cigarette ash to the ground absently. She tapped her pocket with her right hand, and a pack fell out. She looked up at Zoe expectantly. “Want one?”
Zoe shook her head at the crude gesture. “I’m good.”
Zoe scoffed. “No.”
“Huh.” The conversation dwindled as Diana took another puff, and refocused on the sunset.
Zoe followed her gaze, and coughed again. “Thanks, by the way. For, you know…”
Diana turned to look at her in confusion. “What are you on about?”
Zoe rolled her eyes. “Yeah, alright, I get it. You don’t want remember that bit but —”
“I don’t remember that,” Diana interjected firmly. “I don’t remember much about today, butI do remember you telling me to grow up.” Zoe met her gaze unflinchingly. “Yeah, I did.”
“Maybe I do,” Diana relented, slouching back in her chair. She looked at Zoe for the longest time, who impatiently waited for her to elaborate. “My folks are rich.”
“Yeah, you’re loaded. Everyone knows.”
“Right.” She took another puff. “Dad’s a businessman, mum’s a fashion designer. They’ve got connections everywhere: America, Canada, even them Yukimura lot from Japan.”
“Your point?” Zoe interrupted impatiently.
Diana looked back at her. “They’re successful - super successful - and they want me to be the same, right? Same interests, same lifestyle, everything.” She looked down at her cigarette reticently. “Ever been told that you won’t amount to anything cos you don’t want to be a retail owner or business person?”
Zoe hesitated briefly. “No.”
“I have,” Diana said, somewhat bitterly. She looked out at the horizon. “I’m worthless, apparently. When I’m not the perfect little angel who does what they want. So, I fight back. Against them and their wishes.”
“And that’s why you do martial arts,” Zoe realised. “To get away from the family drama.”
“Yeah,” Diana nodded. She even looked a little surprised. “That’s it.”
Zoe nodded, and looked out at the horizon. “I get that. The drama, I mean. My dad’s way better than yours, but… my mum’s gone, and he’s moved on, and there’s this woman, Jade, in my life now. She’s pregnant. With a baby, obviously. And I don’t want that… but I don’t want them to know that I don’t want that, even though it’s probably pretty obvious by now and…”
“It’s all messed up,” Diana remarked.
“Yeah,” Zoe echoed. “It’s messed up.”
They lapsed into silence again, but it was mutual this time. They had an unexpected understanding now, one neither of them expected they would ever have. Zoe - the girl who lashed out at her middle-class expenses and her rapidly expanding family - and Diana, the upper class girl who lashed out at her family.
“This doesn’t change anything, you know,” Diana said as she stood up, discarding her cigarette off the side of the slope.
“Course not,” Zoe nodded, stepping aside as she walked past. Diana made her way to the treeline, before turning back with a wry grin.
“How about a spar?” She gave a casual one-shouldered shrug. “For old time’s sake.”
Zoe grinned competitively. “Why not? It’ll be good to watch you lose.”
“Yeah,” Zoe imitated her shrug. “For old time’s sake.”
“I’ve just got Sentinel working on Lee,” Sarah Jane announced as she walked up the steps in the attic with two cups of tea. The trapdoor was already open, and Dorothy was lounging on the couch, admiring the new environment. She handed the woman a mug, and sat down next to her. “He’ll leave a tip at the police station. They’ll tell the parents.”
“I’m sure UNIT would have managed,” Dorothy said as she took an appreciate sip of the tea. She sighed in relief and leaned against the couch. “They’re already up at the school dealing with the wreckage and neutralising the pumpkin threats.”
Sarah Jane hummed, mirroring Dorothy’s relaxed stance. “While I appreciate the sentiment, I hardly think it would help if a pair of gruff UNIT soldiers marched up to the house and told them about their sudden bereavement. They deserve gentleness, and I know DI Jordan Williams will give them that.”
“I suppose they can be brutish at times,” Dorothy conceded, taking another sip of her tea. “I just wish I stopped it from happening.”
“You weren’t even aware there was a threat,” Sarah Jane comforted her. “And you managed to keep everybody else alive.”
“Oh, that was entirely on your lot,” Dorothy chuckled. “I was working behind the scenes, but they were out there on the front lines, protecting their friends. They’re quite something.”
“They are that,” Sarah Jane agreed proudly. “I’m very grateful to have them.”
“Your Beth thought I was the saboteur.”
