Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Harper Hayes posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above.
“Isaac, left, left, go left!” Jazz blurted loudly while throwing herself straight at Roxa. With a snarling cry, she swung that falchion of hers. The blade carried a wide, roaring wave of fire with it as it cut through the air. Metal and flame alike swept toward the blonde werewolf girl.
Meanwhile, Isaac was going for Roxa’s left side, swinging his three-headed flail at the space that the girl would have to dodge into in order to avoid the flames that were headed for her.
At the exact same time, Gordon was standing about half a dozen yards away. He had his weapon up in tommy gun form, taking aim carefully before he let loose with a barrage of shots.
Roxa was… not in even the slightest bit of trouble. She stepped forward, letting the flames engulf her to seemingly no effect. While Jazz was still realizing that, the other girl ripped the sword out of her hands by the blade before pivoting to kick her ex-roommate’s legs out from under her. As Jazz was dumped onto her backside, Roxa flipped the sword up and around. She used the blade to catch one of the chains of Isaac’s flail, and a quick yank tore it from his hands.
In the same motion, she kept turning on one foot, releasing the tangled sword and flail into a throw. They flew through the air, separating in time for the chains of the flail to wrap around Gordon’s legs, just before the hilt of the sword smacked him in the center of his forehead.
“And if you had really been attacking me,” Roxa announced, standing with one foot on Jazz’s chest and her hand against Isaac’s throat, “you would’ve been hit by the blade, not the hilt.”
Stepping forward then, I bobbed my head up and down quickly. “There, see, guys? You’re totally getting better. You lasted four whole seconds that time.” Moving to where Gordon had fallen, I held a hand out to help him up. “That’s twice as long as you lasted the first time we did this.”
It had been almost a week since we ended up on this planet. And yeah, we were training. I figured that even if we were stuck out here literally in the middle of nowhere on this alien world until someone rescued us, we could at least keep training. Partly because we all desperately needed it if we were going to survive anything the Seosten managed to throw at us. And partly because if Avalon found out that I’d been shirking training, I was pretty sure she’d kill me.
At least with Roxa around I had a really good opponent to spar with. After killing Lemuel and whatever else she’d done while with her pack, the werewolf girl probably could’ve given Valley herself a run for her money. It meant that both of us could help each other actually get better.
Gordon lay there, watching my hand for a moment like I was trying to offer him a snake. Just as I was about to step away so that he wouldn’t feel forced into anything, the boy reached up to take my hand. It was tentative, and he released me as soon as I’d pulled him to his feet. For good measure, he took a couple steps away. If it was anyone else, I might’ve felt insulted. But I knew by that point that that was just how Gordon was. He really did not like to be touched.
Jazz was shaking her head as Roxa helped her up as well. “Four seconds? That means she could still murder us fifteen times inside of a minute if she wanted to.” Pausing, she glanced to the other girl, hesitating just a little before adding, “Are werewolves really that badass?”
Roxa lifted her chin, squinting briefly. “Werewolves can rip you apart, yes. But it’s not just that. Like I said before, I killed the leader of that evil pack. That… that gave me a big boost. Plus there’s everything else. I’m a werewolf, but I’m also a Heretic. So everything I kill keeps making me stronger. Hell, when I was still at Crossroads and we killed those Jekern, I ended up with the redundant organ powers. So between werewolf regeneration, the regen we all got from those peridles at the start of the year, and the redundant organs, I’m a gigantic pain in the ass to kill.”
“That’s good, right?” Isaac put in while dusting himself off. He gave Roxa an easy smile. “I mean, good because you’re on our side. We wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to you.”
In the days since we had upended these guys’ entire belief system, they had gradually started to come to terms with it. Gordon had never really seemed that against it, and Isaac just kind of went with the flow. Part of that was his personality and part was obviously because he had grown up as a Bystander. Jazz had been the hardest hit by the whole thing, but she was coming around. Hell, sometimes she could even get through a whole conversation with Roxa without looking like someone had just kicked her puppy. She was adapting. And the more that Jazz interacted with the other girl without anything bad happening, the better she was becoming.
