The room was semi-circular, shaped like one fourth of a ball and lined with smooth white stones around three feet wide that were square and seemed to glow and pulse with some inner power. From one corner to the opposite along the cut-off part of the circle, the chamber was two hundred feet wide. At the highest point of its curved roof, it was one hundred feet high. And from the middle of the flat side where two enormous doors lay to the opposite end along the curved side was one hundred feet.
At that opposite end, mounted right up against the curved portion of the white-stone chamber there was an archway constructed of red ruby-like gemstones, each about the size of an average man’s clenched fist. These gems were stuck together in the arch-shape to form a doorway that was twenty feet high and nine feet wide. All along the bottom of the arch, runic symbols were etched into the white stones that made up the floor. Each of these symbols pulsed with gold energy while humming with power.
Two guards stood at either end of that archway. They were clad in gleaming golden armor with black highlights. The armor itself looked like futuristic chainmail and armored leggings, along with a sleek helmet with a face-concealing black visor. Red gemstones similar to the ones that made up the archway itself were planted in the center of their chest-pieces, and they wore a sword on one hip and a pistol on the other. Both were standing at attention, their gazes locked toward the opposite side of the room.
The entrance into the chamber lay directly opposite them, where their eyes were focused. Two additional guards stood there on either side of those doors. Both sets of guards were facing one another.
Finally, about halfway up the flat wall where the entrance was, spaced equidistant apart there were two balcony-like structures. Two guards stood in each of these balconies, armed with scoped rifles. Each pair of guards took turns either standing with their weapon held at their side, or raised and pointed toward the archway. There were never less than two rifles aimed directly at the center of the arch.
The near-silence of the room (aside from the quiet humming of power and the occasional murmur of whispered conversation from the waiting guards) was broken by a series of three chimes. As soon as the chimes were over, a spark of energy flickered in the middle of the archway briefly. The spark returned a couple times, like a lighter that was almost out of fuel as it tried to bring its tiny flame to life. Then the power held, and a bright glowing white portal appeared, taking up the shape of the archway.
As soon as the chimes had started, the two snipers who had been standing at rest brought their own rifles up to join their companions. Four scoped weapons were held zeroed in on the glowing portal. Meanwhile, the two guards who stood on either side of it had taken a pair of practiced, disciplined steps away before pivoting back. They stood there, drawing their swords while facing the portal. And at the opposite side of the room, the other pair of guards near the doors took two steps forward and drew their pistols, aiming carefully while they waited to see what would come through the newly activated portal.
First to emerge were two figures who looked identical to the guards that were already in the chamber. They stepped into view, saluted their comrades, and then executed an about-face back toward the portal once more. The two were followed by a line of twelve figures in prisoner garb. All looked at least vaguely humanoid, though there were two reptilian figures and one covered in fur. Each walked with their hands secured in front of themselves with a pair of thick steel manacles. Their ankles were also secured, and a chain strung between each set of cuffs, ankles and wrists alike, linked all of them together.
The dozen slowly shuffling prisoners were followed by yet two more armored guards who brought up the rear, ensuring that their charges kept up the proper pace. The newly arrived pair had just stepped out of the portal before it disappeared behind them, leaving the archway empty and quiet once again.
Perfectly on cue, as the portal shut down, the doors across the chamber opened. A figure in a pristine tailored white uniform adorned with medals, with a violet cape trailing behind him strode through them. He was accompanied by two other armed soldiers who hurried to keep up with his quick pace.
“Detainees!” the man barked. He was well-past six feet in height, reaching nearly halfway to seven. His build was fit and muscular even under his perfectly fitted uniform. His white-blonde hair was cut short with military precision, and there was a certain ethereal beauty to his face that seemed impossible.
When the prisoners looked to the man, he stopped in front of them. His eyes scanned each before he continued. “I am called Forfax, of the Seosten Choir of Tleken. You have all been sent here because you’ve caused far too much trouble to be allowed to stay at our more peaceful work camps. Let me be clear, you are going to wish you had behaved yourselves. Remember those camps you just left? You may have thought they were bad, but you had several benefits there that do not exist in my world. In those camps, you had three meals a day. Here, you will have one. In those camps, you were granted one rotation off per micro-cycle. For those of you who are still new, that’s one day per week. Here, you will have no such downtime. You may say that this is unfair and that you will die if you work so hard. To those complaints, I say good. That is our intention. You will work until you die. You’ve had your opportunities for an easy time, and you squandered them with your rebellious attitudes. Now, you pay.”
“Do you accept credit cards?”
