Manakel would have killed us, all three of us (plus the others who were already unconscious) within the next second if he’d had the chance. I was certain of that much. When he had clearly been winning, he had been just arrogant enough to let it keep going. But now, once Tabbris spoke that single word to activate the spell that would take his protective shield down for one brief instant, he didn’t have the time to spare. He would end this immediately, and we were in no shape to stop him. Hell, we wouldn’t have been in the shape to stop him at the best of times, let alone now.
And he started with Tabbris. His arms jerked up and out, sending Avalon and me flying in opposite directions. I crashed down with a yelp, in time to see the man lunging that way. His sword was out of Avalon, blood dripping from it as he drove the weapon for the young girl’s back, even as I shouted. Warning, threat, plea? Probably all of the above.
In that instant, however, as the sword was driven down, there was a sudden crack in the air. And the blade was caught by a whip that stretched across the room.
Gaia. She was there. Her whip caught the blade a nanosecond before it would have gone into Tabbris’s back, before she gave a sharp yank that sent the weapon flying away from the man to clatter against the far wall. An instant later, the whip was cracking through the air once more, toward his face.
But it was more than that, I realized in that moment. As the whip snapped that way, I caught the slightest glimpse of something else. Around the edges of the whip was a view of somewhere else. It was hard to describe, but it was like… like there was some kind of very narrow portal or something extended just a couple inches out from the whip itself. That… tear of sorts in space would stay for a moment or two after the whip passed before shifting back to normal.
Then I understood. Gaia’s whip created a very minor portal around itself so that it would cut through basically anything. Any defense or shield that was put up to block it, that one or two inch portal would cut it out of the way so that the whip itself could reach its target. Gaia must have been able to control exactly what the portal affected, or when it was actually active. Or something. The point was, the portal-edge of it let the weapon pass through anything. And, I was sure, pretty much kill almost anything. Whipping a portal into someone had to be pretty damn hazardous for their health, after all. Between that and the fact that the whip could extend to fairly ludicrous lengths, yeah, I could see why Gaia’s weapon was so dangerous.
Manakel reacted just as quickly.. He vanished, disappearing from that spot just before the whip would have hit him. Then Kohaku, who had been on the ground after her forcefield collapsed, was on her feet. Recall, he’d recalled into her.
“Gaia!” I blurted while shoving myself up a bit, “It’s Kohaku! It–”
But the headmistress was already reacting. As the Manakel-possessed Kohaku made it to her feet, the other woman held her free hand out, starting to conjure some kind of golden forcefield orb around her. There were strange, green glowing runes on the sides of the forcefield. I didn’t know what it was, exactly, but I had the feeling it would contain the woman. And maybe even Manakel himself.
Before it could fully manifest, however, the dead Rudolph was up on his feet. His body threw itself at Gaia, who had to turn her attention ever so briefly toward him with a gesture that sent the boy flying out of the way. I could tell she was trying to be gentle with it, even as vines sprouted from the wood of the wall and held Rudolph’s body close.
Just as quickly, Gaia’s attention snapped back to Manakel, who had used that moment to move for the teleportation jammer. As Kohaku’s hand reached toward it, however, a smaller glowing forcefield appeared around the thing to stop him from disabling it.
“Leaving so soon?” Gaia’s voice was hard then, as she added, “I think I would prefer if you stayed.” With those words, she gestured, and the stasis fields that were trapping Koren, Dare, and the others all switched off. The now-former hostages all collapsed to the floor, unconscious.
“She thought you would save her, you know.” There was twisted venom behind Manakel’s words as he spoke through Kohaku. “She thought you’d realize the truth. For awhile, at least. I’m not sure when she gave up. Honestly, I’d stopped listening to her by that point.”
If his attempt to guilt Gaia worked, the woman didn’t show it. Her face remained impassive, as she met the possessed woman’s eyes. “I will give you one chance to release her.”
Giving a tiny, almost imperceptible smile, Manakel-through-Kohaku replied simply, “I understand your confidence. After all, you brought two Committee members in with you. And the mighty Prosser himself. Quite impressive. But I’m afraid that they’re running into problems of their own. You see, a lot of quite powerful beings, Heretic and Stranger alike, have died in this hospital, or had their bodies brought here. It makes for quite an emergency army, should one have nothing else to lose and no need to even play at subtlety. You are on your own, Headmistress.”
Gaia’s expression never faltered, never changed at all. “I am as alone as you, Manakel.”
Something happened then between the two of them. It was like they had an entire battle without ever moving an inch. I saw their eyes flicker, judging the distance between them, the powers that they could bring to bear, the people that could get in the way. They each saw what the other could have done, and how they themselves would react. They both saw all of it, the openings and the retaliations. There were dozens of battles taking place in those few seconds, all fought purely in their minds and through their eyes as they watched and judged one another.
Through it all, I didn’t dare move. Every part of me screamed to go for Avalon, who had become entirely too quiet. But I couldn’t. Moving from where I was would have made me a potential obstacle, or a hostage to use against Gaia. I had to stay put, and completely still. It was, I was sure, the same reason that Tabbris hadn’t moved. We didn’t dare interrupt. Not this. Not now.
But in the end, one of them had to move first. And given the condition Avalon was in, it had to be Gaia. With absolutely no warning or gesture, the woman made her move. And that move was to make the unconscious Columbus’s goggles shoot at Manakel-Kohaku from the side. At the exact same time, Vulcan (still in his gun form) fired as well. As did Scout’s gun. Even my own fallen staff fired off a concussive blast from one end. In an instant, the Seosten bastard was being attacked from all sides.