Even then, however, Jazz had made it clear that she wasn’t sure what she believed. Even if Roxa wasn’t evil, she wasn’t quite willing to believe that that extended to all Alters. The day before, the girl had extended the thought that because Roxa had been a Heretic first, it ‘saved’ her, that somehow being a Heretic had stopped the evil of the werewolf from taking over.
Yeah, Jazz still didn’t understand why the other girl had stormed off after that and refused to speak to her for the rest of the day. The point was, tensions were not quite all the way calm. We’d gotten it through their heads that Roxa wasn’t a threat. Now we just had to make them believe the rest of it. I just wasn’t sure how we were supposed to go about doing that.
“Hey, it’s someone else’s turn to come up here!” That was Sands, calling from her position up in the top of the nearby tree where she was playing lookout. “I wanna get some training in.”
The Seosten had basically stopped sending out ships out to scan for us after those first couple days (probably because they had no way of knowing where we were, or even if we were still on this planet), but we were still keeping an eye out for them just in case they were trying to lull us into some kind of false sense of security. So we each took turns watching the sky for any ships whenever we were out of the cave. So far, everything had been pretty quiet. But I knew that couldn’t last forever. Radueriel wouldn’t have given up on finding us that easily after everything the Seosten went through to get us out here in the first place. It was just a matter of time.
The real question was, would Gaia manage to find a way to pull us back to Earth before the Seosten tracked us down? We were stuck here, waiting to see who won that particular race.
“I’ll go,” Gordon announced as he looked up to the tree. Which wasn’t really much of a surprise. The dark-skinned boy spent about half the time that he wasn’t training up there. He obviously liked the solitude, the chance to be by himself away from everyone else, just watching the sky.
Do you think he’s okay? I thought inwardly, biting my lip as I briefly wondered what could’ve happened in Gordon’s past to make him so withdrawn and against the idea of being touched.
The answer from Tabbris was tentative. I… I dunno. Jazz, I know why she acts the way she does. But Gordon and Isaac are weird. Especially Isaac. Sometimes it seems like he’s trying really hard to seem sensitive and open, but um, other times, it’s like he says something just to… you know, just to get a reaction. It’s like he forgets to be nice, and has to remind himself.
Speaking of which, the boy himself was busy waving at Gordon. “Knock yourself out, dude. It’s so goddamn boring up there. Are you sure you weren’t a bird in a previous life or something?”
Sands had dropped down by that point, using the wooden stakes that we had fashioned and driven into the tree as a ladder. Hopping to the ground, she interrupted before Gordon had to respond to his roommate. “We need to get some food, guys. And I don’t mean fish or those berries. If I have another fish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I swear I’m gonna throw up.”
“What else are we supposed to do?” Isaac asked, shrugging his shoulders. “I mean, I’m with you, babe. But unless you know a pizza place with an incredible delivery range, we’re screwed.” Pausing then, he grumbled, “Shouldn’t’ve said that. Now I really want some pizza.”
While I shook my head and sighed, Roxa spoke up. “It’s not pizza, but I’ve seen some animals out on my runs. They look like a cross between deer and pigs.” She shrugged then. “Might taste pretty good, if we could take one down and get it back here. Mateo taught me how to get meat off an animal like that. And yes,” she added, “before any of you say anything, we did cook it.”
I hesitated a little. But honestly, I was sick of fish too. And it had been days since the last ship flew overhead. “Okay,” I finally agreed, asking, “do you think you can track them in wolf form?”
She gave me a sly smirk in response. “I’m seriously sick of fish too. Trust me, I can track them.”
Nodding, I reached into my pocket to take out Gus and Jaq. “Okay, let’s do this. Gordon, can you take one of my buddies here and hold onto him? If you see anything, he’ll send a warning to his brother.” I shrugged then. “It’s kinda the best we can do without any radios or anything.”
“Yeah,” Sands agreed. “Not like our phones are getting any signal out here. And I don’t know about you guys, but mine ran out of power days ago anyway.”
“I turned mine off as soon as we got here,” Gordon replied. “Conserving power. Just in case.”
I shrugged. “Charmeine kinda destroyed mine. Good idea about saving phone battery though.”