Sarah Jane laughed at the thought. “Oh, she’s normally very on the ball with this stuff. Her heart's usually in the right place. She’s helped me a lot over these past two years.”
“I’ve heard about your cases,” Dorothy said eagerly. “Like your Cybermen conspiracy at Future Technologies. You helped us uncover a secret sponsor.”
Sarah Jane arched a brow. “Oh?”
“They’re called 3W. We don’t know much yet, still looking into it. There are rumours that they could be involved with the energy pulse yesterday.”
“I see.” Sarah Jane took another sip of her tea, intrigued. “I’ll have to look into them at some point.”
Dorothy’s attention had already been captured by something else. “That’s a beautiful necklace,” she commented, referring to the sapphire gemstone around her neck.
“Thank you.” Sarah Jane pressed it between her thumbs fondly. “It was a gift from the Doctor.”
“Ah, the Professor,” Dorothy sighed nostalgically. “That takes me back.”
Sarah Jane looked at her curiously. “Professor?”
“It’s what I used to call him all the time. Dunno why now, but it’s sort of stuck.”
“How did you meet him?” Dorothy asked. She looked like an excitable schoolchild. “I’ve always wanted to know.”
Sarah Jane smiled as she reminisced about the event. “I was about twenty-two, twenty-three at the time, trying to find my feet as a journalist. I thought I found my big scoop when I heard that UNIT scientists were going missing. So, I pretended to be my Aunt Lavinia to get in. That’s where I met him — the Doctor. He saw right through my lie.” The pair laughed at the thought. “And then another scientist disappeared, and I thought the Doctor would be hiding in the TARDIS — he said it was a shed! But no, it was so much more beautiful and I may have… accidentally stowed away. And that was how it began: the Doctor and I, we travelled for a long time. I loved it.”
“I loved it too,” Dorothy agreed. “I met him on Iceworld with his friend, Mel.”
“Melanie Bush? Your 'A Charitable Earth’ co-founder?”
“That’s right. She’s a right doughnut, she is. I was working as a waitress at the time. They were on a stupid treasure hunt or something, and I joined in, cos I just lost my job and I thought it’d be fun. Then the next thing I knew, I was travelling with the Professor through time and space. I once said that I felt like I could run forever,” she recalled. “Like I could smell the wind, and feel the grass under my feet and just… run forever.”
Sarah Jane laughed at her exuberance. “I thought that too, at first. But then he left to attend to something on Gallifrey and I was just… left here.”
“You turned out alright though,” Dorothy pointed out.
“I was lucky,” Sarah Jane smiled. “I met him again, a couple years back. And that was when I realised. You can run forever. You can live the life you want for as long as you want to. It just can’t be with the Doctor. That’s how I fell into all of this.” She gestured towards the attic. “And I’m so grateful.”
“He left me, too,” Dorothy smiled wryly. “Not for Gallifrey, though. Well — we were on Gallifrey, but only cos he enrolled me in the Time Lord academy.”
“Oh, my,” Sarah Jane gasped.
Dorothy grinned at her reaction. “Yeah, I was the same. He dropped me off there with a little bigger-on-the-inside suitcase for all my things and waved me off. I felt like a kid again. Oh, but I loved it there. It was great, most of the time. The practical stuff was amazing, the academia stuff… not so much,” she chuckled self-deprecatingly. “I hated tests.”
“Then how’d you find your back on Earth?” Sarah Jane asked, her curiosity piqued.
Dorothy smiled ruefully. “It was against my will. The War came. Everything was crashing and burning, and it felt like the Professor was avoiding me, like he didn’t want to put me in danger. I knew he visited Gallifrey a lot, but I never saw him. Never. I wanted to stay, to help, to fight, but Romana and Leela wouldn’t let me. Leela knocked me out and they bundled me into a shuttle. The next thing I knew, I was back on Earth, in 2010. Joined up with UNIT when the Brigadier got back from Peru. I stuck around when Kate took charge. I liked what she was doing.”
“Yes.” Sarah Jane nodded in agreement. “I like what she’s doing as well. I’m sorry about Gallifrey. I’ve seen how it affected others.”
“It’s alright,” Dorothy shrugged. “All in the past.”
Even as she said those words, Sarah Jane could tell that she wasn’t truly over what had happened. She couldn’t blame her. If she were subjected to the magnificence of Gallifrey back in her heyday, she would be bitter about having to come back to Earth as well. But now that she had Luke and all of her friends, she wouldn’t trade her life for anything.
