Please note two things. First, there was a mini-interlude posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the previous chapter button above. And we also have a contest running for selecting the best joke tag, along with a prize. For details, see my first/top comment at the bottom of that chapter.
Running through the wide open shuttle bay doors led the eight of us (counting Gidget) into the smoldering remains of what had once been the defense tower. The defense tower whose anti-teleportation effect we had taken out by crashing an entire freaking ship into it.
Gordon was a hybrid. A hybrid. My mind was racing, going a million miles an hour. Even with all that was already going on, I couldn’t just dismiss that from my thoughts. He was part Alter, like Shiori, or the twins. Why hadn’t he told us? Sure, he’d told us why, to avoid adding to all the drama and all that. But seriously? I wanted to shake him. If this wasn’t literally a life and death situation (actually, many lives and many deaths), I probably would have. Sure, it was totally his choice and up to him to share with us, and I wasn’t really mad at him about it or anything. After all, that was a really personal thing. But… but still.
I was discombobulated about it.
The place, or at least this part of it, was in complete ruins. Fires burned everywhere. I could see a few bodies lying here and there, while holes in the walls and ceiling revealed the sky beyond, which allowed the cold arctic wind to come through. Meanwhile, a sick, warbling alarm that sounded like it had seen much better days droned in and out in the background. Red and white lights flickered here and there, valiantly struggling to illuminate what the fires weren’t.
Partway through, the giant bear that was Vanessa began to rapidly shrink. Reflexively, I started to look away as her appearance grew closer to human, but there was no need. A silver necklace that I hadn’t noticed before (it had apparently grown with her and been hidden under all that fur) began to give off a soft white glow for a second. By the time she was in any shape where embarrassment would have been an issue, her clothes somehow magically appeared right back on her body where they had been before.
“Uncle Apollo,” she muttered by way of explanation when she noticed all of us staring.
“I definitely need one of those,” Roxa announced, giving a firm nod. “Mine just holds clothes, it doesn’t automatically put them on me.”
“As soon as we get out of here with Mom, I’m pretty sure he’ll make anything you want,” the other girl replied. Face half-cast in shadow, she raised a hand to point. “And he said that the entrance to the tunnel should be that way.” I could tell that she was trying very hard not to think about the sounds of fighting that we could still hear from behind us. The thought of anything happening to her father while she was busy saving her mother had to be weighing heavily on the girl.
The tunnel that she had mentioned was supposed to lead from the defense tower where we were, all the way into the lab itself. It was one of very few actual bits of information that Apollo had been able to conjure up out of whatever prophetic future seeing sources he had access to. I still hadn’t been able to get a straight answer out of the Olympian about all that, but I was pretty sure he just enjoyed being mysterious. Either way, he had been confident about the location and usefulness of the tunnel.
Together, we started to move that way, only for Roxa to suddenly stop while snapping her arm up. Her head tilted a little, and I saw her ears twitch slightly. “Wait,” the girl murmured, “there’s something…”
Abruptly, she began to stride off into the darkness, with Gidget trotting behind her. The rest of us looked at one another in confusion for moment before following after them. Eventually, Roxa led us to a pile of rubble that had fallen from a collapsed ceiling above.
“Hey,” Tristan started a bit tentatively, “we really, really need to get into that lab, like, as soon as possible. So-“
Giving a sharp shake of her head, Roxa gestured at the pile. “There’s someone under there,” she declared. “They’re begging for help, can’t you hear them?”
Gordon had his hand up, peering through his thumb and fingers in a circle like a telescope as he nodded. “She’s right,” the boy announced, “there’s someone trapped under there. It’s one of those soldiers. The pile is basically crushing him.”
“If we were fighting him,” Sands pointed out, “we’d kill him anyway. He’s a soldier, one of Kushiel’s. And we’re kind of busy. Every second we waste here is another second that they might get out of here with Sariel.”
It was Vanessa who spoke up then. “So we have to hurry and get him out.” Her face was set. “Yes, I want to get to my mom. But I don’t want to be the kind of person who could just leave someone here to suffer like this to do it. I could never forget that.”
