After giving a few creative and anatomically impossible (as far as I knew) curses, Sands heaved a sigh. “Right, we’ve got a whole possessed ship to deal with. And those things could be hiding anywhere.”
“So what do we do?” Columbus spoke into the silence that followed Avalon’s announcement. “I mean, can we just back off, blow the whole ship to kingdom come with the assholes on it and call that good?”
I half-expected Avalon to snap at the boy. Instead, she sounded thoughtful. “Actually… yes. Yes, we can. Not back off, but the second part. They did say there’s no civilians on the ship, so let’s just sink it.”
“Can we do that?” I wondered, glancing over at Sands beside me. “I mean, just sink the ship like that?”
“Porter,” Avalon spoke again after a brief pause. “That bag of yours, did you bring any explosives?”
Looking over toward the other set of stairs where the boy stood with Scout, I saw him nod to himself while putting a hand on the over-full bag of goodies that hung from his shoulder. “Uh, yeah. I mean, not enough to sink a ship like this. At least, not very fast. But yeah, I’ve got a couple we can use.”
Avalon was quiet again for a few seconds, clearly thinking. Eventually, her voice returned. “Okay. New plan. Mason, escort Porter down to the lower levels. Gerardo and I will meet you there. We’ll head for the engine room and see what we can do to send this deathtrap to the bottom of the ocean. Chambers, you and Scout head for the bridge. Get into the security system and make sure there’s no survivors. I know what they said, but just… double check. Then work on clearing the way from the engine room to the back deck so we can go straight out and get off before this big hunk of metal takes us down with it.”
Part of me wanted to object with that, but I couldn’t think of a better plan. Instead, I nodded. “Right.” Glancing to Sands, I gestured across the empty space between the two sets of stairs. “Do you mind?”
With a quick smile, the other girl made a swinging motion outward with her mace. As she did so, a narrow metal bridge appeared, connecting our set of stairs to the one that Scout and Columbus were on.
Columbus came over first, jogging across the bridge while the rest of us kept a sharp eye out for any interruptions from our skele-goblin ‘friends.’ Scout had her rifle out and was scanning everywhere until the boy stepped down onto our set of stairs. “Whew, I know the whole ‘no plan survives first contact with the enemy’ thing, but I expected to at least make it up to the bridge before everything changed.”
Clapping him on the shoulder, I managed a slight chuckle. “Don’t worry. Given the way things are going, I’m sure things’ll change again before it’s over. Maybe you’ll make it up to the bridge after all.”
Then it was my turn. Boosting myself onto Sands’ created bridge, I ran across. Months earlier, I barely would have been able to crawl across this thing, probably while whimpering the whole time about the height. Now, I didn’t even glance down. I just ran for the other side and hopped off to land by Scout.
Together, the two of us stood there just long enough to watch Columbus and Sands head back down the stairs. As soon as they were out of sight, I looked toward the other girl. “Ready to see what kind of surprises are up on the bridge?” When she nodded, I took the lead. Staff still out and ready, I moved up the stairs while she watched my back. We moved quickly, each of our eyes scanning everywhere for the first sign of the skeleton-goblin-poltergeists. I couldn’t remember what Avalon had called them, so I decided to go with skeleblineist in my head. It was easier than trying to remember the German word.
Just before we reached the top of the stairs, Sean’s voice came over the communication pin. “Ahh, shit! These things are a–” His next word was overshadowed by the sound of an obnoxiously loud burst of gunfire from Vulcan in gun form. “–pain in the ass! Okay, listen. Avalon wants to know if you guys are at the bridge yet. She’s just a little busy dealing with these annoying shits, so I get to do the talking.”
“Almost,” I replied shortly while continuing up to the door at the top of the stairs. “You guys okay?”
Another burst of gunfire came then before the boy responded. “We’ll make it. Fuckers like to pop out of the woodwork, and every other kind of work. So be careful.” He shot at something else and called a warning to Avalon before going on. “We need you to find a map or something up in the bridge and direct us, tell us the easiest way to get to the engine compartment once Columbus and Sands get here.”
“We’re on it.” Hurrying faster, I moved up to the landing at the top of the stairs and gave the door a yank. Locked. And the thing looked like a pretty heavily reinforced door. Probably meant to keep the guests off the bridge where they didn’t belong. Grimacing, I glanced toward Scout. “Watch out,” I warned her before stepping back to give myself room. Gripping the nearby railing with one hand, I put my other one on the door and took a breath before heaving backwards. It might’ve been meant to withstand a normal person trying to force it open, but there was no way it could hold against my enhanced strength. There was a brief resistance, then the sound of grinding metal before it ripped open.
Scout was right behind me as we moved into the bridge. The place looked incredibly intimidating. Hell, it looked more like the control room of a spaceship than the actual spaceship that I’d been on with the Meregan. There were two levels. First, the slightly lower one we came in on. A line of tall, slightly curved windows surrounded the exterior, overlooking the deck below and the ocean in the distance. Several desks with computers built into the raised portion were set up along this lower section, built into the floor itself so they wouldn’t move. There were also a handful of monitors that were suspended from the ceiling, held up by metal mounting brackets or braces of some kind that were wrapped all the way around the monitors to keep them firmly in place even if the boat rocked heavily. Most of the screens were either completely blank, or just showed a blue screen. One had a view of the empty ocean.
