Quick note, there was a bonus chapter of this arc posted on Wednesday. If you did not see that yet, you might be slightly lost in this chapter. So you might wish to use the Previous Chapter button above.
The timing was incredibly important. Thanks to Scout (really living up to her namesake), and her invisible scope-portals, we knew exactly where all of the people on that higher floor were. And, more importantly, when they were near the glass dumbwaiter. We needed as many as possible to be close to it, rather than spread out over the whole floor. If the plan went the way it should, the whole floor would be taken care of anyway, but getting as many as possible in that first, initial surprise ambush was going to be important if we were all going to survive this.
Finally, there were at least ten of the guards within earshot of the lift. That was going to have to be good enough, because we couldn’t wait any longer.
At the sound of the dumbwaiter starting to rise toward them, all of the troops in the room and adjoining hallway spun toward it, moving closer. Their weapons came up, and they took aim. Then they paused, because what was coming up in that lift wasn’t any of us. Instead, they saw a small fox sitting there with a pouch tied around its neck by a leather strap.
“Is that a—” One of the soldiers, a red-armored figure, started. That was as far as he got, however. Because Tabbris, as the fox, suddenly jumped down out of the glass enclosure and started to run. A couple of the guys opened fire, but the fox was too quick, darting between their legs.
And then the troops had other problems. Because the mouth of the pouch opened, and from that opening came a thick, disgusting gas that instantly made the troops start coughing and choking, stumbling around a little while their shots went even more wide than before.
The pouch belonged to Shiori. It was the thing that she carried Choo around with. Like so much Heretic equipment, it was a lot bigger on the inside. Choo had his own miniature park in there that he could play in.
But he wasn’t in there now. Instead, what was in there was every last one of the Mesches that Manakel had been using to get those protection spells off of Avalon. We had used the specimen elevator to quietly collect them, storing them in that bag of holding. Now, they were all in there, pissed off and riled up about being disturbed and thrown into a new area. Which meant that they were giving off even more of that poison gas of theirs than usual. Poison gas which had been building up for about ten minutes by that point, and now had only one place to go: out through that single opening. The gas flooded out of the bag, quickly filling the room. And, unlike Avalon earlier, these guys didn’t have the Tabilten to counteract the poison.
Tabbris send Marian running out of that room and down the hall, working to fill as much of the floor with bad gas as possible. Which also worked to give her cover, blinding the people who were trying to shoot at her. And since it was being actively produced by our new little friends in there, there was no end of it. It would just keep coming.
It was time for step two of the plan. As the choking, coughing soldiers stumbled through the gas-filled room, they were caught off guard once more as the floor beneath them exploded. Well, the floor didn’t really explode so much as the mines that I had placed all along the ceiling of the room below them went off at once. The concussive force blew several holes in the floor, dumping some of the guards through them to hit the floor below, while others were thrown into walls.
Rudolph, Doug, and Shiori were ready. As the surprised soldiers dropped through the holes in the suddenly unstable floor, all three of them opened up with their weapons, tearing right through them before they could recover.
More of the troops came running. As they hit the hallway right outside of the room in question, their leader suddenly pitched over backward with a shot through his forehead, courtesy of Scout, hitting him through the scope-portal she had set up ahead of time.
The guys behind him stumbled to a stop, looking in vain for the source of the shot. And them holding still in that exact moment was the wrong choice. Because right then, thanks to an item-sense almost identical to mine that told him where they were, Sean opened up with Vulcan. The boy was standing directly below that hallway, with his cyberform partner held in his gun mode and aimed up at the ceiling. He unleashed a terrifying hurricane of bullets, flooding that hallway above with more metal than a 3 mile wide scrapyard.
Then there was me. As the floor finished collapsing under the force of those mines, I triggered my staff and launched myself upward, through one of those holes. I landed in the bullet riddled hallway right as Sean stopped firing, his sense telling him I was there.
Of course, there was still that poison gas. It was still flooding the whole floor, even going down through the holes that my mines and those bullets had caused. Which would have put us in the same situation as the guys we were fighting. Would have, except that we were prepared. Prepared, in this case, with scraps of cloth, torn from our own clothes, that have been tied around our necks. The bits of cloth had been enchanted with the breathing spell that Professor Carfried had taught us earlier in the year. The breathing spell which he had very specifically said would allow us to breathe through poison gas. Even I used it, because even though I could technically hold my breath for about ten minutes, doing so in the middle of a fight didn’t seem like fun.