Right, she could never forget anything at all. And associating the rescue of her mother with abandoning someone else to suffer and die like this… Yeah, I could see why she couldn’t do it. When it came time to save my own mother, I wouldn’t want it to be tainted by something like that either, if I had the choice.
“Besides,” Roxa informed us, “the last thing Apollo said to me before we started all this was to not ignore what I hear. I don’t know where he’s pulling these little prophecy things from or why they have to be so vague and scattershot, but ‘don’t ignore what you hear’ seems pretty straight forward right now, doesn’t it?”
“She’s got a point,” I agreed with a shrug. “Ignoring it sounds like a bad idea. Especially when she puts it like that.”
Jazz was already holding her hands out to create a couple of those gravity balls above the rubble. She grimaced then as the pile shifted just a little. “I can make it lighter,” the girl announced, “but it’s too heavy to pull off him entirely.”
“You make it lighter,” I agreed, before looking to Sands. “If you get on that side and use your mace to start building a little wall under the lip of the rubble there out of the same material that it’s made from, you could start making the wall higher to push it up out of the way. The rest of us can take the other side and pull it up there. Except Gordon. You use your x-ray vision to keep an eye on the guy and be ready. The second the rubble is up far enough, reach in and pull him out. You might do damage to him, but they’ve got healing. All that matters is that he survives.”
Gordon met my gaze for a moment. I could tell he wanted to know what I was thinking about that little revelation, his eyes twitching just a little before he looked away with a little nod, his voice quiet. “Got it.”
The others nodded, and we moved up to do just that. Jazz focused on making the gravity orbs and pushing them up to pull the rubble as much as she could. Meanwhile, Sands put a wall under the one side, while Roxa, Vanessa, Tristan, and I heaved up on the other side. Gordon crouched, one hand in front of his face as he watched through the rubble with his other hand ready to grab the guy.
It took some effort. This chunk of broken ceiling was really heavy, and really big. No wonder we hadn’t been able to hear the guy from under it. Aside from Roxa, anyway.
But eventually, we managed it. The rubble shifted a little, and Gordon made a noise as he reached in to catch hold of the guy. I heard feet scrambling and then a cry of pain as the boy hauled out the armored, uniformed soldier. He kept pulling until they were a couple feet away from the rubble so that we could let it drop. Which it did, with a loud, almost deafening clang.
The soldier lay there panting and groaning. One of his legs was clearly heavily broken, and I could see where the rubble had been crushing him. But we didn’t have time to worry about that. We’d gotten him out of there, and now we had to go.
“Come on,” I urged the others, “We’ve gotta get to that tunnel. Sariel needs help too.”
“Wait.” It was the injured soldier. He held a hand up, his body trembling a little. “You… ugh, you saved my life,” he pointed out a bit painfully. “I’ve got to tell you, that tunnel is trapped. Kushiel, she knew someone would use it, so she’s got all these spells on it. You walk through there like that, and you’ll be disintegrated before you even get halfway through it.” Shifting a little with another grunt of pain, the man dug in the pocket of his uniform and withdrew three little crystals, which he held out to us. “Take these, anyone holding one can get through the tunnel. But I’ve only got the three. I… I owe you that much.” I couldn’t see the man’s face through the helmet that he wore, but he sounded like he was barely conscious.
“Do we believe him?” Sands asked flatly.
I shrugged at that, while taking the three crystals from the man. “We don’t really have much of a choice. I’d rather not be disintegrated.” And I kind of doubted that the man just happened to be carryng around a handful of crystals like this that would make our situation worse.
After I had taken the crystals from the man, he slumped a little more. I could see his chest rise and fall a bit, but he seemed to be unconscious. Briefly, I hoped that he would be okay. Yeah, he was an enemy, but he had also helped us. Be it out of a sense of obligation or whatever, he’d still done it. So I hoped that he didn’t die.
I hoped that… I wished that none of them had had to die. Even the ones back on the ship. Fighting… in the middle of it, I had killed without much thought. It was kill or be killed. But now, afterward, when the adrenaline had faded just a little bit… They were slaves of the Seosten. Sure, there would be those who were eager to fight and kill, but still… there would also be those who weren’t. There would be those who–
“Only three of them,” Jazz noted then, snapping me out of my distraction. “What do we do with just three?”