The voice came not from any of the well-secured prisoners, but from the doorway that Forfax and his accompanying soldiers had just come through. When they and the remaining people in the chamber spun that way, they found a single figure standing there, clad in the same armor as the rest of the guards, though he held no weapon. His arms were folded casually over his chest as he regarded them.
“What,” Forfax spoke after a moment of silence, “did you say?” His anger was palpable. “What unit are you with? Why are you interrupting? I’ll have you knocked down three ranks for insubordination. You’ll be lucky if you don’t join these prisoners on the line by the time I’m through with you.”
The figure stepped into the room, taking several deliberate steps to put himself within line of the guards on the balcony, all of whom were pointing their weapons at him by that point. His voice was calm and collected. “I said, do you take credit cards. I mean, as long as you want them to pay, it seems like you ought to make it as convenient as possible, doesn’t it? Don’t tell me you’re one of those places that only allows some kind of signed money order. Do you have any idea just how incredibly inconvenient that is?”
While the Seosten and his people were trying to understand what he was saying, the man reached up to the helmet, tugging it off before casting the thing aside haphazardly. As it rolled along the floor, he shook his long, dark hair out. “Better. You have no idea how stuffy it gets in there.” Pausing then, he nodded toward the equally-armored and helmeted guards. “Well, I guess you guys do. Awful, isn’t it?”
The very same second that Forfax was given a look at the man’s face, he had already yanked a sword free of his belt. His voice was a snarled, “Heretic.” Meanwhile, the rest of the soldiers all drew their own weapons, while the ones in the balconies above powered up their rifles and zeroed in on him.
At the same time, a murmured conversation went up from the chained-together prisoners at the back, carried half by fear at the very word ‘heretic’ and half in confusion about what one of those murderous creatures would be doing here, so far into Seosten territory where none were known to travel.
“Moon,” the man spoke, his voice as calm as ever. “The name is Haiden Moon. And I spent the better part of a decade trapped on one of your backwater worlds, trying to–” He stopped in mid-sentence, seeming to consider what he had just said. “Okay, that’s not fair. It wasn’t really backwater. Actually, it was fairly nice, with these neat waterfalls that came off the glass mountains. Oh, and they had this incredible… ahhh, what did they call them… it was this delicious fried fish with this sauce that was just… mmmm. Incredible.”
Waving off his own words, Haiden continued. “Anyway, props to your chefs. But you know, as great as that fish is, it’s not as good as my family. And thanks to you people, I’ve been separated from them for far too damn long. Separated so long, in fact, that I started to learn about the thing that banished me. And you know what I found out? That thing, it broke into a bunch of pieces. And each of those pieces went to some other world. And as it turns out, I may not be able to go back to my own world, but I can go to any world that has one of those pieces. All I have to do is collect the pieces and put them together again. I fix the thing that sent me here, and we can undo that whole banishing problem. You see?”
Forfax stepped forward, a sneer disrupting his inhumanly beautiful face. “One of these… pieces you search for is here, then? Your mistake, Heretic, was in thinking that you could come here all by yourself and take it. Now you’ll either die in this room, or join these prisoners on the line.”
In response, Haiden slowly glanced around the chamber at the assortment of weapons levied toward him. Slowly, he held up a couple of fingers. “Two things I need to correct you on, buddy. First, I didn’t come here for one piece. I came for two. It’s just that the other one was on that same prison world your ahh, your new friends there just left. Which brings me to the second point… I’m not here by myself.”
As soon as he finished speaking, Forfax whirled back toward the prisoners. His hand hit a button on his belt, and a jolt of powerful energy shot through the chains that bound each of them. They all spasmed, crying out before collapsing to the ground in an unconscious and helpless heap of bodies.
All, that was, except for one. The female reptilian figure had stood second from last in the line. And as all of her companions fell, this one stood up straight. Her chains fell away harmlessly, landing on the floor with a clattering noise. As the guards reacted, she reached up to grasp the top of her own head, ripping it apart. The reptilian skin tore away in neat halves, falling to reveal a human figure beneath. A human figure which, just like Haiden himself, was immediately recognized as another Heretic.
“Hi,” the brown-haired woman announced while giving the astounded figures a two-fingered wave. “I’m Larissa. Larissa Mason. And you? Well, you’re kind of boned.”
Jerking his attention between the female Heretic behind him, and the male Heretic in front of him, Forfax shouted out a belated command, “Kill them! Kill both of them, right now! Now!”