The women looked down to see Alfie’s head poking through the trapdoor entrance like a bedraggled meerkat. He looked noticeably healthier than before, which relieved Sarah Jane. “Come in, Alfie,” she said resignedly.
“I’ll leave you two to talk,” Dorothy said, hopping off the sofa with a knowing smile. Perhaps it was something in Sarah Jane’s expression that had given away her desire to talk to Alfie alone, but she was grateful to Dorothy for accepting them willingly. She left the room, and Alfie plopped down onto the sofa next to her.
“So,” Alfie started. “An alien bounty hunter dude came knocking about for your soul, murdered a bunch of people, lied about his powers, and trapped me in his head.” He drew out a breath. “Mad. Is this the usual for you?”
Sarah Jane winced at his cavalier tone. “Yes, it is.”
She frowned at his giddy tone. “You almost died today, Alfie. There was every chance you could have been lost to the Spectre, like the other two people.”
Alfie sobered. “Yeah, I did almost die,” he agreed. “But you know what? I don’t care.”
“I want to help!” He insisted. “Why won’t you let me? You owe me that after today.”
Sarah Jane sighed. He was right. The least he deserved was an explanation. “Rani used to help me.”
Alfie’s jaw dropped in surprise. “Help you? Like —”
“Like Zoe, Beth and Dan help me, yes.” Sarah Jane’s eyes glazed over with nostalgia. “They were about the same age when they found me too. Her, my son Luke and her boyfriend Clyde. For a while — a long while — everything was great. They were my family; we were happy. We kept each other safe, and we defended the world from our attic in Ealing.”
“Ealing?” Alfie furrowed his brow. “How’d you come all the way to Essex, then?”
Sarah Jane closed her eyes to ward off the painful memories. “Things happened. Things… changed. We lost people, very important people, and it changed us. It was my fault. I brought Rani into my life and it all but ruined her,” she looked at Alfie seriously. “I don’t want to do that to another Chandra.”
“Good thing I’m technically not a Chandra then,” Alfie proclaimed jubilantly. Sarah Jane was taken aback by the statement. She had expected remorse, and sympathy for his foster sister. Her thoughts must have translated to her features, because Alfie had to hold up his hand. “Look, ‘course it sucks that Rani went through that, but you chat like she’s — I dunno — dead or something. And she’s not. She’s at uni, looking for a flat in Westminster. Sounds pretty okay to me. And she might not be the same but like, no one stays the same, do they?” He took a deep breath. “Basically, I don’t care for your reason, and I want to help you save the world.”
Sarah Jane sighed at his antics, but she had to admit, she was starting to lose her resolve to leave him out of her life, especially now that he had a proper insight into her life and hadn’t balked at the prospect. Besides, it would make Zoe, Beth and Dan happy — Zoe, especially. She looked at Alfie seriously. “Okay, Alfie.”
Alfie perked up hopefully. “You’ll let me help?”
She nodded resignedly.
“Wicked!” He moved to jump into the air, but Sarah Jane grabbed him by the sleeve of his hoodie and dragged him back. His dog tags rattled loudly. “Oi!”
“But I’ll be keeping my eye on you.”
He looked displeased with her proclamation. “Aw, what?”
“Zoe, Beth and Dan have been doing this for a year now. You’ve only had one adventure —”
“— Technically two —”
“— So, I’ll be watching you closely. Make sure you don’t get up to trouble. And you need to know the rules.”
“Rules?” Alfie squawked.
“Rules are important,” Sarah Jane advised. “Especially these ones. We look after each other, Alfie. We respect all life, whatever planet it’s from, and we tell no one what we do.”
“No one,” she affirmed.
Alfie hesitated. “Not even Gita and Haresh?”
“Oh,” Sarah Jane chuckled. “They already know.”
“I really must protest!” Sentinel protested loudly as Zoe barged into 53 Diamond Way.
“Shut up, Sentinel,” Zoe said, glaring down at her phone. “You’re really annoying.”
“I’ll have you know--”
“Bye!” She interrupted, shutting down her phone with flourish. It wasn’t much use. He would switch it on in a minute or yell at her from another electrical device.
Dorothy popped her head out of the kitchen archway. She smiled in recognition. “You alright? That’s a nasty bruise.” “Oh, hey,” Zoe waved. She brushed over the purple bruise on her cheek. “Oh, this is nothing. Someone just got a lucky hit in. I’m here to see Sarah Jane. Is she around?”
