Avalon’s clear voice called out as we approached the hole that had been left in the side of the massive sixty foot high wall. “Scout, near-left tower! Boy Porter, near-right tower! Mason, bridge over!”
The three of them acted immediately. Scout took a knee briefly, lifting her rifle into position at her shoulder before sighting in. A second later, she took the shot and the distant figure standing atop the tower who had been starting to react to our approach went pitching backwards, falling with a scream.
At the same time, Columbus simply looked up to find his own target on the other tower. As the guard was in the midst of calling out, the boy sent a powerful beam of concussive silver-blue light shooting up from his goggles. The blast took the guard full in the chest, lifting him clear off the tower before sending him flying. His scream echoed off into the night before fading as he fell entirely out of sight.
Both of them abruptly staggered, and I saw their auras (pink in Scout’s case, white in Columbus’s) flare up, each glowing briefly while the two of them obviously fought to hold back the gasps of pleasure.
Meanwhile, Sands gave a quick swipe of her mace toward the pile of broken debris that was all that remained of the tower that had been hit by the Meregan ship. The last thing it absorbed must have been wood, because the weapon created a wooden platform over top of the debris to serve as a bridge so that we could run straight across rather than tripping and stumbling our way through the unstable mess.
The bridge was wide enough for three of us to run across side by side. Avalon, Senny, and I did just that, moving together ahead of the others and through the gap in the wall. We were inside the city.
Ahead of us, a massive figure blocked the way. It was a nine foot tall, hairy beast that looked like a cross between a Sasquatch and a cyclops, with great shaggy fur, powerful arms that drooped all the way to the ground, and a single eye in the middle of its forehead. My Alter-sense helpfully chimed in as my eyes took in the figure, letting me know that yes, this thing was indeed not human. Thanks for that.
Even as the thing opened its mouth to roar a challenge, Senny disappeared from my side. I caught the slightest glimpse of her figure blurring through the air as she sped straight toward him before her fist took the enormous Alter straight in the stomach with enough force to double him over, the roar collapsing into a wheezing cry as the air was driven out of him by the hard blow. I was barely able to follow the vampire girl’s movement as she spun around while producing a knife from her belt, cutting through the doubled-over figure’s throat in a quick slice. Then, as blood sprayed out, she caught hold of his limp arm, hauling herself up and over his shoulder and back to land behind him. The ogre, or whatever he was brought both hands up to stop the spray of blood from his throat, gurgling while Asenath pivoted into a kick from behind him. Her leg took him in the side, launching him off the impromptu bridge and to the ground where he lay choking on his own blood until a quick stomp of the vampire’s foot into his already horribly wounded throat left him laying completely still and motionless.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only defender that had shown up. Two more figures swooped down out of the sky. They looked like ugly old hag witches with leathery bat-like wings and beaks in place of noses. Harpies, I knew from the lessons I’d had. Their big thing was scratching you with their claws and then retreating, because if they got hold of your blood they could do really nasty voodoo-like things with it.
The first harpy had almost reached Asenath when a flash of metal went tearing past me. With a snarl, Vulcan leapt, catching the harpy in mid-dive. The ugly bird-woman and metal dog tumbled end over end through the air and then on the ground. She screamed and the dog snarled, tearing at her violently.
Meanwhile, my eyes were focused on the second harpy, the one coming in toward Asenath’s back. I was too far away to get there in time. Yet even as that thought came to me and the urge to get there quickly filled my head, I felt something else. It was a sort of… tugging through the wood beneath my feet. Instinctively giving into the tug, I abruptly found myself literally sinking through the bridge.
No, wait, I wasn’t sinking through the wood, I was sinking into it. I was… holy crap, I was merging with it. My body disappeared, and in an instant, I was abruptly… part of the wooden bridge. It was hard to explain, but I could feel the wood all around me. I could sort of half-see through the area around the wood that my body had merged with in a fishbowl-like vision that was a little hard to sort out.
More importantly, I could move with incredible speed through it. A simple thought and I felt myself whooshing through the wooden bridge. It was like being sent through river rapids, and an instant after I thought it, my merged form was already directly behind Asenath while the nearby harpy descended.
Then I was up and out of the bridge, my body reforming while rising from the wood. In the same motion, I lashed out with my staff. The surprised harpy was taken across the beak just before she would have scratched my friend, giving a horrible scream-squawk as she tumbled sideways through the air.
She recovered quickly, orienting herself in my direction, eyes filled with violent hatred. But before the harpy could lunge at me, I made a sharp gesture with one hand that sent a cloud of sand flying into her eyes. The briefly blinded harpy reeled backwards with a new screech, flailing wildly with her claws.
