Two things woke me up.
The Doctor tensing suddenly.
And the soft, muffled sound of a crying child.
Confused, I sat up and rubbed my eyes, peeking at the Doctor to find out if he heard it, too. His startled look revealed the answer and he held a finger up to his lips as he got up from the sofa.
The sound repeated, still sounding far away and as if the person was trying to hold it back. Tiny sobs that made me wonder if it had the same origin as the scream-like sound I had heard when touching the machines outside.
This house was only dimly lit, windows and doors all sealed shut with metal platings. There was light, however, making me realise the… lamp above our heads. An electrical one. Maybe the Master had installed it here? But then I also remembered the cooled beverages…
"Lucy." The Doctor's voice was barely above a whisper.
My eyes darted towards him. He stood next to a small door and had his hand on the knob. Curious I sprang up and came closer, now hearing the sounds more clearly.
"I'm not sure I want to know," I muttered darkly. Could this be another machine? But if so, then why lock us up with it?
The Doctor shrugged and put his ear to the wood. "Hey," he softly called. "Is someone in there?"
A shocked yelp came from the other room, another sob. We looked at each other and I shrugged helplessly.
"Hello there," the Doctor continued, voice carefully soft. "I'm the Doctor. I got locked up in here, quite as you. I'm here with a friend. We want you no harm."
There was noise from the other side, some mumbling maybe and the sound of shuffling feet and clothes.
"I'm coming in, okay? Please don't shoot."
With that he slowly turned the knob and pushed the door open just enough to peek inside. Another scared yelp came from the room and the Doctor opened the door fully to step in. I followed, on guard and immediately baffled by what I saw.
It looked like a small study room, with bookshelves and a table and also a comfy sofa. On that and in several other places there sat… children. Probably twelve or fifteen of them, all in various ages between maybe five to their early teens. And all of them looked terrified.
"Why did he lock up children?" I wondered, mumbling, trying to remember if I had seen any in the machines from before.
"Hey, hello, I'm the Doctor," introduced the Time Lord. "This is Lucy."
"Why hasn't he put you into the lightning things?" A tiny girl with brown hair asked. "He took all the grown ups."
"What's he doing with our parents?" an older boy wanted to know.
"Are you a prisoner too? You don't work for him?" came from a corner to my left.
And all at one started to babble and to ask. From somewhere came new sobs and there were two kids, maybe ten, holding each other tight. Soon we were surrounded and a particularly small boy clung to my leg, while the Doctor rambled on.
"He's a… I mean I had him on my ship. Usually he doesn't… well, yeah, he does, but I swear he was under control for the last few years. I don't know why he's doing this."
"Doctor, I think you're confusing them," I sighed and picked up the boy to carry him. "Listen kids. The Master is a criminal and we were tasked to deal with him. He escaped, though, and he also managed to lock us up. We can't say for sure what he's planning, but the Doctor here-" I thumped at the man in question- "is very experienced in dealing with criminals. That one especially."
All eyes went wide and the little ones started to babble even louder, a careful excitement now in their voices. The small boy wrapped his tiny arms around my neck and I went with him to the sofa to sit down there and put him in my lap instead. More comfy for the both of us.
"My mommy is in the light chair," he mumbled sadly.
"I can't promise anything, but if I can, I will get her out, yeah?" There was no way I could give him hope only to have it shattered in the end. I knew that hope was what they needed the most now, but I also knew how devastating it was to get it, only to watch how it got shattered into a million pieces.
The Doctor dropped next to me, the crowd of kids around him. Some climbed up to us and squeezed themselves wherever they fitted, others sat on the carpet.
"What's the deal with those ghosts?" I eventually asked. "Those things that repeat and then crumble to dust."
The local kids were the best source of information and distracting might also be a good idea. The Doctor stopped playing with two girls to listen up.
"It's just that," an older boy said, shrugging his shoulders. He was probably twelve, maybe even a little older. "My mom told me, those have been here forever. But the grown-ups don't talk about it."