So, unlike our opponents, we could breathe just fine. The poison gas wouldn’t hurt us, though it did make it a bit harder to see. But that was okay, because it wasn’t impossible, and I still had my item sense in any case. That was why I went first. Well, Sean had the same power. But he had been needed below.
Landing on that unstable floor, I gave myself a quick boost with my staff over the bullet hole-riddled area, landing a bit further down just in time to see two more guys running toward me. They were choking on the gas, unable to see much of what they were doing. But they would be right on top of me in a second.
I let them come, waiting until the last second before lunging that way to shove the blade of my staff through one of their throats. My aura flared up, and I felt the distant pleasure from the kill even as it was muffled by Tabbris. Just as quickly, I spun before the other guy could recover. He was too far away to hit with a swipe from my weapon. At least… he was until I used that new power I’d picked up that let me grow and shrink items that I could hold. In this case, I made my staff extend to twice its normal size, taking the man’s head from his shoulders with that single swipe of the suddenly-enlarged weapon. The two never knew what hit them.
Unfortunately, a couple of other guys did know what had hit them. I didn’t know if they were just resistant, or all out immune to the gas. But they didn’t seem to be affected by it. The two came into view, and through the haze of the gas I thought they looked a bit like walking hammerhead sharks.
Then there was electricity coursing toward me, as the shark guys, or whatever they were, opened up not with their weapons, but with literal lightning shooting from their eyes.
I dodged one, thanks to my werewolf-enhanced agility, literally ducking and twisting away from the line of electricity. But the other one caught the edge of my arm, which immediately spasmed and made me drop the staff to clatter along the floor. Even with the electrical resistance I’d picked up back at Radueriel’s station, it still hurt like hell. I couldn’t begin to imagine what kind of charred black figure I would’ve been without that resistance.
They were on me then, and I realized belatedly that they were more bird like then shark like, with feathers and short, stubby wings that only seemed to let them jump really well rather than fly. Their heads really were shaped like a hammerhead shark, however, with a parrot-like beak right in the middle.
One of them grabbed me by the arm, and I felt more of that electricity shoot into me. My body spasmed and I gave a sharp cry just as the other one put his fist into the side of my face, knocking my head to the side. I couldn’t react. The electricity kept making my muscles seize up and spasm. Pain resistance and electrical resistance, and I still couldn’t stand up to this lightning. Just how powerful were these guys? Even my attempt to absorb the energy seemed to fail, which was just cheating. And I only liked it when my side cheated.
Then a glowing blade suddenly tore through one of their chests from behind. The other one twisted that way, just in time for that same blade to be shoved through his face.
Their bodies dropped, and Avalon doubled over a little with a gasp from the kill pleasure while her aura appeared briefly. She had been with me the whole time, possessing my staff right up until the moment I had gotten into trouble.
It took both of us a couple of seconds to recover, her from the kill pleasure and me from the electricity. Thankfully, the werewolf regeneration I had just recently picked up had already started to earn its keep.
After taking in a couple more breaths, I looked over to the girl beside me and gave her a questioning thumbs up, my uncertainty written across my face for her to see. “Okay?” I asked quickly.
Nodding back to me, Avalon returned the gesture before straightening without a word. She was focused.
I could feel more enemies approaching, others that didn’t seem to be affected by the gas. A large portion of them were incapacitated, some had even died. But there are still those who were immune to it or resistant for whatever reason. Or maybe they had just been fast enough to use a spell to protect themselves. I wasn’t sure. Either way, they still needed to be dealt with.
Thankfully, we still had more help. Even as the new troops came toward us, bullets tore up through the floor at them from Sean down below. Meanwhile another one went down from a bullet out of nowhere courtesy of Scout. And yet another was hit from behind as Rudolph appeared by literally popping up through the floor, using his apparently newfound intangibility power to get behind them and launch an arrow. One of them turned to face him, but the boy dove through one of the other walls, putting it between him and the retaliation. Which gave Avalon an opening to use her inherited vampire speed to blur clear down the hallway and impale the guy on her energy blade before he could turn back.