Taking a quick step forward and to the side, I spun to put more force behind the next blow from my staff while triggering the concussive blast to make it even stronger. It slammed into the side of the harpy’s face, snapping her head all the way around in the wrong direction, cutting off her screech.
Bracing myself, I felt the pleasure at the kill rush through me, my own bright golden aura flaring up. Biting my lip to resist the urge to audibly react, I caught my staff against the ground to stay upright.
While I was stuck keeping myself under control, two fast moving discs went spinning past me on either side, drawing my attention suddenly to another of those wooden figures that Shiori and I had fought back in the Meregan ship. The other girl’s disc weapons struck the ground on either side of the charging figure before sending a line of electricity arcing between them to catch him in mid-step. The figure froze up, twitching and jerking helplessly while the energy kept him trapped there for a few seconds.
It was just long enough for Avalon to reach him. My roommate launched herself at the staggering, electrocuted figure, coming in just under the arc of electricity to slice through his leg with the energy blade created from her right gauntlet. Then she rolled past him while he fell onto that knee, pivoting in mid-motion to bring her other gauntlet-covered fist up and around. This time, rather than a simple sword-like construct, her gauntlet created two spinning buzzsaw blades. One took the wooden-man in the neck while the other dug into his chest. Each of the spinning energy saws tore right through him, separating both his head and his upper torso away from the rest of his body into three separate parts.
As the pale green light rose up around Avalon to reward her for the kill, I looked quickly to where Vulcan had just finished off his own harpy. Sure enough, Sean was glowing. Apparently even his mechanical dog killing the enemy was enough to count toward him absorbing it? I wondered briefly how that worked. I mean, sure, it was enough when I killed the things with my staff. But how did it determine that Sean should absorb the power when Vulcan was a separate entity from him? Curious.
Asenath’s voice interrupted my momentary distraction. “That’s it for the welcoming party,” she spoke quietly. “But we should keep moving before they have a chance to regroup and organize a resistance.”
Moving up beside me, Sands gestured behind her. “What was that thing back there with the bridge?”
I coughed at the question. “Err, yeah, like I said, Shiori and I sort of fought some of these things before. I killed one of those wooden guys. Suppose it lets me move through, well, wood like that. I mean, that’s my guess anyway. Unless it was from something I got from the big guy with all the shark-teeth.”
“Shark-teeth?” That got Avalon’s attention, and the girl turned my way abruptly before stopping herself. I saw the hesitation in her expression, though it only lasted a second. Then she got herself under control, nodding to Senny. “She’s right, we keep moving. Gaia and the Meregan may be distracting the big threats, but that doesn’t mean we can take forever. We get in, get the kids, and get the hell out.”
“Right,” Columbus agreed. “So where do we find these giant kids? We can’t just search the whole city.”
Senny sniffed the air before shaking her head. “Too many other scents, or we’re too far away. I can’t pick them out. But if I know my megalomaniacal dictators, they’re probably somewhere in that tower.”
Avalon was already moving ahead. “Spread out a bit so we can’t all be hit by the same thing. Keep your eyes open and move fast. Gerardo, cover the rear with your dog. Scout, use your gun to check all the corners before we get to them and the roofs of the buildings to make sure we don’t get ambushed. Vampire, let us know if you hear or smell anything important that we need to check out. Let’s go.”
Leaning closer to Senny, I stage-whispered, “She’s not being racist or anything by calling you Vampire. It’s just that she doesn’t like calling people by their first names if she can help it, but she doesn’t know your last name. So she’s improvising.” I followed that with a quick thumbs up to my sighing roommate.
We ran then, spreading out as instructed as we made our way through the dark city streets. As we’d hoped, most of the actual military force had gone out after the Meregan, leaving a relative token resistance behind that were spread throughout the city. Still, hurrying was clearly in our best interest.
As we approached one blind corner, Scout brought her rifle up to her shoulder, firing a shot into the portal that she had created. The bullet went through the portal directly in front of her, then out the portal ahead that was facing ninety degrees around the corner of the building. I heard a yelp before Scout fired two more shots in rapid succession. By that point, we’d reached the corner and a large figure that looked like a bodybuilder mixed with some kind of frog lay collapsed on the ground with several holes in him. Scout, meanwhile, almost dropped her gun while giving a gasp as her glowing aura rose. She had one fist stuffed in her mouth to muffle herself, and still gave a heavy shudder.
