I was under absolutely no delusions. We didn’t stand a chance against Radueriel. If he was one of the Seosten who apparently posed as the original Olympian gods, that made him something like over three thousand years old. We didn’t have a prayer. We’d gotten our asses kicked by Charmeine. She would have basically taken us apart completely and for good if she hadn’t purposefully dragged it out so that she could show off. If it hadn’t been for Columbus nailing her with that hit because she’d completely dismissed him and her dragging things out, she would have easily won. And I sincerely doubted that Radueriel was going to make the same mistake.
No, there was no question. He could put us down in seconds. It might have sounded arrogant or unfair, but the simple fact was that if Avalon and Rudolph weren’t enough to help Roxa and me deal with Charmeine, then Jazz, Gordon, Sands, and Isaac weren’t going to be enough to deal with Radueriel. And that was if he’d been by himself, let alone with the rest of his soldiers.
The Seosten spoke, but I didn’t understand the words. It sounded kind of like some of the spells that we’d learned that year, but I didn’t think he was casting anything. When none of us responded, Radueriel paused, then spoke again. That time, he tried English. “Ah, correct, humans don’t speak Old Seosten anymore, do they? This language then? You understand the trade language?” His voice held far more curiosity than anger as his gaze passed over all of us.
Some part of me wondered what the man was thinking as he looked at us. We had to look like a strange group, even to him. We had two human girls; Jazz and Sands; a couple human boys, Gordon and Isaac; a mechanical cougar, Gidget; a werewolf, Roxa; and a werelion; me. I had no idea what exactly this guy had been expecting Charmeine to send to him (besides me in a far more captured state), but this definitely wasn’t it. I wondered how much he knew about what had happened. The Seosten were supposed to be connected to each other ‘if they were on the same mission’, but was Radueriel considered to be on the same mission as Charmeine? Did it even work over that much distance? Or was he completely clueless as to why and how things had gone wrong?
When it became obvious that the man was waiting for an answer (and lacking much in the way of other options), Sands was the one who took a step forward since neither Roxa or I could actually talk in these forms. She had her mace in one hand. “We understand you just fine.”
The man’s eyes lit up, and he smiled. “Ausgezeichnet. Oh, no, that’s still wrong, isn’t it? Fremragende? Excellent? That one then. Excellent. We can have a proper conversation then.”
Did you catch any of that? I asked my ride-along partner.
There was no response. I paused, then thought, Tabbris? Hey, you okay? I know it’s scary, but… Tabbris? Tabby? Still, there was no response. She wasn’t responding. Tabbris wasn’t responding. She wasn’t–where was she? What–that was stupid, she was still in me, right? She was– she had to be. She couldn’t just disappear, she wouldn’t just leave me like this. She–
While I was busy panicking inwardly, the Seosten man continued. “Right. Let’s try these introductions again, shall we? My name is Radueriel, of the Faustian Choir. You are all here because you were selected to be subjects of a series of tests that I am… currently engaged in.
“Of course you’ve caused a bit of a, what was your word for it… ruckus since your arrival, but I suppose you can hardly be blamed for such attempts. What was your goal here?” He gestured to the park area behind him with the stream just in sight. “Were you going to sneak through our water portal to escape the station? Clever. And ambitious. Yes, I don’t fault you for that. But you should put those thoughts far from your mind, because it will absolutely not be happening.”
Tabbris! I was all but ignoring Radueriel then, focused totally on the silence within my own head. Still, I got no response, no indication that there was anyone in my thoughts other than myself.
Clearing his throat, the Seosten stepped forward. His mechanical leg whirred audibly with the motion. “No, I don’t blame you for trying to escape. You wouldn’t be very good test subjects if you simply laid down and accepted that fate. But I assure you, your options now are limited. You can either surrender, in which case you will be taken to your assigned quarters to wait until I happen to be ready to work on you. Or you can attempt some kind of resistance. In that case, I’m afraid you’ll be damaged enough that you’ll need to be put back together in our medical facility. It will be an entirely unpleasant experience, I can promise you that. And afterward, once you are pieced together, you will still be taken to your quarters to await your turn in my lab.”