“It gets worse,” Gordon quietly put in. The boy was holding his hands up to his face once more, looking off toward one of the walls. “In a few seconds, there’s gonna be more soldiers pouring in here. They’ll be right on top of us.”
“You guys go.” That was Roxa, and she was looking at Tristan, Vanessa, and me. “You go through the tunnel with those crystals, while we hold off the soldiers. We’ll keep them from hitting you from behind.”
Sands nodded. “Like Haiden said, all that matters is getting someone to where Sariel is to call in the big guns. Go, we’ve got this. We’ll see if we can get more of those crystals off these guys and follow you as soon as we can. Be careful, and go save Sariel.”
I wanted to argue with that. I wanted to stay and help them fight these guys. But the truth was that there just wasn’t time. We had no idea how long it would take Kushiel to find a way to move her prisoners despite the portal blockers that had come in with the fleet. And if we lost this chance, I didn’t know how we’d ever get another one.
So, we went. Now down to Tristan, Vanessa, and myself, the three of us took off toward the tunnel. Each of us held one of those crystals that the rescued soldier had given us. In the background, I heard more fighting start up as the pursuing guards made it into that chamber. Silently, I wished Jazz, Gordon, Roxa, Gidget, and Sands luck. But I didn’t dare look back. If I had, I might not have been able to convince myself to keep going.
Together, the three of us reached the large doorway leading to the ramp, which descended down into the tunnel that would lead to the lab. For a second, we glanced at each other. Vanessa spoke in a slightly trembling voice as she held her crystal in one hand. “Let’s go save Mom.”
My head gave a little nod, Tabbris taking my voice briefly to quietly say, “Save Mama.”
With that, we sprinted together down that ramp and into the tunnel. The crystals in our hands glowed a bit, but at least we didn’t disintegrate. Which was a good thing. The tunnel itself was wide enough for a couple of trucks to drive through, and pretty much completely barren. Our footsteps echoed as we raced along it.
After a minute or so of running like that, Vanessa abruptly caught my arm to yank me out of the way a second before a barrage of shots sailed through the air where I had just been. She’d clearly seen the attack coming with her enhanced vision. “Soldiers,” the girl gasped out while pointing down the long tunnel, far beyond where I could see. “There’s a big cluster of them right by the exit.”
Tristan was grinning. “A big cluster, you say?” He lifted his arm with Bobbi-Bobbi and her cannon form. “Great, let’s see if we can break it up a bit, shall we?”
There was a rapidly rising hum of power, and then the boy shot an enormous laser from his snake-cannon. The beam was a solid two feet across as it tore down that straight tunnel, and Tristan move his arm a bit from side to side and up-and-down to cover as much of the tunnel as possible. After a couple of seconds, he suddenly gave a sharp gasp and shuddered with pleasure as I saw his bronze-colored aura flare up. He’d gotten at least one kill from that. Meanwhile, the beam fizzled and he finally dropped his arm. “That’s it, gotta let her recharge.”
Vanessa was already running again, as she announced, “You killed two of them. The rest hit the ground.”
A few more steps bought us close enough that Tristan and I could see what she meant. There was a pile of soldiers who were just starting to pick themselves up from the floor. But I had been charging my staff this entire time, and I was ready. With another step, I shifted my weapon into its bow form and drew back an energy arrow with all the power that I had stored up. A second later, I loosed the arrow and it soared in to explode right in the middle of the collected soldiers. They were all sent flying into opposite walls, one even hitting the ceiling before crashing back to the ground.
We were there then, the three of us sprinting straight through the crumpled pile of guards before they could collect themselves. Ignoring them entirely, we just kept going. There wasn’t time to stop and handle them. Every second counted, especially now. If we didn’t have to waste time fighting, we weren’t going to.
That put us into what looked like a loading bay of some kind. All around us were these clear tubes of all different shapes and sizes. They were clearly meant to house living beings, with displays on the side to show their vitals and things like that. Some of them were tipped on their side, while others were upright. None of them had anyone in them, which I supposed meant that they were used for transporting.
Or maybe these ones were in maintenance or something, I wasn’t sure. The point was, there was a door ahead of us that lead into what looked like a futuristic hospital. Everything through there seemed pristine and sterile from what little I could see.
