Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focused on Fossor posted yesterday. If you haven’t been properly traumatized by that yet, please feel free to click the previous chapter button above to read it.
Scout and I went down the stairs just outside the bridge a bit faster than we had come up them. And by ‘a bit faster’, I mean that I grabbed hold of the other girl with one arm and leapt off the side with her. Together, the two of us plummeted toward the deck far below until I used a burst from the staff in my other hand to slow us down just enough that we were able to land without breaking anything important.
Once we hit the deck (literally) and recovered, I spun in a circle to look for the nearest entrance to the below-decks area. I knew exactly how far away the room itself was from where we were, thanks to the Blemmye’s power. But I wasn’t sure exactly how to get there, since it was just a direct distance thing.
While my eyes were still scanning frantically, Scout grabbed my arm and gave a tug. Without hesitation, I let her pull me while already starting to turn that way. My eyes spotted the same thing the other girl had seen: a sign over a metal door (or hatch, or whatever they were called on a cruise ship) that announced it was for staff only and that dangerous machinery was beyond. It was also standing partway open. Obviously, that was the same way that the others had taken to get down there.
Shoving the hatch open the rest of the way, I started to beckon for Scout to go on, but she was already passing me. The two of us practically flew down the small corridor beyond toward a tight, incredibly narrow set of stairs leading downward into the bowels of the ship. It was all I could do to stop myself from panicking completely at the thought of that engine compartment rapidly filling with water if Professor Dare lost hold of the time-stop. To say nothing of the literal bomb that Avalon was laying on.
It’s pretty bad when you have to distract yourself from the thought of someone you care about being blown up by focusing on the thought of them drowning. This clearly wasn’t exactly a healthy lifestyle.
As Scout and I stampeded down the stairs side-by-side (there was just barely enough room for us to pull that off), my foot lashed out to kick a small box out of the way without looking at it. Apparently the whole time-stop thing was interrupted when we actually touched things, because the box went flying. Immediately, the loud clanging sound of seventeen screws, four metal washers, a half-dozen nails, a Phillips head screwdriver, and a ball-peen hammer scattering across the floor filled the room it landed.
… hold on a second.
In spite of myself and the really, really bad situation, I cast a quick look that way as we reached the bottom of the stairs. I had time to see the screwdriver, the hammer, and what looked like everything I had instinctively thought of a second earlier. But how the hell had I known what was in the box before-
Snapping myself out of it, I twisted back the other way to find Scout staring at me with wide eyes, clearly wondering what the hell was wrong and why I had slowed down while Avalon was still in trouble. Rather than answer, I waved both hands for her to keep going and started running once more.
Between my own memory of directing the others through this maze of rooms and hallways, and the Blemmye gift letting me know how far away we were from the engine compartment, we were making good time. Still, I kept pushing myself to go faster. For all we knew, Professor Dare could only hold the time-stop for another twenty seconds. Or five. I didn’t know! All I knew was that we had to hurry.
And yet, as we raced through the corridor, more objects kept popping into my head. There was a coffee can on that workbench that we were passing with a hundred and twelve screws in it. That gym bag that my foot brushed against had three pairs of shorts, a tee-shirt, and a bag of M&M’s in it. More and more inventories popped into my head as we kept going. Hell, I instinctively knew that Scout had a small bag of Jolly Ranchers in one pocket of her uniform jacket and her cell phone and room key in another one.
It had to be a result of killing the skeleblineist. Instead of being able to possess inanimate objects, I was being given a constant update of every object that was within a certain distance of me. Maybe that was what the little monsters used to know what objects were within range to be jumped into or something?
Whatever it came from, it was distracting. I had to focus to force the thoughts of every object out of my mind so I could pay attention to where we were going, and even then Scout had to correct me twice.
Be careful. The voice spoke directly in my mind, and it took me a second to realize that it wasn’t my own thoughts. Then I thought it was Deveron, using the same power that he’d used to direct Sands and me back when we’d been fighting Doxer. But as the thought-speech continued, I realized it was Professor Dare. Her voice (such as it was) was even more strained than before. The effort of holding the entire ship in this time-stop was obviously taking even more of a toll on her than I’d thought it was.
Someone is not happy about my interference. They’ve sent forces of their own to make that displeasure clear. Which means that they’re powerful enough to disrupt the time-stop bubble, even if they can’t collapse it entirely. So they’ve chosen to attempt to distract me enough to make me lose control of it.
My eyes widened and I blurted out loud, “Wait, are you fighting right now? While you hold the–”
Less distractions, Felicity, Dare urged me. Not more, please. I only mean to warn you that you may face intruders of your own. Or they may send those intruders to finish the original job. So please, just-
“Hurry, got it.” With a quick nod, I pushed myself into an all-out sprint. Scout fell behind after a few steps, but when I glanced back, she waved for me to keep going rather than wait for her. So I booked it.