His gaze fell on me then. Even in my lion form, I had the feeling that he knew exactly who I was. Not that it would’ve been hard. Even with no other information, he had a fifty/fifty shot between Roxa and me. His smile grew. “And you, yes, you must be the one who killed the charming Charmeine. Or did you know her as Nemesis? Did you know her at all?” He shook his head. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. You stole her possession ability, didn’t you? Yes. But you won’t be using that again. Not here, not now.” As he spoke, Radueriel held his clockwork mechanical arm up. At a touch from his other hand, part of the metal forearm flipped around, revealing a small keyboard. He tapped a few of the buttons, and there was a brief, high-pitched whistle. As it faded, I saw every guard in this enclosed wilderness area abruptly snap to attention, straightening noticeably.
“Every being within this facility has been… upgraded,” the Seosten announced. “You will find them to be much stronger, faster, and more resistant than those outside my control. In addition, they have also been upgraded in other ways, such as their implanted teleportation devices, which allow me to either transport any of them to any of the others, or even transport myself to any of them. Instant transportation to anywhere that any of my people are located. You may start by facing one man, only for that one to become dozens within seconds. That,” he boasted, “is how you find yourself facing this many now, instead of the few that I posted at this entrance upon your initial disappearance. You could have emerged anywhere, and met this same force, including myself. Anywhere you run to, if one of my men finds you, I will be there.”
He was still smiling at his own genius before shaking his head. “But that is not the upgrade that need concern you now. No, you see, when needed, such as now, my people also obey my thoughts. I direct them. And you’ll find that your possession ability is very useless when the mind of your subject has nothing to do with the actions their body performs. After all,” he remarked while tapping the side of his head a couple times, “you never know when you might need to defend against the very gift that defines your entire race. It pays to be prepared. You’ve fought my people once. You did well. I congratulate you on that. But now, you will fight me. All of me.” At his words, the man lifted one arm. Simultaneously, every single one of the guards did the same.
The announcement horrified me. Somehow, Radueriel had implanted devices in all of his people that allowed him to take direct command of them at any point. Not by possessing them, but with a thought. Now he could, what, direct them just by sitting back and watching the fight? That meant… that meant that they’d all fight with his skill, his knowledge. The brief thought passed through my mind that he couldn’t divide his attention that much, but really, he probably could. I sincerely doubted that someone like him would forget something that basic. Honestly, even after all the different things I had seen this year, multitasking like that still seemed like cheating. But yeah, he’d probably managed to upgrade himself that much.
And… and where was Tabbris? Despite only being aware of her presence for… what… how long had it been? Maybe an hour? Less than two. Despite that, I already felt like a huge part of me was missing when she didn’t respond. Her silence was one of the most terrifying things I had ever experienced, and it was all I could do not to physically freak out right in front of everyone.
Tabbris! Tabbris, wake up! What’s wrong with–Tabbris? I was still trying to get her attention. What was going on?
Radueriel paused then, letting that sink in briefly before finishing with a simple, “Any of you who wish to surrender now may do so. You will be allowed to go to your quarters and await your turn in my lab. It will not be a fun time. But I promise, you will enjoy our medical facilities far less.”
“Um. Flick?” Sands’ voice was quiet, her eyes darting to me. “What are we supposed to do? We can’t fight this many guys, not if they’re all like… like…” She stared at the assembled army.
“I’ll tell you one thing.” That was Jazz, the dark-skinned girl standing there between her two teammates with her falchion raised. “We don’t surrender to this assface. He wants us to walk in there willingly, without even a fight? Fuck that. I don’t care if we take out one of his guys or fifty. I don’t care if we cost him an inch or a mile. But we’re gonna cost this son of a bitch something.”
Beside her, Isaac’s mouth opened. “Now, hold on. I think if we–”
Whatever the boy had been about to say, he was interrupted by Radueriel. The Seosten had been patiently waiting there, watching us for a moment. But now, he shook his head (the assembled guards did not do the same. Apparently that was an order he didn’t send them) and lamented, “Well, I did try. Remember that, children, as your limbs are being reattached later.”
Oh! Oh, Flick?
The sudden voice in my head made me jerk. The timing probably made it look like I was recoiling from Radueriel’s words. But I didn’t care. Tabbris?! Are you okay? What happened?! I felt kind of like a mother whose kid had wandered off in the grocery store or something.
U-um, Mama, the reply came quickly. It was another memory, a-and I kind of… got lost. There was a pause, and I could sense her embarrassment at the admission. B-but it’s okay, we’re okay. We can get out of here!
