The tunnels were a maze, with branches leading off in every possible direction. Seriously, it was like being trapped in a giant anthill. If it was just me, I would’ve wandered around down there for hours, if not days, without actually finding anyone.
But it wasn’t just me. Roxa was there too, and she could follow Isaac’s scent pretty much as well as if there had been flashing neon signs leading her after him. She and Gidget led the way while the rest of us trailed along in her wake. Together, we moved as quickly, yet cautiously, as we dared. I wouldn’t have put it past that asshole to leave traps of some kind.
Strangely, however, there weren’t any. We made our way through those tunnels, following Isaac’s trail without running into any problems. Above, I could occasionally hear the sound of the fighting going on, and all I could do was hope (and reassure Tabbris) that Haiden and Larissa were alright.
Each tunnel was about eight feet wide by eight feet high. I didn’t know exactly what had made them, but the walls were perfectly smooth. As we moved, I ran my hand along one side curiously. Stone. They were made of stone of some kind, as far as I could tell. But what exactly were they for? If it was just for carrying water up, they had pipes for that, and there would be no need for all the extra tunnels leading everywhere. Was it for mining, maybe? But in that case, why was everything perfectly smooth?
Oh well. I had to focus. Dealing with Isaac was the priority, not wondering about this alien civilization’s tunnel-building habits.
Abruptly, Roxa halted just before a T-junction in the tunnel. Snapping her hand up to stop the rest of us, she tilted her head to listen for a second. Then she whispered. “To the left, about two hundred feet in. He’s there, with… a bunch of others, I think. I can hear their hearts beating, and I can hear them breathing. They’re scared. Really scared. And there’s this… clicking sound.”
Gordon had a hand in front of his face, using his own x-ray vision. His voice was soft. “There’s a huge chamber there. Isaac is in the middle of it, and there’s… people along the walls to the left and right. It looks like they’re chained up. I count… maybe a hundred. They’re the ones making the clicking sound. Isaac isn’t close to any of them.”
Breathing out myself, I nodded. “Okay. So we go in fast and hard, and get Isaac up to the ship before he can do anything to those people. Ready?” As the others agreed, I kept a tight hold on my staff, bracing myself before whispering, “Go.”
Together, we threw ourselves around the corner and down that last tunnel. Ahead, just as Gordon had said, the tunnel opened up into a large square chamber. It was about three hundred feet across, at a glance, with a ceiling that was about fifty feet up. Most of the open space in the room was empty, but I could see the asshole himself standing right there in the middle. The figures along the two walls weren’t exactly human. Actually, they mostly looked like humanoid ants. Their bodies were divided into three endoskeleton-covered sections. Rather than being down horizontal like regular ants, however, the abdomen, thorax, and head were stacked vertically, like a snowman. There were four legs coming out the bottom of the abdomen to hold them up, and four arms coming out of the thorax, two at the top and two at the bottom. Their heads were basically just like giant ant-heads, with sharp mandibles that were clattering in terror. That was the clicking sound that Roxa had heard.
But my focus, our focus, was centered on that son of a bitch standing right in the middle of the room. Narrowing my eyes, I pointed my staff back, about to trigger the kinetic charge to launch myself that way when I was suddenly stopped by a hand snatching hold of my arm.
“Stop!” Roxa blurted, bringing everyone to a halt.
Isaac, who had spun around at our approach, made a face of disappointment. “Aww,” he lamented with a shake of his head. “How’d you figure it out?”
While the rest of us just looked confused, Roxa stepped forward. Raising a hand, she extended it slightly until her palm abruptly stopped short. The air shimmered under her palm as she pressed firmly.
A forcefield. There was an invisible forcefield.
“I know you can’t hear or smell it,” the boy continued in a voice that made it sound like we were all just having a casual conversation. “So… new power? Gotta be a new power. That’s cool, I’ve got a few new powers of my–”
“You son of a bitch!” Jazz was suddenly there, going right up to the invisible wall to glower at the boy. “What the hell is wrong with you?! You just… just… k-killed all those people! You… you’ve been helping the Seosten? For how long?! How long have you been a fucking monster?!”
“See, that’s a really funny question,” Isaac remarked. “Cuz the thing is–”
“Lower the fucking forcefield!” Roxa interrupted. She was glowering furiously, her eyes dark as she made a low growling sound, like a wild dog that really wanted you to leave it alone. “Or I swear to God, I will tear it down myself and take you apart.”