Somewhere off on the other end of the same floor we were on, I could hear the distant sounds of Columbus, Choo, and Shiori working together to clean up there as well as blocking off the stairs that would lead up here from below. We just had to clear this floor out enough to make our way to the executive elevator so we could reach the top floor offices and get to the director’s penthouse. Get in, jam the jammer, and then let Gaia and the others deal with the situation. That’s all we had to do, all we really could do.
But Manakel obviously knew that too. That was why this floor had been so full of guards to keep us from doing just that. And normally it would have worked, because even with as skilled as we had become over the past year, taking these guys on all at once in a fair fight would have been complete suicide. That’s why we didn’t let them have a fair fight. Cheating our asses off was the order of the day. Actually, it was the order of every day. Fighting a fair fight at any point was stupid. But even more so now.
Between the poison cloud, Sean and Scout shooting the guys from out of nowhere, Columbus and Shiori working one side of the floor, Avalon and me working the other, and Rudolph popping in and out of the walls and floor to take pot shots whenever someone was open, most of these troops didn’t stand a chance. Especially since we hit them hard and fast before they even really understood what was going on. I was pretty sure the last thing they had expected was for us to mount a direct assault. They had felt secure in their numbers and the fact that we were ‘just kids’.
Unfortunately for them, we wouldn’t give the troops a chance to learn from that mistake.
Eventually, Avalon and I worked our way up to the front where the stairs and elevator on the east side were. I saw Columbus kneeling in front of the stairwell, while Shiori and Choo guarded him. The boy was moving his hands through the empty space in the doorway. Everywhere his hands moved, a hard, resin-like material appeared. It was like a wall made of amber, and according to Columbus, it would hold against a decent amount of punishment before breaking. It would give us a little time. There were already similar walls erected against the elevator doors.
Marian came jogging up to me then, Tabbris managing to make the fox-figure look quite pleased with herself while I knelt to close the bag and fasten it. We’d worry about getting the Mesches out of there later so that Choo could have his home back.
At the moment, the little guy (Not as little as he had been, obviously. Now he was about the size of a medium sized dog) was standing guard next to Shiori. Obviously, he wore a breathing-spell collar of his own to protect him from the poison. Electricity danced around the warthog-creature’s partially-grown tusks while he stood atop the fallen body of another Seosten soldier. Seeing Avalon and me approach, Choo gave a little dance while making happy, proud noises until we moved to pet him. Then he preened, even as Tabbris parked Marian next to him, fox and electric-pig looking like they were meant to be partners.
“Good enough,” Columbus announced, rising from putting the last touch of wall up. He patted it, looking to me. “It’s not perfect, but–”
“I know, good enough,” I agreed while rubbing Marian’s head with one hand (it was probably dumb, but it was as close as I could get to patting Tabbris right then) and Choo with the other.
The resin-wall would have to be good enough. We didn’t need it to hold for long, just enough to hold off reinforcements so that we could get to that penthouse. Disrupting the jammer for even a few seconds, that was the only thing that mattered.
I was, of course, trying not to think about one of the big questions. Specifically, where Professor Dare, Kohaku, and Nevada were. I was pretty sure they were supposed to be in the building, but were they fighting somewhere else? Had they been tricked into leaving or cast out somehow? Or were they–
Not thinking about it. I was very specifically not thinking about it.
Rudolph, Sean, Scout, and Douglas (who had been covering the previous two down there while they were distracted by shooting up here) joined us a moment later. Most of the group was panting, needing to take a break. But we didn’t have time to. Not only were there bound to be more reinforcements that wouldn’t be stopped for long by Columbus’s walls (especially if they took the time to find the holes in the floor where we had come up, or just used teleporters/any other cheap way through), but also because that Mesches’ gas was still around for the moment. It would dissipate quickly through all the holes that we had made now that the source had been closed up. But still, there was enough around that our breathing spells were going to run out a lot faster than they should. We needed to keep moving and stay on the offensive.
With that in mind, we took just a few seconds before heading out once more. Together, the nine of us (counting Choo and Tabbris-as-Marian because why wouldn’t I?) sprinted down the gas-filled corridor. Rudolph led the way as we weaved our way through the maze of halls, past more rooms and a lot more fallen bodies.