"Sometimes I think the grown-ups are ghosts too," a girl quietly said.
"Hey, Ilsa, don't say that!" the kid next to her exclaimed.
"But they are always so strange. They do the same every day. And if you ask them about Grandpa they don't know what you mean."
"Why don't they know?" the Doctor asked, curiously. "Can't they remember?"
"No. Some of us don't have Grandpa's!" the older boy explained, as if that were obvious. "And other Grandpa's are so old, they go to the holy grounds. They come back old again, but not as old as they were before."
"Yeah, Dad did it too, once," another boy in a similar age told, as if it were the most normal thing.
I shared a look with the Doctor and found him as puzzled as I felt. Something was truly odd about this place. And by the looks of it, the Master had figured out what it was to now use it for… whatever he was doing.
For another while the Doctor kept probing them for more details, but there wasn't much to add, only the same pattern repeating. One kid told how some who came back younger also suddenly behaved livelier and more nuanced than before, but that didn't happen often and mostly they didn't care too much about this to really have any useful insight.
I yawned and curled up on the Doctor's side again, the child from before still in my arms like a stuffed toy. He seemed to be sleeping as well and somehow that made me smile. It was by far too loud to sleep and my overloaded brain didn't like all the chatter too much. But somehow it was also soothing to have so many children around, to see all their curious eyes and witness how they could find joy, even in a situation like this. It reminded me of my nephews and I wondered how they might be doing right now.
Sometime later the Doctor started to tell a story. One I had never heard before. About a man who went on a long journey through a cave full of glowing fungi, to find a treasure of his village. The details were hazy after a while, the children listening in silence and giving me enough quiet to nod away again.
It was weird to dose in a place like this and in this strange company. The Doctor, who didn't seem to be entirely certain if he could trust me or not but did nonetheless his best to stay close and offer some comfort. And the children, who told such puzzling stories and were now listening wide eyed to every adventure the Doctor recited. I still held the boy, who was sleeping against my chest and had his small hand clawed into my shirt.
What a weird situation. Under any other circumstance this would have been one of the most cozy few hours of my life. But the uncertain future and the knowledge of the creepy machines outside made it impossible to relax completely.
Everything went completely quiet when we heard steps from outside. The door to our room swung open and in stepped the Master, still in his cowboy outfit, as if to mock the whole scenery, and a grin on his face that promised no good.
"Ah, you found the rats," he said cheerfully. "Thought you would like their company."
Some of the kids sprang up and hid behind the sofa, the others were frozen. I felt something tug at my shirt and found the boy to be awake and clutching at me. I rubbed his back, but then sat him down and got up. The Master followed my movements with his eyes and his grin grew only wider when I tossed him an angry stare.
"So, you coming?" he asked.
"No?" I squinted at him. "I have no idea what the heck you're doing out there and I don't want to have a part in it."
"And what are you planning with those children?" The Doctor suddenly stood next to me, making me wince. "Are they going to be your… sacrifice?"
"Uhhhh, oh oh. You're close, dear Doctor." The Master giggled, his hand fiddling with the laser screwdriver. Probably only to show he was armed. "But think again. No… no no no, you can't. You don't have all the pieces, do you?"
"I know enough. There is the same metal from the ship everywhere. It spread somehow, maybe it's even living? The place you wanted me to see, where all the signatures ran together. It's a hub."
The Master dipped his head in acknowledgement and waited for more to come. But the Doctor stayed silent, only watching the laser screwdriver, probably contemplating how he could knock down the other man without getting himself shot. Or any of the kids.
Speaking of them, one single girl stepped forth, not older than ten, her brown hair unkempt and her tiny hands balled into fists. We all stared baffled at her as she stepped between us and the Master and glared up at him.
"You let my papa go, Mister," she demanded shakily, barely holding back tears. She shot forward and stepped on his foot. "I want him back!"