For what was far from the first time, I thanked that Amarok for showing up. Yeah, it had almost killed us. But thanks to its power, I could run at full speed through the hallway without tiring myself out at all. That combined with the Blemmye’s gift for letting me know how far I was from my destination and the new skeleblineist’s knowledge of every item that was in my path meant that not only could I full-on sprint the entire way there without getting lost or being tired when I got there, but I also didn’t have to worry about tripping over anything. My body instinctively knew where objects were as I got near enough for them to be an issue, and I easily stepped over or around them without even breaking stride.
How my brain was processing all this information was kind of beyond me, but it was working. The explosion from that first bomb (or perhaps the original infestation and attacks) had left tons of random crap lying around down here, and I probably would’ve broken my neck if I ran that fast through the corridor without looking where I was going or slowing down to pick my way through the stuff. Instead, even on a floor completely covered with boxes, tools, and other obstacles, I kept running full out.
The room I needed to get to was just ahead. Less than a dozen more steps and I’d be there. Unfortunately, I’d only crossed slightly less than half of that before something hit me hard from behind. I went sprawling across the floor with a yelp of surprise while whatever it was clung to the back of my head. Claws or hard nails dug into my shoulders and dragged their way down through the muscle in my biceps, cutting through the jacket and shirt underneath while a hiss of pain escaped me.
Wincing, I scrambled to get my feet beneath me and threw myself backward against the wall to smash the thing. Of course, the creature clinging to me immediately disappeared into that wall, so I only ended up hurting myself in the process. But at least it was off me. And I knew it had to be another skeleblineist. Clearly whoever was trying to interfere with Dare’s time-stop had unfrozen the thing.
Then, with no warning or even the courtesy of a violent violin scratch, the creature was launching itself out of the floor at me, like a shark leaping out of the previously placid water. The damn thing’s teeth were bared, and it made a loud screeching sound as it leapt toward my throat, rotted hands up with claws extended.
Then the creature blew apart in mid-leap. Its head literally popped open before the rest of it crashed to the ground lifelessly, pieces of its skull and brain littering the floor like a thoroughly smashed pumpkin.
Without hesitating or even bothering to look for what I knew would be an invisible shot-portal, I blurted, “Thanks, Scout!” Then I kicked off the wall and back to my feet before spinning to run for the engine compartment once more. Every second counted, and I’d already wasted too many as it was.
Three steps, four, and then I was at the doorway. As I skidded around the last corner and into the room, my eyes immediately spotted Avalon’s unconscious body as well as the hole in the wall where water would have been pouring in if Dare’s time-stop bubble hadn’t been up. And I saw something else: a hooded and cloaked figure crouched over her, hand raised high with a wicked-looking knife about to come down.
A scream tore its way from my throat. Anything, any noise or distraction to stall the assassin for those precious handful of seconds as I launched myself that way with a quick boost from my staff. Between that and the enhanced strength I’d inherited from the werewolf, I was literally hurtling across the distance like I’d been shot out of a cannon. The crouched, hooded figure had barely started to react to my scream before I collided with them, and the two of us went tumbling across the hard metal floor.
The good news was, I’d interrupted the would-be killer before they had a chance to actually hurt Avalon. The bad news was, they recovered faster than I did. Before I’d even managed to orient myself from tumbling head over heels across the floor with the cloaked figure, they were already on their feet. And one of those feet was hitting my stomach hard enough to send me up against the opposite wall.
Up close, the figure was dressed like a ninja or something. They wore a full face-concealing mask underneath the hood, and with the way the cloak covered them, it was hard to tell a lot about their figure. From what I could see, my best guess was that they were either female or a thin and wiry male.
They were also apparently not at all interested in paying any attention to me. After kicking me away from them, they spun back the other way, toward Avalon. The knife came up again, ready to throw.
Desperately, I lifted my staff and expended the last bit of energy that it had stored up. The resulting blast wasn’t enough to knock the figure over or anything, but it did knock the blade out of their hand just before they could throw it. Unfortunately, the knife had only spun a few feet away before the figure thrust their hand out and somehow redirected it so that the blade was flying right for Avalon once more.
An instant before it would’ve hit the unconscious girl, another of Scout’s shots came out of nowhere and slammed into the flying knife, sending it off-course once more. The thing was so sharp, and had been thrown so hard that it literally embedded itself in the metal floor like a shovel going into the dirt.
Scout followed up with two more quick shots from wherever she was, this time directed at the cloaked figure. Yet, somehow the assassin reacted too quickly to be hit. They spun away, hand lashing out with a new knife that they had conjured out of what seemed like nothingness. Both shots ricocheted off that blade, one after the other. Then there was a sudden sharp pain in my arm, and I blinked down to find blood pouring from a wound there. A wound from the bullet. It seemed like it was just a graze, but still. Not only had the assassin actually used a freaking knife to block those bullets, but they’d gone as far as redirecting one of them into me like they were some kind of Jedi or something. Or the bad version.
Then I saw where the second bullet had hit: an inch… inch from Avalon’s face. The bullet actually hit the floor just beside the other girl, practically grazing her nose in the process. It was that close.