Before we managed to go more than another block toward the tower, Scout pointed out a heavy force coming down both sides of the next street, as well as more on the roofs and another few from the back. It wasn’t a huge defense force or anything, but it was obvious that they knew where we were going.
“I’ve got that roof,” I announced, nodding toward the one on the right while charging my staff.
Senny glanced at me before nodding. “I’ll take the other one.” She gave me a wink then. “Race you.”
Avalon organized the group on the ground, sending herself and Sands forward to either side with Scout and Columbus covering each of them while Sean used Vulcan to cover the rear with help from Shiori.
Meanwhile, Asenath and I ran for our respective buildings. Just before reaching the wall, I shoved the staff behind me and triggered the charge to launch myself up and forward. The building rushed up toward me, and I would’ve slammed right into it if I hadn’t quickly put my staff forward and triggered more of the charge. Just like when I’d gotten onto the roof of the police station back home, except this building was taller. Which meant I had to switch between blasting the wall of the building behind me and the one in front of me a couple times, and the staff was completely drained by the time I finally launched myself up and over the edge to roll along the roof itself in a slightly uncontrolled sprawl.
Meanwhile, I’d caught glimpses of Asenath practically Spider-Man climbing her way up the side of her building, finding each minute finger and toe-hold like she was playing one of those parkour games. The vampire girl was moving so fast there might as well have been convenient a ladder just sitting there.
Once I rolled to a stop and hopped to my feet, I was just in time to see two hooded figures with curved swords standing in the middle of the roof, clearly taken by surprise at my sudden appearance. They recovered quickly, however, rushing forward while swinging those deadly sharp blades toward me.
Stepping forward toward the nearest sword, I brought my staff up in a quick block while pivoting to twist my body away from the other. I wasn’t quite fast enough to avoid the second slash entirely, taking a cut into the meat of my arm. It hurt, but I made myself ignore it. The other sword smacked against my staff, sliding away as I shoved the weapon to the side. In the same motion, I brought the opposite end of the staff up and around while turning to slam into the face of the hooded figure whose sword had cut me. Then I gave it a quick, tilted spin to smack him in the throat with the one end while simultaneously hitting the second figure in the gut with the opposite.
Working together, the two of them tried to attack me from both sides. It was all I could do to keep blocking as many of their attacks as possible. My staff spun up and around almost of its own volition as I let instinct take over. Avalon had drilled these defensive motions into me over and over again, and I fell into the rhythm of watching and deflecting their attacks for a few seconds while waiting for an opening. Their blades whistled through the air while I kept deflecting and dodging, allowing each passing second and motion to continue charging the formerly-depleted staff with more kinetic energy.
Finally, I caught both swords on either end of the staff and triggered just a little bit of the stored up energy. The brief, small blast was enough to send both hooded figures stumbling backwards. While they were reeling, I shoved one end at the ground to deposit a concussive mine between them with the rest of the energy that had been stored up. Then I dove sideways while kicking out with one foot to hit the back of one of their knees. The blow sent him stumbling forward into the mine, which blew up and sent both figures sailing off in opposite directions. One fell from the roof entirely, while the other skidded and rolled to smack into the nearby chimney.
He was back on his feet and coming at me faster than I might have expected, reacting while the sudden rush of pleasure from his companion not surviving the fall ran over me. Before I could recover fully, he gave me a light cut across the cheek and another, deeper one in the side that made me yelp in pain. His sword was bloody as he pulled it back, and I saw what looked like a feline face through the dark hood smile with glee.
Once again, the figure lashed out. This time, however, I side-stepped, catching his extended wrist with my staff to redirect his swing down and away from me. The hooded, maybe-feline figure hissed angrily and painfully as the blade cut through his leg. Before he could recover, I brought the staff up and around once more to smack across his throat. It was only a glancing blow, but the injured Alter stumbled away and fell to one knee, bleeding from the opposite leg where I’d made him cut himself.
He looked back at me briefly, hissing in anger before hurling himself forward and off the side of the building. Before I could react, he was already clinging to the side of the opposite building, slipping in through the window there to disappear from sight.
And yet, as my hand came down on the roof to steady myself momentarily, I felt a sticky fluid under my fingers. Blood. His blood.
At the same time, immediately as my fingers touched the blood, I sensed… him. It was hard to describe, but I could literally feel the cat-figure’s exact location and position as he moved through the building away from me. He was fleeing, but I knew exactly where he was. I could sense him.
Gasping in surprise, I pulled my fingers out of the blood and brushed them off. The sense faded. Slowly, I lowered them back to the blood. As soon as my skin came into contact with them again, I sensed his exact position once more.