“Well, see, you could try to come through that to get me, but–” Isaac started in a voice that dripped with condescension.
Roxa was having none of it. “Oh, you’re damn straight, I’ll come through it!” Rearing back, she threw a hard punch straight at the center of the forcefield. It reverberated, shockwaves running through the field sort of like ripples in a window. For a second, the thing looked like it might falter.
Then it didn’t. The forcefield suddenly returned to normal, going completely invisible once more. And at the same time, one of the Alters in the background slumped, dropping to the floor with a weak groan.
“Wha–” Eyes widening, I hurriedly snapped a hand out to stop Roxa from hitting the thing again. “Wait!”
Isaac was grinning as he wiggled two fingers at the both of us. “You know, there’s a joke here about two blonde bimbos and which one figures out the obvious first. If I had time, or cared, it’d probably be hilarious. But hey, what am I saying, this is hilarious enough all by itself.”
“He’s got them linked to the spell,” I snarled, disgust filling my voice. I was physically shaking. “If we damage the forcefield, we’re damaging them. It drains their life to keep… to keep the wall up.”
Can you undo the spell? I desperately asked my secret companion. Or at least unlink it from those people? I mean, can you take control of me and do something to break it.
Tabbris stammered, I–I thi-think so? But he’d know what you were doing as soon as you did it, and he might just… just kill them anyway if he thought you were about to get to him. He needs to be distracted. But I… I dunno how… She sounded just as sick as I felt.
“See?!” Meanwhile, Isaac had spread both hands, his smile broadening. “I knew you could work it out if you really tried. I think that deserves a smiley face sticker. Go ahead,” the boy gestured grandly. “Give yourself a hearty pat on the back, Miss Investigative Reporter.”
“You know what?” I shot back at him, “When we get in there, I’m gonna–”
“Cry over all the innocent people you had to kill to do it?” the boy interrupted. Waving a hand vaguely over his shoulder in the direction of the imprisoned figures, he added, “There’s about a… what is it… hundred of my friends back there? So yeah, sure. If you want me badly enough to kill a hundred ant-monster things just to get at me, be my guest. But then, wouldn’t you sort of be just as bad as me?”
Oh God, it was hard to resist the urge to smack that fucking forcefield with my staff. I wanted to wipe that stupid smirk off his face so fucking badly. Beside me, Roxa made a low snarling noise. She was clearly having just as much, if not more, trouble restraining herself.
But it was Jazz who took three quick steps forward, shoving her hands against the field firmly. Holding them there, she spat at her former teammate. “What the hell is wrong with you?! When did you become such a fucking psychopath?! You killed all those people, you son of a bitch!”
“Ah, well.” Holding his finger up, Isaac pointed out matter-of-factly, “Technically, I’m the only one in this entire group who’s actually doing our job like we’re supposed to. You know, hunting monsters? You might call that bit back on the ship an atrocity or whatever. But I’m pretty sure the Crossroads Committee would call me a hero. Oooh, maybe they’d even give me a parade.”
“Except for the part where you killed one of your own teachers,” Gordon pointed out from the back. His voice sounded brittle, like even he was close to snapping. When I looked that way, I saw that his hands were clenched into tight fists. “They would probably object to that.”
“Eh.” Isaac shrugged. “He was a traitor. I mean, not every traitor can be like Flicky’s mommy and just get her memory erased. Sometimes, you’ve just gotta…” He drew a finger across his throat, “Nip that shit right in the bud. But still, isn’t that kinda funny? You guys are all pissed off, sure. But when it comes right down to it, I’m actually more loyal to Crossroads than you are.”
“You’re a coward,” I informed him flatly. Glancing to Jazz, I stepped next to the girl to glare at him. “You just killed all those people. You killed Professor Katarin. So you should have all this power. But you’re still hiding behind hostages. Because you’re a coward. You’d rather hide behind all those innocent people than fight. Hell, even when you betrayed everyone, you did it with an entire ship, because you didn’t dare actually fight any of us.”
Pantomiming falling asleep on his feet, Isaac abruptly snorted and straightened up as though jolting himself awake. “What? I’m sorry, was that supposed to bother me? Hell, if I cared about fighting fair and all that, I probably wouldn’t have stabbed Paul in the back. I mean, technically it was the chest that I stabbed him in, not the back. But you know what I mean. No need to get nitpicky about those kind of details.”
“You fucking asshole!” Jazz slammed her fists into the field before jerking back a bit as one of the other Alters slumped to the ground, groaning weakly. We held our breaths, watching until it became clear that Jazz’s aura wasn’t popping up. The Alter was still alive.