Instantly, the snipers in the balconies opened fire on Haiden. Four separate bullets shot straight at the man, crossing the distance in a single instant as they traveled faster than any ordinary being could manage a single thought. This man, however, was far from ordinary. He was already twisting around as Forfax spoke, hand tugging at a cylinder on his belt to reveal his enormous black sword with the glowing red line running through it. The blade was pulled free even as the snipers opened fire, and Haiden brought it up and around into the path of the incoming bullets. Each clattered against the weapon before ricocheting off with a clang of protesting metal. An instant later, both of the snipers in one of the balconies collapsed, each struck by two of the bullets that had been expertly ricocheted off of the sword.
As a bronze glow sprang up around the man briefly, announcing his absorption of the men that the ricocheted shots had killed, an alarm began to blare somewhere in the background, and more soldiers poured into the room. Meanwhile, one of the men that had accompanied Forfax reached Haiden, lashing out with his own sword at the Heretic’s back as he faced the balconies. Haiden, however, smoothly side-stepped the blade. His hand caught the man’s extended wrist, and he twisted to yank the guard in front of him just as the remaining two snipers recovered from their surprise and opened fire. The shots poured into the soldier’s back as Haiden used him as a human shield before physically throwing the man clear up toward the balcony. The snipers kept firing, trying to get a clear shot even as the body of their comrade arced up toward them, taking up their entire view before finally falling against the railing. They aimed down, back toward the spot where their target had been a couple of seconds earlier, only to find the spot empty.
He appeared directly between the two men, teleporting into their midst before they knew what was happening. “Hey, fellas,” the man greeted them before slamming his elbow backward into one man’s visor with enough force to snap his head backwards, putting a hole in the nearby wall.
The second sniper tried to turn around with his rifle, but Haiden caught the barrel as it turned toward him, shoving it inward with enough force that the man reflexively pulled the trigger. The resulting force snapped the rifle out of the guard’s hands, and Haiden pivoted while lashing out with it so that the butt of the rifle smacked the first man across the mostly-shattered faceplate even as he started to recover from the initial elbow. He was knocked stumbling backward once more.
Disarmed, the second sniper nonetheless threw a punch at the intruding Heretic. His armored fist glowed with energy as he lashed out with a blow that would have punched through solid concrete. But for Haiden, it was barely worth acknowledging. The man dropped the rifle he had stripped from the man before easily parrying the incoming punch with an arm, smacking it aside along with the following flurry of blows as the now-unarmed sniper struggled to land a single hit. Meanwhile, Haiden simply stood with his black sword held down, casually and repeatedly blocking the man’s attacks with a single arm.
That continued for a bare handful of seconds, while Haiden flipped his own sword around. With a grunt, he drove it backward through the chest of the first sniper, who was still trying to recover from first the elbow, and then being struck by his colleague’s own rifle. The blade easily tore through his armor, pinning the man to the wall before he was flung free with a single casual swipe, his body flying off the balcony.
The bronze glow returned, just as Haiden turned his attention to the remaining man in front of him. He swung the blade up, smacking the desperately lashing-out man across the chin with the hilt of the weapon. The blow knocked the sniper’s head back, dazing him in spite of the armored helmet.
By that point, the room had been filled with more than a dozen additional soldiers, all of whom were starting to take up position, following Forfax’s repeated orders to kill the Heretics. Before they could open fire, however, Haiden caught hold of the remaining sniper’s collar and leapt from the balcony with him in tow.
As he fell toward the floor, the soldiers got their weapons up and started to shoot. Each shot, however, was caught against a glowing blue forcefield that sprang up in front of the plummeting man.
Halfway down, Haiden hurled his sword ahead of himself. It struck the floor in the middle of the group of soldiers, embedding itself standing up. An instant later, the enormous black blade split apart around the middle, right where the glowing red line was. The split revealed a pair of gun barrels that slid out and locked into place, facing opposite directions. The sword began to spin then, while it opened fire right in the middle of the group, catching several off guard.
Landing while the men were distracted, Haiden cast his captured sniper aside, throwing him straight into another pair of soldiers even as they tried to open fire on him. At the same time, he yanked the sword out of the floor and twisted around in a motion that simultaneously allowed the still-firing gun barrels to hit two more targets, while also carrying the blade through the neck of the nearest man.
More soldiers opened fire from behind him, but Haiden flicked his finger up. Obeying his unspoken command, parts of the actual floor of the room rose in a handful of columns that blocked the incoming shots. Before they could adjust their aim, the Heretic man vanished once more. He reappeared behind two of them, shoving his sword through one while touching the second with his hand. At his touch, the soldier was encased in a stone shell that left him trapped. Another stolen power from a long-dead Alter.