“So if we’re going hunting,” Isaac started, “does that mean we have to be vewwy vewwy quiet?”
Jazz gave an emphatic nod. “Yes, that’s exactly what it means. We all have to be vewwy quiet.
It wasn’t actually that hard to track down the pig-deer (they really needed a better name). About twenty minutes later, the five of us were crouched by some trees, watching a small herd of them nosing around in the clearing ahead of us. Just like Roxa had described, they looked like fuzzy warthogs that were about as tall as a small deer, with both long tusks as well as full antlers, and even long, bushy tails like a really big squirrel.
“Oh man,” Isaac whispered under his breath, just loud enough for us to hear, “I see bacon and a nice venison burger from the same damn animal. Maybe this planet isn’t so bad after all.”
Roxa, who was still in her wolf form, put a paw on his arm before shaking her head for him to be quiet. Then she looked over to me and nodded her head one way, toward the bushes on the other side of the clearing before pantomiming barking and howling. Finally, she nodded in the opposite direction, reaching up with a paw to bump against the staff in my hand.
I thought for a second, looking that way before realizing. Keeping my voice so low it was barely audible at all, I whispered, “You go that way, scare them into taking off in that direction, right where I’ll have planted some mines for them to run into. Then we pick off whatever we need to?”
When the wolf-girl gave a short nod, I smiled a little. “Sounds good to me. Hold on. I’ll be back.”
Carefully and slowly, I crawled back the way we’d come, looping around a ways until I came to the spot that Roxa had indicated. Then I paused to make sure the hog-deer… deer-pigs…
Digs? Tabbris offered helpfully. You know, like deer-pigs. Or sweer, for swine-deer. Or doar, for deer-boar. Or pantlers, for pigs with antlers. There’s hantlers too, for hogs, but I like pantlers.
Pantlers is kind of cute, I agreed while charging my staff. Carefully, I started to lay out concussive mines along the path that the animals would most likely run through once Roxa startled them. Maybe we can let everyone take a vote on which one they like best.
I’m pretty sure, she replied confidently, that what they really wanna call them is dinner.
Smiling at that, I started to crawl back to where the others were. You’re probably right.
When I got back there, only Sands and Jazz were waiting. Through gestures and whispers, they let me know that Roxa and gone around to the back of the clearing and was waiting to scare the pantlers (that was definitely my favorite one). Isaac, meanwhile, had gone down and around to the opposite side from where we were so that he could block them if they ended up retreating that way. Basically, between all of us we would herd them into the mines that I had laid down.
Biting my lip, I looked back out at where the animals were calmly eating. A few of them had started to look around cautiously, but mostly they were content to munch their food.
Then I had an even better idea. Whispering for the others to hang on, I reached out a hand to touch the tree in front of me. With a thought, I used the Relekun’s power to shove myself into the wood, ‘swimming’ up the tree to the nearest large branch. Emerging, I crouched there, basically directly over the antlered warthogs below. Still, the herd hadn’t really moved much.
Sands was looking up at me, and I gave her a thumbs up while transforming my staff into its bow form and charging up an arrow. Once she saw that I was ready, Sands turned to mouth something at Jazz. In turn, the other girl put a hand to her lips before pretty accurately imitating one of the birds that we had seen all around this place over the past week. I had no idea if that was some kind of mimicry power, or just a completely natural skill. Either way, it was really good.
The pantlers below were warily looking around at the sound of the bird call. That wariness exploded into full out panic, however, as Roxa abruptly leapt into the clearing with a loud snarl. She gave a violent series of barks while lunging toward the quite thoroughly startled animals.
And that was the point where the pantlers decided they’d had quite enough of this shit. The entire herd panicked, spinning around to scatter in various directions. Unfortunately for them, we were ready for that. The few that ran toward where Sands and Jazz waited were met with both girls lunging out to shout at them, weapons swinging. Jazz even brought up a brief wave of fire.
Meanwhile, the ones that went toward Isaac were sent back the way we wanted them to go by his three drones, which flew out of the bushes and sent several shots toward the poor animals.