The big, heavily cushioned blue chairs were bolted into the floor as well, and were raised high enough off the floor to have foot rests. And the keyboards were fastened in place. Everything was clearly meant to stay right where it was no matter how much the ocean rocked the ship back and forth during its trip.
Two different short flights of stairs, one at each end of the room, led to the upper area where more desks and computers were, as well as what looked like the actual controls for the ship and the spot where the captain would be. Even from where we were at the entrance, I could see a map of the ocean on one of the screens that seemed to be getting updates about the surrounding water, as well as other information that I couldn’t even begin to guess at. Again, the whole thing looked like Star Trek to me.
“Okay.” I nodded, looking toward my companion. “Now we just need to find a map of the ship for–”
That was as far as I got before Scout abruptly snapped her rifle up and pulled the trigger. Her shot went over my shoulder, and I spun that way in time to see one of the skeleblineists recoiling back into the wall from where he had been reaching for me. An instant later, one of the chairs literally tore itself off its mounting and flew at my face. A quick swipe of my staff sent it careening in the other direction to crash into one of the monitors. “Fuck, guess we’re not–” I started before yelping as a boney-rotted hand grabbed onto my wrist and yanked me sideways. My staff started to snap around at it, but suddenly stopped. I glanced that way to see another of the things leaning out of the console, grasping my staff with both hands to stop me from swinging it. Meanwhile, the first one clawed at my arm and hissed.
In the background, I could hear Scout dealing with goblins of her own. Which meant I was on my own. Luckily, that wasn’t going to be much of a problem. Grimacing as the first one dug his claws into my arm, I snapped my attention to the second. It was still holding my staff. “That,” I informed him flatly, “was a mistake.” With that, I triggered the explosive burst. The kinetic energy slammed into the creature, knocking it away with a scream. And now that the staff was free, I was able to spin around with a grunt and slam the end of it into the second creature that wouldn’t stop clawing into my arm.
The blow knocked the skeleblineist out of the wall and to the floor. But before I could follow up, the thing literally sank into the floor and disappeared again while leaving behind little more than a squeal.
“That’s getting really old!” I snarled the words while looking toward Scout. The other girl was aiming her rifle at a chair, but gave a slight nod without looking away. Clearly the one she’d been fighting had disappeared into it. Now, however, there was no telling where the hell the damn thing had gotten to.
Tilting my head, I thought briefly. My eyes landed on the spot where the staff’s explosive blast had hit the skeleblineist that had been holding onto my arm. There was a tiny spot of dark yellow blood on the wall where the thing had been, a sight that actually made me smile just a little bit. “Oh, hello there.”
Leaning down, I touched my hand against the blood and focused on it while closing my eyes. Then I straightened, readied my staff, and slowly looked around while muttering a plea under my breath.
It worked. The blood-tracking ability that I’d inherited from the harpy on the Meregan’s world kicked in. I felt the presence of the skeleblineist directly above me, in the ceiling. It was hiding there, waiting for an opening. So I gave it one. Turning away, I took a step toward Scout. The presence above me followed. As I continued to walk that way, it pursued me. One step after another, the thing waited to pounce. And I let it think it had the upper hand, forcing myself to act like I didn’t know where it was.
One final step, and I sensed the skeleblineist make its move. The thing lunged down out of the ceiling. If I hadn’t known it was there, it would have taken me completely by surprise and probably gotten its hands around my throat. Instead, I spun and whipped up the staff that I had been charging up the whole time. As the staff slammed into the completely surprised goblin-thing, I triggered the explosion. The skeleblineist had time to let out a single second of a shriek before literally popping apart. I was sprayed with so much gunk and assorted nasty bits that I might as well have been in the front row of a Gallagher show. It wasn’t a pretty sight, and it didn’t exactly smell pretty either. But the thing was dead.
Of course, that meant that there was a moment of distraction as a rush of pleasure rose in me. I was starting to get the hang of it, but still. I shuddered, eyes closing briefly as I felt the rush from killing the thing. My aura glowed briefly, filling the dimly lit room around us before it, and the pleasure, faded.
Opening my eyes, I grimaced while rubbing a hand over my face. “Eww. Remind me to bring wet-naps the next time we do this.” Then I focused on Scout. “One down,” I announced before stepping that way. She’d managed to hit one of the things with a shot, and its blood was on the console nearby. Extending a hand, I touched the sticky substance. “I’ve got this,” I announced. “Can you look for that map?”
She nodded silently, moving to do that while I focused on the room around us. My eyes scanned one way, but I could sense the skeleblineist on the opposite side of the room. It was lurking in one of the monitors, and began slowly making its way through the desks to where Scout was walking. Breathing out, I turned away and pretended to carefully inspect the completely empty door while activating the communication pin as the other girl stopped at another monitor. “Scout,” I whispered under my breath. “When I say now, turn to your right and shoot straight for that chair that’s at the console next to you.”