“Scout, no more!” I blurted while throwing myself to my feet. I lashed out at the figure with my staff, but they easily evaded. Three more quick thrusts came then as I desperately tried to land a single blow, but the figure danced around it like I was moving at a quarter speed or something. They caught my staff after the last swing, and then I felt it being ripped away from me. Stumbling forward, I ducked a vicious backhand, only to take a foot to my stomach again. I doubled over with a pained yelp, but forced myself to stay upright and keep my head up. Which meant I saw the knife coming for me, and got an arm up in the way to block it. Unfortunately, doing so meant I took a deep cut in my arm, which already wasn’t in fantastic shape from the whole ‘accidentally getting shot by Scout’ thing. My arm was screaming with pain by then, and the healing gift from the peridle wasn’t going to matter soon enough.
This wasn’t going well, to say the least. And it didn’t get any better in the next few seconds. My staff was gone, torn away and tossed aside by the assassin. I took a swing with my good hand, only to have my wrist caught before another sharp pain went through me as the figure easily snapped it backward.
Ignore it, I told myself. Avalon’s life depended on me pretending that both of my limbs weren’t in horrible agony. I didn’t have to beat them, I just had to last long enough for the others to get there, which should have been any second. All I had to do was focus on protecting Avalon, not on the pain.
With that in mind, and the image of failing Avalon filling my head, I looked up to find the figure turning away from me. Their attention clearly back on the unconscious girl as they took a step that way.
“Hey!” I blurted while lashing out with a foot. I barely managed to hit the figure’s leg, making them stumble a single step. It was like kicking a concrete wall or something. “We’re not done here yet!”
That time, the masked assassin let out an angry and clearly frustrated growl. They spun back toward me, lifting a hand. I saw a glowing blue ball of fire appear in their palm before they threw it at my face.
I saw that ball of flame flying directly at me, too fast for me to avoid considering how much pain I was in. It took up all of my vision, like a miniature burning sun, its heat growing worse by the millisecond.
Then a hand appeared, blocking my view of the azure fireball. My vision cleared up slightly, and I saw Deveron. He was standing there, holding the flames that he had intercepted. They crackled around his fingers as he stared at the figure, and a dark, dangerous voice emerged from him. “I don’t think so.”
Abruptly, the blue flames more than tripled in size, going from the size of a baseball to the size of a volleyball. His hand lashed outward, and the fireball became a torrent of flame that shot directly at the masked figure’s face.
Their hand lashed out, batting the flames aside with their own power. But Deveron was only using it as a distraction. While the fire flew toward the figure’s face and forced them to take the time to deflect the flames, he tightened his hand into a fist. Pitch-black armor instantly covered every exposed part of his skin, like some kind of obsidian Colossus.
By the time the masked assassin finished deflecting the flames, Deveron was already armored up and moving that way, following up his appropriated flames with a kick that caught the figure in the side. And unlike when I had kicked them, they definitely felt it.
What followed was the most intense seven or eight seconds of my life up to that point. Both Deveron and the masked figure threw so many punches and kicks that my eyes couldn’t even follow it accurately. It was like something out of The Matrix. A dozen blows traded for a dozen blocks, none landing properly. They just kept smacking each other’s limbs out of the way, trying another attack, and blocking the next one that came their way. It felt like I was watching a sparring session set to some insane speed, yet I could feel the force of their blows even from where I was.
Finally stumbling back a couple steps, the masked figure stopped and tilted their head slightly as though listening to something. I heard that same annoyed growl before they abruptly spun away from Deveron and leapt toward the nearby hole, disappearing into the water.
An instant later, Gaia appeared. She stepped out of nothing, eyes blazing with anger. Deveron and I both pointed to the hole, and the woman glanced that way before shaking her head. “Gone,” she muttered. “Some sort of water-based teleportation or speed.”
Turning back to me, her gaze softened. “Flick,” she spoke quietly. “Are you all right?”
Grimacing, I slumped down a bit, sliding down the wall to sit on the floor beside Avalon before nodding. “I… ngngn… I’ll be okay.” Glancing toward Deveron, I added, “Thanks for the save.”
He nodded, his own voice as quiet and gentle as I’d ever heard it. “Any time, kid.”
“What about the others?” I asked, a bit worried despite myself.
“They’re fine,” he promised before taking a seat next to me as well as he released his armor and went back to normal. “I had to swear to Wyatt that I could get here before him so he’d stay there with them.”
“Virginia,” Gaia spoke then, clearly projecting her voice to Professor Dare. “Lower the time-stop.” As she finished speaking, the red-haired woman gestured absently toward the hole in the wall with one hand, while her other hand motioned at the nearby bomb.
It was like watching the same effect working in opposite directions. The hole in the wall repaired itself, the metal piecing back together until the hull was as good as new. Meanwhile, the bomb literally fell apart into a dozen separate, much less dangerous pieces.
And it hadn’t even taken enough effort for Gaia to break stride as she moved straight over to kneel beside Avalon. Her hand reached past me to cup the girl’s face tenderly, and I held my breath until Avalon murmured softly and leaned into the touch. The sight made me exhale sharply, slumping backward with relief.
Then I opened my eyes once more. “Um, Headmistress?
“What’s this gonna do to our score?”