All of that together meant that the creatures that were about to be our dinner were herded right where we wanted them to go. As I watched from my perch in the tree, the first couple reached the mines, and were instantly blown off their feet by the concussive explosion. One flew backwards into a full somersault (which looked weird coming from an animal like that), smacking against a tree. Another was caught just a little less, and went tumbling sideways into a bush.
The rest of the herd kept running, hit less by the mines. But that was more than alright. Two of the things would definitely be enough for awhile. We just had to make sure they didn’t get away.
To that end, I took aim at the furthest pantler, the one that had just been tossed into the bush. My energy-arrow shot that way, catching the thing just as it was getting up. That time, the thing stayed down. And I was just about to take aim at the second one when a wave of pleasure washed over me. It wasn’t anything close to the bigger rushes I’d gotten from deaths like Charmeine or the Amarok. In contrast, this was more like a brief pleasurable feeling. But it did take me a little by surprise, to the point that I had to quickly reach out and catch myself against the tree. I’d kind of forgotten that these things would actually trigger the whole Heretic-kill thing.
As I caught myself against the tree, however, something else caught my eye. Off on the other side of the clearing, half-hidden in bushes… was a humanoid figure. I couldn’t tell much about it from where I was, except that it looked pretty close to human save for yellow-red skin that made it blend into the surrounding bushes pretty well. It was watching the others, but a second later it looked up, clearly catching sight of me looking at it. Instantly, the thing pivoted to run.
“Roxa!” I shouted. As the wolf spun to look my way, I pointed off the way the thing was going. “Company!”
Then I leapt, transitioning my weapon back into its staff form before using a blast of energy to send myself flying that way. The brief flight before I came down cut into the spy’s lead, and I hit the ground running. I was fast, but Roxa was faster. She tore past me, all four legs turning her into a furry rocket that vanished into the bushes ahead.
A second later, my staff was charged enough to launch myself upward once more. I flew up and forward, landing on an outstretched branch to run along it for a few steps. Ahead, I caught the briefest glimpse of the figure running, with Roxa right behind him.
It was cutting to the right, so I did too, launching myself from the end of the branch with another burst from my staff. The propulsion sent me over the figure’s head, and I came down almost directly in front of it, spinning with my weapon up.
It was a male figure. I recognized that now. He pivoted at the sight of me, trying to escape back the way he’d come. But an instant later, Roxa came leaping out of the bushes. She collided with the man, knocking him to the ground with a loud, violent growl.
Now I had a better look at the guy. The most immediate feature I noticed was that he had four eyes. Two were in the normal locations, while the other two were set just a little above them. So two on each side of his face. He also wasn’t wearing much, just a sort of brown loincloth. And his skin wasn’t really reddish-orange anymore. In the few seconds since he had hit the ground, it had turned brownish to match the dirt. Whatever this guy was, he had some kind of chameleon power. He was still visible, but his skin changed colors to match his surroundings.
He was also crying. Sobbing, really. Rolling on his side, he babbled something in some language I didn’t understand.
Old Seosten, Tabbris quickly put in. Basically Latin. I understand him. He… he’s begging you to kill him.
Kill him? I blinked. Why would he ask us to kill him?
He keeps saying, please kill me, please don’t send me to the butcher… doctor… something like that.
I frowned for a second. Then I got it. Radueriel. He’s afraid we’re working for Radueriel. Ask him where he came from. I mean, use me to ask him.
There was a momentary hesitation, then my mouth moved, and my voice spat out some words quickly. The sobbing figure stopped, blinking tear-filled eyes up at me before stammering a hesitant, fearful response.
Um, it’s um, he came from a labor camp. He says he escaped and ran for two days before he got here. He was just hungry. He saw the pantlers too. But when he saw you–I mean us, he thought you were part of the search team sent to bring him back. Now he’s afraid you’re gonna send him to Radueriel.
Well, that was one thing we definitely wouldn’t be doing. But this did mean one very important thing. We weren’t exactly alone on this planet after all. No, apparently there was a slave labor camp a couple days run away from here, a place full of terrified, broken, hopeless people like this guy, working themselves to the bone until they either died or were sent to be experiments for that fucking psycho Seosten cyborg.
The question was, what were we going to do about it?