Twisting back toward the other men, Haiden flicked his sword up. A touch of the button at its hilt made the weapon snap around and reassemble itself. Both of the gun barrels pointed forward, while the hilt extended itself to create the butt of a rifle. A trigger and hand-guard had slid up into place over the blade, until the man wasn’t holding a sword any longer. Now, he held what looked like a double-barreled shotgun with a long bayonet on the end.
He fired twice, each shot taking one of the incoming soldiers in the face before spinning to face one of the men that was leaping at him, sword raised high. A quick, smooth sidestep moved him out of the way before his hand slapped the lunging soldier’s wrist. Again, stone encased the man. Before his now-entombed body could fall to the floor, Haiden leapt and spun, kicking the pseudo-statue with enough force to send it flying into two more of the men. It shattered against them, all three collapsing with an assortment of broken bones among them.
With a quick gesture, Haiden summoned all the shattered pieces of stone to float around him. Another stolen power made the stones start to glow white-hot before they began flying through the room, easily burning through several more armored men before they knew what hit them.
Sensing movement behind him, the man twisted back that way with his weapon up while his burning rocks flew up defensively around him. One of the soldiers stood there. Before either could move, however, there was the sound of something thin slicing through the air. The soldier stopped short, seeming briefly surprised. Then his head slid from his neck, falling to the floor while his body collapsed in the opposite direction.
Standing several feet behind the man stood Larissa. Her body appeared to be entirely made of water, while a pink glow surrounded her. Her hand was outstretched with a whip of that same water-form already retracting back into her aquatic wrist. It was that water-whip that she’d used to easily sever the soldier’s head.
More bodies lay all along the floor where his fellow Heretic had been. The only being left standing, Haiden realized belatedly, was the one who had been in charge: the Seosten.
Even then, Forfax was hurriedly scrawling runes on the floor in an attempt to reactivate the portal and escape. Before he could get anywhere, however, Larissa lashed out with her whip. As it closed around the man’s ankle, the water turned into solid ice in order to hold him. Then the woman yanked back, tearing the Seosten off his feet and hauling him to the floor between the two of them.
Forfax tried to rise once more, but Haiden settled a foot into the man’s throat to hold him in place before turning his attention to his companion. “Any luck?” he asked, his voice pensive.
Dismissing her water-form so that her flesh returned to normal, Larissa gave him a brief, apologetic look. “Yes and no. I found this.” She produced a small piece of metal, part of the orb that had banished him from his home. “But Sariel wasn’t there. I’m… I’m sorry.”
Grimacing, Haiden fought to control his disappointment. Another dead end. Still, it wasn’t her fault. “You tried,” he said quietly. “It’s one more off the list. She’s somewhere here in Seosten space. One of these worlds has to have her.”
“And we’ll find her,” Larissa promised him. “I owe you both at least that much after everything you’ve done.”
Nodding, Haiden pushed down a little harder on the Seosten’s throat. “You’re right. We’ll find my wife. And we’ll find a way back to Earth. We both belong with our families. You have your own children to get back to.”
Pinned to the floor as he was by the Heretic’s incredible strength, Forfax started to laugh. “Stupid… did you think you could touch me without… without…” He frowned then, clearly straining for something.
“Ah, I’m sorry.” Haiden gestured to the man. “Were you trying to possess me? That’s my fault, I probably should’ve warned you about the anti-possession spells that we put on ourselves.” Slapping his own forehead, he added, “Boy is that egg on my face.”
“Anti-posses–” Forfax froze before snarling. “You babble on about ‘returning’? Fools. The only thing you will both return to is obedience, as our soldiers… our weapons… our tools.”
Squinting down at the Seosten, Haiden spoke quietly. “There’s only one thing I want from you, one thing you can say to save your own life. One answer you can give me.”
After letting that hang in the air for a moment, he continued in a more conversational voice. “What is the name of that fried fish? Because I have been trying for, I swear, months to remember what it was and I just cannot get it. I mean, don’t you hate that, when something is on the tip of your tongue and you just can’t…” Taking in a long, deep breath as he considered for a moment, the man finally exhaled with a casual shrug. “Ah well, I’ll figure it out.”
Then, with a quick swipe of his sword, the Seosten was dead, his head cut from his body to roll out of the way.
“Well,” Haiden stowed his sword once more before pivoting to start walking across the body-strewn floor. “Let’s find the next piece of that orb, shall we?
“And I’ve got a good feeling about the kitchen here.”