None of us technically got credit for the gas-kills, as far as the Heretic part of us was concerned. They had actually been killed by the Mesches. But I didn’t really care about that in the moment. All that mattered was that they were out of the way. And yeah, maybe part of me had hesitated a little at the idea of using what kind of amounted to actual chemical warfare. Especially when it came to involving Tabbris. Yet, on the other hand… without it, all of us would be dead or enslaved. So yeah, I went there. My initial plan had been for me to pilot Marian through all that, but Tabbris had insisted that she do it, so that I could participate as myself (as far as Doug and Rudoloph were concerned, I was just auto-piloting the fox up and down the halls without paying attention to it). So, in the end, I had agreed.
After all, we were desperate right now. And desperate times called for… well, yeah.
A few more soldiers still stood in our way, but we basically went right over them. They were too spread out, with the gas still at least making it difficult to see even if they had ways to breathe through it, and we were together. Not much stood in our way, at least for that moment.
Finally, working together, we reached the last elevator. This one was different from the others. It only ran between this floor and the one directly above, rather than connecting to anywhere else. It also required a passcode (the protective spells on the elevator meant that even Shiori couldn’t force it open, and my own security-breaking power wasn’t strong enough to bypass it), but Rudolph was able to quickly tap in the code that he knew from his grandfather, and the doors opened.
“So, we’re not stupid enough to actually get in and ride it up, are we?” That was Douglas. “Because I’m pretty sure that’d just make this thing into one big coffin.”
“No,” I replied with a quick headshake. “We go up through the top of it, then make our way up the shaft to the next floor. We–”
That was as far as I managed to get, before the sound of approaching footsteps made my eyes snap to the doorway at the end of the hall. Two figures stood there, both clad in that Seosten armor. But that wasn’t the only thing familiar about them. They were also familiar because they were the same electricity-throwing hammerhead-bird guys that Avalon had killed back there.
They were joined by others that I remembered either killing myself or passing while they were dead. And they weren’t just at that doorway. There were other dead figures coming from more directions, quickly filling the corridor. Worse, some weren’t walking. They were crawling along the walls and ceiling. It was… well, it was fucking creepy, to be honest.
“Zombies,” Avalon muttered with disgust. “Manakel was Hades. They’re zombies. Of course.”
Without wasting another second, as the horde started toward us, I extended my staff. A cloud of sand shot out of the portal on the end of it, which I sent flying that way. As the cloud sped toward the risen dead, I focused on making them hotter. Little help here, partner?
I felt Tabbris giving me a slight nudge inwardly, helping me access that power. And the sand suddenly turned red, a superheated cloud of particles that tore into the zombies, burning through them here and there like a thousand tiny, blazing hot bullets.
It slowed them down, ‘killing’ some of them once more. Meanwhile, I heard the others contributing their own shots in other directions. Unfortunately, the bodies kept getting back up if we ever slowed our attacks. Hell, even parts of their bodies were getting up. Taking off the heads wasn’t working either.
Lowering Vulcan after another burst, Sean shook his head. “We try climbing up right now and they’ll be right behind us. We can’t keep them down long enough.”
“We don’t have time for this!” I blurted, loosing a quick energy-arrow at another group, which exploded with enough force to make them briefly stumble. At the same time, I used my cloud of hot sand to literally burn the legs off of a zombie from the other direction. “We’ve gotta go!”
“Go.” That was Rudolph. The boy let three quick arrows fly in rapid succession, glancing to Sean. “We’ll cover you?” The last bit was a question.
“He’s right.” Sean nodded. “You guys get up there. We’ll keep the zombies off you. I’ve got this side, he’s got that side. If they get too close, we’ll take the elevator. Just go, we’ll hold them as long as we can.”
I hated that idea. I hated the idea of splitting up. And from the looks on everyone else’s faces, they felt the same way. But there wasn’t a choice. The zombies would be right on top of us if we turned our backs to them. We had to have someone keep them away from us long enough to get where we needed to be.
“Be careful, man.” Doug embraced Rudolph briefly, while Columbus did the same for Sean.
Then we had to go. There was no time to say anything else, no time to plan anything else. The two boys turned their attention to filling the corridor with enough firepower to keep the zombies away from the elevator, while the rest of us had to move on. We were going to have to get up the shaft to the penthouse.
And just hope that we managed to pull this off before Sean, Vulcan, and Rudolph were overwhelmed. Otherwise, it wouldn’t just be them who fell to Manakel’s zombie horde.
It would be all of us.