The soldiers were already coming for us, while Sands and the others set themselves to meet them. They were saying something to me, but I didn’t hear it. All I could focus on was the voice in my head. What? Uh, maybe you tuned out for too long, but we’re kind of screwed right now.
No! She blurted. We’re not screwed, I p-promise. We can get out. We really can. You just have to say, ‘Sevesensiel’. Out–umm, outloud, I mean. And then make everyone run. I’ll explain later, I promise. You’ve just gotta say it!
The fight was already happening. Though it wasn’t much of a fight. With every one of the guards following Radueriel’s mental direction, it was basically turning into a slaughter. The ‘fight’, such as it was, would be over in a few more seconds, if it even lasted that long.
Sands shouted something at me, clearly wondering why I wasn’t helping, why I was just standing there completely frozen. Still, I hesitated. I can’t change right now. You know how fast those guys would be on top of me? Even as I spoke, my point was proven as three of the soldiers bypassed the others to come right for me. I bounded forward, lunging up and over them to land near the others.
I couldn’t take the time to shift, and I couldn’t talk in this form. One word (at least I assumed it was one word) and I couldn’t say it. I was a fucking lion. What was I supposed to do, roar?
F-Flick! Tabbris’s voice was panicked, and I felt her take control for a moment, making me lunge sideways away from the guard who had been coming after me during my brief moment of distraction. If you can’t talk, possess someone who c-can! You can possess one of the others!
Oh. Right. Maybe I should have hesitated. Maybe I should’ve found a way to ask permission. But there wasn’t time. At this point, as the unified, Radueriel-controlled soldiers easily swatted aside any defense that the others tried to put up as if we were all children, seconds counted. Milliseconds counted. There was no time for anything except the only action that I had left.
Spinning on my paws, I lunged directly toward Sands. While leaping, I blurted, Do the thing!
The brunette barely had time to glance my way, seeing my positively massive lion-form coming at her, before I was there. And to my immense relief, Tabbris interpreted what ‘do the thing’ meant. It probably helped that she was in my head. Either way, as we leapt that way, rather than colliding with Sands, I was suddenly seeing through the other girl’s eyes. I felt her panic as she jerked backward from what had been a gigantic lion leaping straight at her, stumbling and barely stopping herself from landing on her backside.
Sands! I sent as ‘loudly’ as I could, basically screaming in my own head while trying to direct it at the other girl. I didn’t want to take her over. I refused to take her over, even right now. I wouldn’t do that, unless I had to. Sands, say Sevesensiel! Say Sevesensiel right now! Say it!
“Sevesensiel!” Sands abruptly blurted, clearly having no idea what she was saying or why.
On the heels of that word, there was a flash of light that seemed to come from the Seosten in the back. And just like that… the wilderness around us was empty. All of the soldiers were gone. Radueriel was gone. We were all alone.
“What the fuck was that?!” The demand came from Sands, Isaac, and myself all at once.
“Flick, Flick, are you in my head?!” Sands demanded out loud. “What are–”
Run! Tabbris interrupted her, though it was obvious that only I could hear her. Make them run, he’ll be back! Go, go, now, now, you only have about ninety seconds! Hurry, go!
Jazz and Isaac were both demanding to know what the hell was going on. Roxa was growling from where she stood in her wolf-form, clearly not sure if she should change back. And Sands was still asking me if I was in her, if I could read her mind, and so on.
Run! That time, it was me shouting it. Ninety seconds, they’ll be back in ninety seconds! Go! Get to the portal, we’ll figure it out from there. Just go, damn it, go! Run, run, run!
I was about to ask Tabbris to get us out of her, but she was already one step ahead of me. I was suddenly back in my own (well, my lion) body, stumbling a little. My gaze snapped across the room, and I focused on the stream ahead. Then I ran toward it, making a noise that was something like a half-roar to get everyone’s attention.
To her credit, Sands didn’t wait around questioning what I’d said. “Go!” she shouted to the others. “They’ll be back in a minute, just go! Questions later, running now!” Even as she spoke, the other girl was already running after me. And the others, thankfully, were right behind her as we hit the stream and turned to follow it to the portal.
Sixty seconds. Tabbris’s voice was nervous. I couldn’t blame her. Hurry, Flick. Hurry.