“Up in the attic with Alfie. I’d give her a minute, looked serious,” Dorothy advised. “Something wrong?”
“Nah, just want to show her the picture of Beth’s name on the whiteboard. It was seriously freaky. Maybe she knows what it’s about.”
“Ah.” Dorothy seemed distant. She was staring at Zoe with that strange expression again.
“Can I give you something, Zoe?”
Zoe blinked. “Sure…?” Her eyes lit up. “Is it the recipe to your bomb?”
“No,” Dorothy laughed.
“Shame. What is it, then?”
“Come with me.” Dorothy opened the garage door and led her inside, ushering her to her car. She pulled the car boot open and revealed a jacket. It was a regular black bomber jacket, with customised badges adorning the front. She flipped it over to reveal more badges and a word: Ace. It was comprised of a big red ‘A’ and the smaller yellow ‘ce’ connected together as if it had been handwritten.
“You can tell you’re ancient,” Zoe scoffed. “No one says ‘ace’ anymore.”
“Oi, watch it! Cheek!” Dorothy scolded half-heartedly. “Ace was the jam back in the day. It’s what I used to call myself.”
“You used to call yourself Ace?” Zoe asked incredulously.
“Yeah,” Dorothy sighed dreamily.
“What changed? You call yourself Dorothy now.”
Dorothy’s expression hardened. “I gave it up. I couldn’t handle it anymore. Not after what happened.”
“Oh.” Zoe shuffled awkwardly. “Sorry?”
“Nah, don’t be,” Dorothy grinned at her. “I said I couldn’t handle it, but I can again.”
“Huh. What changed your mind?”
The grin widened on Dorothy’s face. “You did.”
Zoe blinked. It took her a few seconds to process the statement. “Huh? Me? What did I do?”
“Before today, I spent a good three years angry at the universe and my stupid fate. I fell out of touch with my kid self.” She placed a hand on Zoe’s shoulder. “But you helped me find it again.”
“Yeah! I look at you, and I remember who I was. Who I used to be. And I can’t thank you enough, Zoe.”
“You’re welcome, I guess.” Zoe accepted the jacket when Dorothy handed it over. She brushed her hand across the insignia. “Is that what this is? A thank you gift?”
“Partly.” Dorothy closed the boot and sat down on it. “You know how I used to travel with the Doctor?”
Zoe’s eyes widened. “No!”
“Oh. Well, I used to travel with him. And along the way, this mate was travelling with us. Hex. Oh, he was a laugh. But then something happened and he… forgot me. Only for a bit, but it… it hurt. To be forgotten. To feel meaningless. It still haunts me. I never want to feel that ever again.”
She spoke with such conviction that Zoe couldn’t help but find herself in awe. “How can I help?” Dorothy smiled at the hesitation in her voice. “I want you to be an Ace, of sorts. I want someone to bear my legacy, to be a constant reminder that I existed. I may not be the Doctor, but I still want to be remembered.”
“And you want me to be your legacy?” Zoe sounded hesitant, unsure.
“Zoe.” Dorothy stood up and placed her hands firmly on her shoulders. “I can’t think of anyone better. Don’t get it twisted, though, kid. I’m still Ace, but now, so are you. The same way you’re a part of Sarah Jane.”
Zoe drew out a long breath. “Right. Wow. I guess I have to, now.” She laughed awkwardly.
“Try it on!” Dorothy encouraged. Zoe obliged and, with a little help, slid the jacket around her arms. It was warm, and comfortable to wear.
“It’s a bit big,” she said hesitantly.
“No worries,” Dorothy said reassuringly. “You’ll grow into it.”
Zoe couldn’t mask the smile that spread across her face. It was humbling, to be the perfect candidate for somebody else’s legacy.
“Dorothy?” Sarah Jane’s voice wafted into the garage.
“We’re just in here!” Dorothy cried out. “Come on, let’s go show them.” She led Zoe into the kitchen, where Sarah Jane and an eager Alfie were waiting.
“Hey, Zoe, guess wha — woah!” He balled up his hand and covered his mouth with it, hooting with laughter. “Damn. Get a load of you!”
Zoe crossed her arms, unamused. “Got something to say, Alfie?”
“Yeah! You look like you’re wearing Grandma’s disco jacket,” he snickered. “Where’d you get that from?”