Then I waited, pretending to studiously ignore that side of the room while focusing almost entirely on my blood-sense. The thing crept closer and closer, confident in its ability to hide. It reached the chair that I had known it would use as a place to jump out from, and I whispered, “Almost.. get ready…” Another handful of seconds passed as the thing braced itself. Then it was lunging outward. “Now!”
Instantly, Scout spun that way and brought her rifle up. Without aiming, she fired a shot from the hip that took the suddenly revealed skeleblineist directly in the face. Its head went poof and disintegrated.
Walking that way quickly while Scout dealt with her own rush of pleasure, I kept a sharp eye out for any more of the things while activating my pin to contact the rest of the team. “You guys still there?”
“Tell us you’ve got directions,” Sands’ voice came back. “Because this place is a gods damned maze.”
“Got it, one sec.” Muttering about annoying hiding monsters, I looked to Scout. “We’ve got it, right?”
The other girl nodded and tapped at the computer before pointing to the screen. She’d brought up the map of the lower levels. “Okay, where are you guys?” I asked while looking at the monitor. “What do you see?”
They explained what they were seeing, and I figured out where they were. While Scout kept scanning the room with her gun, I directed the rest of our team through the maze of the lower levels and to the main engine compartment. Then I let them figure out what to do with it while looking toward Scout.
“Okay, time to make sure the rest of this ship is empty. Any idea how to do that without going room by room?”
Smiling slightly at that, Scout lifted a hand to point to the nearby handset for the intercom system.
“I always did want to make the morning announcements,” I muttered while reaching out to pick it up. Hesitating, I thought for a second before activating it. “Attention, listen up. If anyone is still alive on the ship, get to the main deck. Or at least get out into the corridors where the security cameras can see you, and we’ll help. Repeat, if you are alive, get out where the cameras can see you.”
By the time I’d finished with that, Scout had already managed to bring up the security feed on the nearest monitor. She started flipping through it, camera by camera while we watched intently for any sign of survivors. Not that I expected there to be any, but there was always a chance that the Heretics had missed someone. Especially after everything else that I’d seen happen in the past couple months.
And yet, no survivors appeared. We watched the monitors carefully, flipping through all of them. We were even able to check on the rest of the team in the engine compartment. Leaving that one up on a monitor, we switched to one of the others and kept watching, just in case. On a third monitor, I checked to make sure that their path straight out and to the deck would be clear as soon as they set those explosives.
“We’re pretty much done here,” Avalon’s voice announced. On the screen, I saw her step back from where she had planted one of Columbus’s devices. It looked basically like an alarm clock with a huge wad of silly putty stuck to it, along with some wires. It couldn’t have looked more like a bomb if it was a black ball with a lit fuse sticking out.
“Go,” she ordered Sands and Sean, clearly using the communicator so that we would know what was going on as well. “Gerardo, use Vulcan to make sure the path is clear. Follow Chambers’ directions. Mason, follow him and cover his back. We’ll set these to go off just after we get off the ship.”
The other two moved out, and I let out a breath of relief.
Which, of course, was pretty much when everything went wrong. Sands and Sean had barely made it up the stairs to the deck before Columbus abruptly whipped around as if he had heard something. On the screen, he pointed to one of the bombs they had set. I saw Avalon twist that way as well. Then the screen abruptly went white, and the ship was rocked hard. It felt like a giant fist had risen up out of the sea and punched it. Scout and I were thrown to the floor, and on one of the screens I saw both Sands and Sean go flying over the side of the railing, plummeting into the water.
“Avalon, Columbus!” I shouted into the pin after picking myself up. “What the he–”
Then I shut up. The view on the screen had come back. I saw a hole in the side of the ship where the bomb had been. Water was rapidly filling the compartment, while Avalon was laying unconscious (I hoped) on the floor beside one of the other bombs. There was no sign of Columbus.
Scout had already spun toward the door, shouting her sister’s name in a voice that was utterly full of terror. Before she had even taken a step, however, Professor Dare appeared directly in between us. Her hand caught Scout’s arm and mine, and her eyes were closed, brow knit with obvious concentration.
“We’re in a time-stop bubble,” the professor announced through gritted teeth. “The whole ship is. I need you to listen. Someone tampered with the explosives that Columbus brought on board. I checked them myself this morning to make sure they were okay to bring on this trip and they were fine. Obviously, someone switched them out, or altered them after I checked. That bomb shouldn’t have gone off this soon. And the second one is about to go off with Avalon laying right on top of it.”
“Then get her out of there!” I demanded.
“I have to hold the time-stop,” she explained, her voice still terse. “If I lose focus, that second bomb is going to go off. Scout, Deveron will get your sister. Trust him. He’s got her. Wyatt’s getting Sean, and Bennet already went under to grab Columbus the second he was sucked out of the hole. They’ve got them. You two need to get down there and get Avalon away from the bomb. Go now.”
Scout and I looked at each other for half a second.
Then we ran.