Still, the other girl was trembling with rage. Her voice shook. “You sick fucking freak,” she snarled at Isaac. “What happened, did Paul figure out what a goddamn psycho you are?”
Isaac laughed at that, literally tilting his head back as he chuckled. “Figure it out? Nah, he was just sort of there. I was supposed to give my pal Fetch an opening to replace someone on the team and, well, Paul was right there in the van while we were watching Flickster’s house. I mean, you should’ve seen the look on his face. It was hilarious. I swear to God, it was so hard not to laugh when you guys were all talking to Fetch like he was Paul, while the real Paul was shoved into some magical freezer or something. It was just awesome.”
He sighed then. “But then you guys had to go and screw it up! All that work and you still insisted on talking things through with the Flickster instead of just going to the Committee to turn her in like we were supposed to!”
“Fuck you!” Jazz screamed, suddenly yanking her sword free. Flames lit up around the blade as she glowered through the forcefield. “You fucking–you stupid–you psycho piece of–you–”
“Easy,” Isaac taunted, waving his hand. “Use your words, Jasmine.”
“Use my wor–” the other girl reared back like she was going to hit the forcefield, barely catching herself. “You… you…” Shoving the weapon away, she pivoted, moving back the way we’d come at a sprint. “Yeah, let’s see just how brave you are with Haiden and Larissa here, asshole!”
Watching her go, the boy tilted his head, remarking, “Did she seriously just pull a literal ‘I’m gonna tell on you’? I mean, what am I supposed to…” Giving a sharp shake of his head as though putting that out of his mind, he shrugged. “Doesn’t matter anyway. See, I worked out the math, and even those guys can’t get through this shield without killing all my friends here. So I dunno what the hell she thinks she’s doing. But you know, no one ever accused Jazzy of being the sharpest knife in the drawer. And I know a little something about sharp knives.”
“God damn,” I put in then, my mind racing as I tried to think of something that could distract the boy long enough for Tabbris to get the shield down. “You really did hate pretending to be a decent human being, didn’t you? Now you won’t fucking shut up. Just how much do you love the sound of your own voice, anyway? I mean seriously.”
If he was offended by that, Isaac didn’t show it. He just winked at me before continuing what he had been saying before. “So the team totally screws up and doesn’t go to the fucking Committee like they’re supposed to, which meant that Manakel had to come up with this stupid plan, and I end up getting caught in between a rock and a hard place. I mean, I go through all that, play nice for that long and you guys just happen to run into a situation where you’re about to find out who Manakel’s possessing anyway? I couldn’t let that happen, cuz if Manakel goes down, he’d sell me down the fucking river in a heartbeat. So, you see, if you really think about it, all those Strangers died because of you.”
“They died,” Roxa snapped in a voice that made it clear that it was all she could do not to shift into her wolf form and tear into that forcefield, “because you’re a sick fucking monster.”
“No, no, no, see you’ve got it backwards again.” Isaac was grinning, clearly enjoying himself thoroughly. He’d been waiting a long time to actually show us his true colors. “I told you, I hunt monsters. You play Friendship Is Magic with them, and I stab them. I mean, I feel like what I really need right now is a black Impala and a brooding brother who is just like, the physical manifestation of manpain.”
Beside me, the other girl slowly shook her head. “What you really need,” she informed the boy through gritted teeth, “is my hand tearing your heart out of your chest and making you eat it.”
“So violent!” Isaac shook his head. “You sound upset, Roxanne. Maybe you should take a breath, and just meditate for awhile. I hear that too much anger is bad for werewolves. You don’t wanna lose control and go after your friends, do you? I mean, I’d find that hilarious, but you… probably not.”
Sands stepped forward then, gripping her mace so tightly in one hand that her knuckles were white. “You’re going to die, Isaac. Either you die here, or you come with us. Or you become a Seosten meat-puppet. There’s no way out of it. The Seosten, they’re gonna bitch-slap your little safety measure like it’s not even there and then one of them’ll shove his hand right up your ass and control you for the rest of your miserable life. That or they’ll just kill you and be done with it.”
Rolling his eyes at that, Isaac extended both arms to either side. “I think you underestimate my negotiating capability, Sandy-witch. I’ve got all this–”
In mid-sentence, I saw a hint of movement behind the boy. He seemed to sense it too, because his eyes widened and he suddenly started to turn. But it was too late. With a sudden flash of metal and roar of fire, a flaming sword whistled through the air. There was a dull, wet thump then, as Isaac’s dismembered hand hit the ground, accompanied by a shocked scream of agony as the boy stumbled backward, hitting the nearby wall.