“It’s mine,” Dorothy replied. “I wanted her to have it.”
“I felt like it.” She shrugged casually.
“Why not just give it to your kids?” He inquired.
Dorothy balked at the thought. “Me? Kids? Yeah, right.”
“Listen, loser, I get it,” Zoe interjected. “You’re jealous! You want this and you’re mad I’ve got it. Just admit it.”
“Ha, you wish.”
Zoe rolled her eyes. “What were you gonna tell me then?”
“Eh? Oh!” He leaned forward and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Guess who’s gonna help you kick alien butt.”
“Oh, great,” Zoe sighed dramatically, glaring at Sarah Jane. “You’ve lost it!”
Sarah Jane smiled. Despite the comments, she knew that Zoe was secretly very happy to have Alfie around. She also knew that the feeling was mutual for Alfie.
“That’s great news,” Dorothy smiled. “Another competent planet defender in the world. God knows we could use it. We should throw a party.”
Zoe and Alfie both perked up at the thought and simultaneously exclaimed, “Hell yes!”
Before Sarah Jane could voice her approval, her phone rang. “Excuse me.” She fished the phone out of her pocket and pressed it to her ear. “Hello?”
“Hey!” Marisol’s chipper voice pronounced loudly. “No news about the bunker, but I felt bad for leaving you in the lurch. Everything okay?”
Sarah Jane smiled. “Everything’s fine, Marisol. Finished with work for the day?”
“Absolutely!” Marisol squealed happily. “You know I’d forgotten the news I wanted to tell you earlier today.”
“Yeah! The thing I told you about before they… you know… found the body.”
“Ah, yes,” Sarah Jane said, bowing her head respectfully. “What was it?”
“So, Noah’s been away on this glorified business trip for roughly a week, right?”
“Right,” Sarah Jane nodded.
“But here’s the thing: he hasn’t!”
Sarah Jane frowned, intrigued. “What?”
“He hasn’t left the village! I went round his house to check everything was in order yesterday — you know that giant mansion out of the village? — and his car was still in the drive.”
“Maybe he took another car,” Sarah Jane suggested.
“He always takes that car! Not only that, but his paperwork is still in his office. Why would he leave without that?”
“I see,” Sarah Jane drummed her fingers against the kitchen counter.
“Sounds shady,” Alfie piped up. Sarah Jane looked at him in alarm, and realised that he was listening intently to her conversation, along with Zoe and Dorothy. She glared accusingly at her phone screen, which Sentinel had snuck into and turned the loudspeaker on for everyone’s benefit.
“Sarah Jane?” Beth barged into the kitchen, looking very concerned. “Something’s up with Laurel.”
“And then there’s Lamia, who…” Marisol trailed off, and suddenly there was shouting on the other end. It sounded like Felix. “Oh my god!”
There was a loud boom on the other side of the phone that made Sarah Jane jump. She threw her phone across the room in surprise. The next thing she knew, a large shockwave rippled through the house and knocked everybody into the kitchen bar.
Alfie swore under his breath. “What the hell was that?”
“I think it was something to do with Marisol,” Zoe surmised.
“Into the car! Quickly!” Sarah Jane ushered the group into her Mini Cooper, and sped towards Cottage Row.
By the time they got there, the area was being cordoned off by UNIT forces. Residents were pushed back behind the line and forced to watch from the sidelines. Felix was comforting Marisol while clutching onto Dan, while the rest of the Orange family stood close by, staring in shock.
Sarah Jane, Zoe, Beth and Alfie hurried over to their friends, while Dorothy went to intercept a stony-faced Josh Carter.
“Marisol,” Sarah Jane breathed when she reached the group, and wrapped a comforting hand over her shoulders. Felix nodded at her and moved to the side to talk to his friends “Are you okay? What happened?”
“It’s awful,” Marisol whispered. Her eyes were glazed over and her movements were rigid. She was in shock. “Simply awful.”
Sarah Jane looked over at the blast site, and covered her mouth with a hand to stifle a gasp. The fronts of houses had crumbled into charred fragments, a large plume of smoke wafted into the air like a beacon of chaos, and, in the centre of it all, was the cause of the destruction: Marisol’s car, blown out of proportion by an explosion.
“Sarah Jane.” It was Beth, and she was looking at her in stunned confusion. “What does it mean?”
Sarah Jane bowed her head gravely. “It’s a message, Beth.”