The shark-man’s power. Touching someone’s blood let me sense them. But from how far away?
Before I could wonder too much about that, Asenath was standing beside me. “You okay?” she asked with obvious concern, hand touching my shoulder as she looked at the blood. Her nostrils flared a little to sniff. “Some of that’s yours.”
“I’ll… be okay.” I replied before blinking up at her. “Sorry, this is kind of like a buffet to you, huh?”
She shrugged a little. “I won’t lie, it smells really good. But you don’t last this long if you can’t keep your appetite under control. Besides,” she added with a wink, “I had a snack back there.” Sure enough, her mouth was slightly tinged with red, like a little kid that had been drinking fruit punch.
By that point, most of the cuts had healed enough that they weren’t completely debilitating or anything, and I used the staff to push myself back to my feet. “The others.”
“Allow me,” she offered, and when I didn’t refuse, the vampire hoisted me off the roof. She took a few quick steps forward before leaping down. The air rushed up around me for a second, just before she landed easily on her feet, setting me back on mine.
There were bodies all around us. Apparently the rest of my team and Shiori had been busy. Avalon gave me a quick look, eyes moving up and down me before she asked, “You good?”
I gave a quick nod and a thumbs up. “Stung a little, but I’ll make it.”
“They’re close,” Asenath announced then, head turning. “Not in the tower. There.” She pointed to a long, flat building that ran the length of a city block very near the tower itself, but not attached to it. “I smell Meregan. A lot of them.”
Sands looked like she wanted to say something about that, but clamped down on it while looking away.
“So how do we get in?” Sean asked, holding Vulcan in his gun mode.
“Front door’s there, back door’s there,” Avalon answered. “We go in both sides. But if there was a way to get someone in a less obvious way, just in case…”
I looked up, then nudged Shiori, who had come up nearby. “See that cracked window at the top? Too small to fit a normal person through, but…”
She grinned back at me, smile dazzling. “Go for it.”
Shiori turned into her sand form then, and I held a hand out to take control of her. She flew up and toward the window, sand splitting apart into a cloud that rushed in through the narrow opening. As soon as she was through, I relaxed my control and let her go back to herself.
Columbus raised his hand, mouth open to say something. He hesitated, then simply managed a weak, “You guys have been busy.”
Meanwhile, the others had already split up. Avalon and Senny went to the front of the building, while Sands, Scout, and Sean went to the back. Columbus and I followed the former.
The boy used a brief blast from his goggles on the door to knock it open, and we were through in an instant, finding ourselves suddenly standing in… well, honestly it looked a lot like the lounge back at Crossroads. There were couches lining the walls, what looked like hologram projectors for entertainment, and through an open doorway I saw beds. In the middle of the large room, about fifty or so Meregan children huddled together, clearly terrified out of their minds.
While we were taking all that in, the other three came charging in from the other side, leaving both of our groups just staring at each other over the heads of the scared Meregan kids.
“Uhh, are you guys okay?” I asked, a bit awkwardly. This didn’t exactly look like a dungeon.
Immediately, all of the Meregan youth started jabbering at me in their own language. Obviously, I couldn’t follow any of it even if they hadn’t all been talking over each other.
“Hold on, hold on!” I called out over the sound of their competing words. “Do any of you understand me? Can you speak our language?”
One by one, the tall children, all as big as I was even though they were clearly much younger, looked toward one of their number. He, a six-foot tall boy whose face made him look like he was about ten, hesitantly spoke up. “I… am the… speaking language for Man-Nicholas. You are the being understand?”
“Close enough,” I confirmed after glancing to the others. “We’re here to take you guys back to your parents. Do you understand? We have to move fast and get you out of here. Is everyone all right? You ready to see your families? Mom and dad? Parents?”
That caused some murmuring among them, and the one who had spoken tried again. “We-us are being taking the home for without being give the Man-Nicholas boy-thing-human-person?”
I had to think about that one, frowning in confusion. “What do you mean? I don’t understand.”
“Man-Nicholas is being hold us for keep safe but to trade to parent-people-families for boy-thing-human-person,” the Meregan kid stammered a little. “Man-Nicholas doesn’t not be wanting for us to be here, he is being-want-take child-long-many-childs from his blood with him.”
“Child-long-many-childs,” I echoed before snapping my fingers. “Descendant?”
“That is being ready-right-word,” the Meregan confirmed, head bobbing up and down along with several of the kids near him.
“The guy was holding them to trade for his descendant?” Sands echoed near me. “What descendant?”
I realized it at the same time as Shiori. Both of us spoke together.