“The lab,” Vanessa gasped out with wide eyes. “We’re here. We made it.”
“We might be at the lab,” Tristan corrected flatly, “but we haven’t gotten to Mom yet. Come on. We’re so close. We can’t trip now.”
There were still soldiers in the lab itself, of course. They weren’t going to make it that easy for us, even then. But those soldiers were spread out, trying to cover a large space with too few of them, as most were busy helping Radueriel and Abbadon, or fighting Haiden and Larissa, or even trying to deal with Roxa, Sands, Gordon, and Jazz. We may have been gradually spread out throughout this effort, but so had Kushiel’s forces. She only had so many left in the lab itself, and the most dangerous ones were thoroughly occupied.
So, we fought our way through, killing several more of the guards on the way to find Sariel. Nothing was going to stand in our way at that point, after everything we’d gone through to get that far. Especially not these soldiers. Through empty room after empty room, hallway after hallway, we kept fighting. The place, aside from the guard trying to stop us, was practically a ghost town. But it was also clear that the prisoners had been moved in a big hurry. We still had time to get wherever they were being taken, I hoped.
Eventually, our paths led us to what at first looked like an observation room, with a large window all along one wall. But as we went closer, I saw that there wasn’t any kind of operating room or anything below. Instead, the window overlooked a docking bay built into the side of the lab. Below, we could see more of those tubes. These ones, however, had figures in them. Prisoners. And there were soldiers working to load them onto some kind of… I was guessing that it was a spaceship, but it looked more like a long tube with a ramp leading up into it. I couldn’t see where any thrusters or weapons or anything were. Standing right at the base of that ramp, directing them, was a tall, regal-looking woman with dark hair tied into a single, tight braid. The very sight of her made my skin crawl, as a cold lump settled into my stomach. Kushiel. That had to be Kushiel.
But it wasn’t her that the others were focused on. Tabbris suddenly made my eyes snap down a bit, at the tube that sat beside the woman. A tube with a pretty blonde figure frozen within.
“Mama!” my mouth abruptly blurted, even as Tristan and Vanessa made their own sounds to the same effect.
“We have to get down there,” Tristan blurted then, looking back to me wildly. “We have to get down there before—“
He stopped, as Kushiel looked up right at us through the window. I saw a small, cold smile cross the woman’s face before she said something to the soldier near her. That guy moved to grab the tube holding Sariel, pushing it up the ramp to the ship.
Bellowing out, Tristan suddenly took aim at the window with his cannon and opened fire. Unfortunately, the laser didn’t so much as scorch what turned out to be a force field rather than glass. It just sort of fizzled. Breaking through it like that was going to take a lot more time than we actually had. That ship would be gone soon, along with any hope of saving Sariel.
Vanessa and I both had our badges in our hands, activating them as fast as we could. The other girl looked to me, her eyes wide. “What if they don’t get here in time? They’re in the middle of a fight. They might not be able to get away.”
She was right, every second counted. Looking around wildly, I pointed to a small door to one side. “There,” I blurted, already moving that way. Sure enough, as we tore the door open, we found a set of stairs leading downward. The stairs took us to a small, empty corridor, at the end of which there was a door that clearly lead into the hangar bay that we had just been looking at.
As we sprinted that way, however, a blue light suddenly sprang to life and passed over us. I felt a tingle, and then heard a gasp as Tabbris stumbled out of me. My hand snapped out to catch the other girl before she could fall. “What the—?”
“Safety measure,” Vanessa instantly deduced. “They must use it to make sure there aren’t any Seosten prisoners hitching a ride to get out of here.”
Flinching a little, I nodded. “Right, come on and—”
“Now this,” a new, yet vaguely familiar voice suddenly interrupted, “is quite interesting.”
A woman was there, blocking our path to the door. She stepped forward, and I recognized her. It made no sense to me for a second, but it was definitely her, one of the members of the Crossroads Committee. Elisabet. Elisabet was there, staring at Tabbris, then at me while realization and full comprehension dawned across her expression at a speed that was matched only by the horrified sinking feeling that had fallen into my own stomach like a crater.
“Quite interesting indeed.”