She didn’t have to tell me twice. Err, three times. I saw the portal up ahead and kept running, pushing myself hard while the others scrambled to keep up. The portal glimmered a little as we approached, and I splashed my way through the water before going right through. There was a sudden tingling, disorienting sensation as the world went weird around me (they apparently didn’t build safeties into portals that were just meant to carry water).
Then I was through, emerging into some kind of metal building with the river running through the middle of it. There were consoles and several technicians standing around, along with a few more armed guards. This place was clearly some kind of filtration plant or something. And from the look of things, there were several more separated streams of water running through it to different portals. Probably all running to more space stations.
Leaping out of the ditch, I crashed into the nearest armed guard. He was shouting something, but I didn’t care. His hand was grabbing for the pistol on his belt as my frying pan-sized paw slammed into his head so hard it left pretty much nothing but mush behind.
A brief rush of pleasure rushed through me, my aura flaring up even as the others spread out through the rest of the room. The technicians were making a break for it, and there were only a few guards for Sands, Roxa, Jazz, Isaac, Gordon, and Gidget to make short work of.
Tabbris, I managed, using the moment of kill-pleasure as cover to stay still for a second. What was that? What the hell was that word?
The console, over there to the right! She urged me that way. Destroy it, so the portal shuts down before Radueriel recovers!
As I moved that way, bounding up a short flight of stairs that led to an overlook area where the console in question was, she hurriedly explained. Mama’s old partner, Apollo. He quit the Seosten a long time ago and um, he disappeared. Like, a really long time ago. But he and Mama were friends. He told her a… about something he set up the last time he had, um, the last time he had to deal with Radueriel. It was supposed to be a get-out-of-jail free card in case he ever got caught, and he told Mama so she could escape if she needed to, if she ever changed her mind about leaving. Because he trusted her. She didn’t report it back then because it would’ve… umm, given them a big excuse to come after Apollo a lot more than they were. He quit, and that was bad enough. But if they knew he had ways to stop or, um, or stall them, they would’ve sent a lot more people after him.
That word thing? I guessed, using my lion paws to utterly demolish the console. As I did, the portals shut down, winking out of existence so that the water in the little metal gutters throughout the room just started quickly filling it up. It was time to leave. And wait, that makes Apollo almost like your uncle if they were… partners, wait a second, does that mean your mother was–
Uh huh, she confirmed. Mama was Artemis. And it was a, um, a magic hack thing that Apollo installed into R-Radueriel’s equipment. When it was triggered, it took over all his stuff and transported him and everyone he was controlling to a random location, then shut down all his upgrades and other stuff he installed in himself for ninety seconds.
I absorbed that for a second while the others shouted at me to hurry up. They were already by the nearest doors. So I’m guessing that won’t work again. One shot thing, teleports him and everything he’s controlling somewhere else and EMP’s his stuff, then it’s gone?
Um. Y-yes, just that one time. Which… I guess we’re lucky no one else ever used it, huh?
Really lucky, I agreed. But wouldn’t he have upgraded his equipment at some point in all this time and noticed it?
It wasn’t just scribbled on his mechanical arm or anything, Tabbris explained. Apollo put it on one of the bits of equipment that was going inside Radueriel, part of his reinforced metal skeleton. It makes him a lot tougher than normal Seosten, and there’s no reason for him to take it out. Weapons and stuff, yeah. But the reinforced skeleton, that’s kind of permanent, you know? Like… like putting a spell on the foundation of a house instead of on the furniture. Furniture gets moved around and changed. Foundation stays the same. That’s why Apollo chose that one, cuz he knew it’d be a long time before someone used it. Then Radueriel got transferred out here instead of spending his time on Earth, so… I guess Apollo never ran into him again.
I nodded a little at that, thinking about how much I really wanted to hug this Apollo guy while leaping off the raised platform to land by the others. They’d gotten the door open by that point, revealing a forest beyond that didn’t look too different from the artificial one we had just left. But this one was at least on a planet instead of an enclosed station.
There was a lot more I wanted to ask Tabbris. There was even more that the others probably wanted to ask me. There was a lot to talk about in general. But right now, only one thing mattered. Only one thing was going to keep us away from Radueriel and the other Seosten long enough to figure out what the hell we were supposed to do now.
And only one thing was going to spare me from thinking about what everyone back on Earth was doing right now.
We had to keep running.