The room fell silent, all eyes wandering to the Master in fear of what he would do to the kid. I already wanted to grab and tear her away, felt the Doctor moving, too, but freezing when the laser screwdriver suddenly pointed at the girl's face.
"Master, don't! Don't harm her. She's just a child!"
"Yeah… That she is. Keep your distance, Doctor and she might grow up one day."
The threat hung all too real between us and my heart thudded painfully when I saw the Master drop to his haunches in front of the girl. I wanted so desperately to stop him from doing something to her, hated to feel so powerless.
But he didn't attack. He only smiled at the girl. "You don't need him. None of you need the ones outside. They are just a dream. When I'm done with them we'll bring you away from here. All of you."
"What?!" shouted the Doctor. "I'm not abducting them!"
"No, 'course not." The Master got to his feet again. "You'll understand soon enough. Maybe you'll thank me even." He snickered and ruffled through the girl's hair. She winced and finally ran away. "You lot stay with the Doctor. And you, lil' lumin-" he nodded towards the door- "with me."
I crossed my arms, frowning. "I'm not going to help."
The Master rolled his eyes. "I don't need help. Stop making a fuss."
"And how will you force me?" I grumbled, still unwilling.
"Force… I'm not forcing you to anything, stupid!" he groaned.
"Well, then I'm not going anywhere," I deadpanned. "And if you dare to harm even one of the kids, our deal is cancelled!"
Baffled, he glared at me, for once out of words. Then he let out a sigh and pulled something out of his coat pocket. Something small and covered in purple glowing veins.
The dragon egg.
"The children aren't in any danger," he said, defiantly and added something, grumbling it under his breath so low I barely understood it. But it definitely sounded like, "Even I have some limits."
Well, he had spared them from the machines and hadn't harmed the girl. Small thighs. With him it always was small things.
"The egg!" the Doctor called out. "Where have you been hiding it? And why is it glowing? You haven't fed any people to it, have you?"
"Don't be silly, Doctor," the Master sneered. "It reacts to our little human here. For whatever reason."
I glared at the pulsing veins, again fascinated by the sight. The faint heartbeat, the slight warmth. Relief and joy washed over me at seeing it again, but also a light dread, remembering what it had done to me the last time.
"This was what exhausted her so much, recently," the Master explained nonchalantly.
"What?! Why have you given it to her, then? Do you have to experiment on everyone?"
The Master shrugged. "I didn't know, alright? And she refused to give it back, so this isn't my fault alone."
"But why now?" I wanted to know.
The Doctor lay a hand on my shoulder. A reassuring gesture, although it made me fear he would try to hold me back. I bent away quickly and stepped to the Master.
"This is dangerous, Lucy. You don't know what he's going to do with you."
"No… but this one is mine." I pointed at the egg. "It chose me."
"It feeds off of you! Lucy, listen, I don't know what he wants to use this for, but you can't trust him."
"Och, listen to you," the Master said, mockingly pursing his lips. "Isn't it delightful how much you still fear me?" He snickered to himself."
"Whatever you're doing, you can still stop it, Master," the Doctor now begged.
The other Time Lord simply smiled. "Say my name again. Maybe I'll think about it."
It was visible how uncomfortable it made the Doctor. But after some seconds he obediently lowered his head, muttering, "Please, Master."
My eyes darted back and forth between the two, fascinated by whatever power dynamic they shared. One in a position where he couldn't risk being left behind, where he shouldn't even try to get on his captor's bad side. The other, who should be in charge, who should just threaten with the obvious consequences, but didn't even so much as mention them.
And for the first time I started to understand that the Doctor was, indeed, still scared, despite his position, and that it had a reason, that the Master was so much more dangerous and willing to be, than I had thought before. He practically radiated authority and it made me shiver.
"Alright… I'll come," I agreed and glared at the egg. I didn't want him to harm the Doctor and I wanted to know why all of this was happening. "But at least tell me what you're planning."
A grin bloomed on his face again and he stepped towards me to push the egg into my hands.
"What do you think? We're going to hatch this."