And Jazz, standing there with her flaming falchion raised, snarled, “Oops. Was that the hand with your suicide spell on it? My bad.”
With another scream, this one of rage, the boy threw his hand out. Jazz was caught by an invisible force and thrown backward into the far wall hard enough that it made me flinch. A second later, the rocks expanded into a band that wrapped around her waist and arms.
“How?!” Isaac demanded then, his voice raised into something approaching a squeal. “You–you–” He clutched his already cauterized wrist as he stared that way, “How?! You can’t–that’s not–that’s–”
“I turn things intangible, remember, idiot?” the girl replied while she was pinned to the wall. “Things like that rock wall over there.” She nodded over her shoulder to the rear wall of the little room.
“I checked it!” he screamed, sounding like a little kid having a tantrum that someone wasn’t playing fair. “There’s fifty feet of rock between that and the nearest tunnel! You couldn’t get through it that quick!”
“Eh.” Lifting her chin, Jazz replied, “True. It would’ve taken me an hour to make enough of that rock intangible to walk through it. But you know what? It turns out–” Abruptly, her body shifted until she was a nearly-invisible fog as she used her mist-shifting power. Slipping right out of the band of rock that had held her trapped there, the girl reformed next to it. “I can still do that. Which means I really only need a space about that big-” She held up her index finger and thumb in a close circle a few centimeters apart. “-to get through. Small enough that you didn’t even notice it. Mist-form, turning walls intangible, making myself invisible, combining powers is awesome. Maybe if you weren’t an idiot, you could’ve figured that out.”
Isaac was shaking as he held his stump tight. I could see it already regenerating, the skin, muscle, and bones starting to reform quickly. After a second, I realized his shaking was laughter. “And yet, you still just fucking stand there. You think I can’t kill you with one hand? All that power I got, I could–” His undamaged hand flicked out, and a glowing forcefield, different from the ones that were blocking us, appeared around the girl. “You think you’re so smart?” he demanded wildly. “I could just shrink this forcefield to the size of a pea. Think your mist form could handle that? How about if I shrink it and then incinerate it? How about if I just fill the whole thing with acid? I could fucking kill you in two seconds.”
He was on a roll with his ranting by that point. “The Seosten chose me, you stupid bitch! You think you could beat me? You weren’t even supposed to be a Heretic. You weren’t trained for this. You weren’t meant for it. You weren’t a second choice, or a third choice, or even a fucking tenth choice! You were the last choice! You’re here because you were the last one left! You’re a mistake. You’re a painfully average, lost little girl who’s only here because the bad guys didn’t care about her enough to bother killing her. You’re a fucking loser, a stupid fucking loser! You are a fucking moron! You don’t matter. You have never fucking mattered. Your own people wrote you off and only used you when they had no other choice. So you tell me, how exactly could you ever, ever beat me?”
Trapped by the forcefield as she was, Jazz slowly lifted her chin as much as she could while staring intently at the boy. “Well,” she drawled casually, “Maybe it’s just the painfully average loser in me talking, but if I was you, I would’ve figured out that I was just being distracted.”
“Just being dist–” With that, Isaac whipped back around, spinning back toward us.
But it was too late. Because the instant that the boy’s attention had been on the other girl, Tabbris had taken over, making me dart forward and down while yanking the field-engraver from my pocket before hurriedly scrawling some kind of spell in the floor. She didn’t bother to explain what she was doing, and I didn’t mind. I wanted her to focus.
And focus she did, rapidly drawing out an incredibly complicated series of runes that I couldn’t even begin to keep track of. Just as Isaac spun back, my hand finished scrawling the spell, and my mouth moved, blurting out several words I didn’t understand. As the last word left my mouth, I felt a rush of power leave me, like blowing out a long, heavy breath.
Isaac’s eyes were on us. He saw the field-engraver in my hand, saw the rune on the ground, heard the spell leave my mouth.
And then the forcefield that had been blocking us from him shattered. It broke apart like glass being hit with a brick before dropping entirely. Meanwhile, all those hostages… stayed upright. They were fine. They were fine! Tabbris had managed to disconnect them from feeding their life forces to the shield.
There was no more conversation. No pithy comments. Isaac was there. We were there. Nothing was standing between us except for open space.
Together, we went for him.