Manakel solved the problem the same way I figured most necromancers solved most of their problems: with dead bodies. In that same instant, a handful of them simply appeared around him. Two wore hospital gowns while the third was a doctor. But all of them were very clearly dead even before they were struck by the attacks meant for their master.
The first, one of the patients, suddenly disappeared into a blur of motion that went straight for Gaia. At the same time, the doctor zombie extended a hand and fired a bright blue laser at her, while the other dead patient somehow summoned what looked like dozens of tiny knives in midair before sending them flying that way.
Distractions, all of them. Gaia dealt with them in short order, her whip lashing out to create a portal that the knives went into, while she simply absorbed the energy from the laser. As for the guy who was using superspeed to rush straight for her, the woman’s hand snapped out. She caught him by the throat, stopping him in mid-blur. Then Gaia spoke a single word, and all three bodies instantly turned to ash.
Manakel-Kohaku, by that point, had summoned a massive spear of ice. The thing was a good nine feet long and two feet thick along the shaft. With a grunt, he sent it flying at the headmistress.
Gaia didn’t move. I saw a weird hazy effect appear in front of her, like a very intense, very concentrated spot of heat shaped in a wedge around the woman. As the ice-spear reached that spot, it instantly melted, before just as instantly evaporating. The water from the ice didn’t even have a chance to touch anything else before it was gone.
Without giving Manakel another chance to attack, Gaia summoned some sort of chains made of bright light, which flew at the possessed woman across from her.
Whatever those chains were, apparently Manakel didn’t want them touching his host, because her hand snapped up to create a metal wall between them. The chains bounced off, creating a brief, blinding flash of light that made me flinch. And in that same instant, as I flinched, I felt a strong hand yank me off the floor.
Manakel had me. Using Kohaku’s body, he hauled me up, putting my body between him (or her) and Gaia. His other hand produced a knife from his belt. “Now, really,” he addressed the woman while holding his arm around my neck in an iron grip, “you’re already about to lose one girl you practically see as a child.” His head nodded toward the bleeding, horribly pale Avalon. “Do you really want to make it two in one night, Headmistress?”
Before Gaia could speak, I found myself snarling, “Hey, Manakel…” As I spoke, my hand snapped up to his arm.
I couldn’t possess him. Even I wasn’t that stupid. It would have been suicide in that moment. The man was several thousand years old, and I was just a teenager. Even with Charmiene’s power, he’d utterly erase me the second I tried it.
But there was something else that I could do, a power that I had just picked up. Tabbris had told me that I could instantly draw symbols, pictures, letters, whatever onto solid surfaces by touching them. I’d thought about how well that would work for spells. It would have to be spells that I knew perfectly, however. Even the slightest wrongly curved line here or there would ruin the spell. And without a perfect memory like the Seosten had, the spells that I could create instantly just like that without looking them up or taking my time to let muscle memory help with the brush strokes were limited. But there was one spell that I knew incredibly well, one spell that I had memorized perfectly. One spell that I could have drawn blindfolded, on any surface.
It was, of course, the spell that I had learned from Gabriel Prosser, the spell that would drive any Seosten out of the host it was drawn onto. And as my hand closed around Kohaku’s exposed wrist, I used my new power to instantly draw that spell into her skin, shoving all the power that I could into it while blurting, “Get out of my teacher!”
It was an instantaneous thing. I heard a cry of pain escape both Kohaku, and Manakel himself as the man stumbled out of his host. Kohaku’s grip around my throat relaxed, as the woman herself collapsed to the floor in a heap.
I spun, just as Gaia reached me. But both of us were too late. Manakel, now hostless but recovering almost instantly from the pain of that spell, touched some kind of spell on his cufflink. In a brief flash of blue light, he vanished.
“He’s running.” Gaia’s voice was flat as she stood beside me. “Still in the building, but he’s running.” While she spoke, the woman briefly touched my shoulder, concern written in her eyes before she glanced toward Avalon. Pain wrote itself across her face, as she announced, “His blade is poisoned. It’s blocking her power.”
That was why Avalon was so pale. The wound itself didn’t help, of course. But her regeneration wasn’t working. She wasn’t getting any better, because of that poison. Of course. Of course that fucking piece of shit would have a poisoned blade, just in case.
“He’ll have the cure on him.” The words came from the glowing figure who appeared next to Gaia, before resolving into Sariel. She’d been possessing the headmistress. “And if I know Manakel, it’ll be the only cure you can get to in time.”
“Mama!” Tabbris had picked herself off the floor, flinging herself at her mother to cling onto her. And in that moment, I caught my first glimpse of the girl’s face, the first time that I had seen her since this terrible night had begun.
Facepaint. Her face was painted to look like a fox. It was… simultaneously adorable and heartbreaking. The things that she’d had to do, the things that she’d had to help with… and she looked like that? It reinforced that she was just a little kid, who should have been able to do little kid things. I wanted to hug her, but I also felt ashamed, and sick to my stomach.
Still, the idea that Manakel had essentially been beaten here by a tiny girl in fox-face paint was… kind of appropriate. Horrified as I was by the whole situation, some part of me also appreciated that.
For her part, Avalon was shaking her head, mumbling deliriously about how she was fine and to do something about the others. I wasn’t sure she even knew what was going on or where she was, to be honest. Seeing her like that, after turning my gaze away from Tabbris, didn’t help. Manakel had done all this. Manakel was, in no uncertain terms, a fucking monster.
My eyes glanced briefly around the room at that thought. Rudolph… Rudolph was dead. Scout, Columbus, Shiori, Choo, and Doug were unconscious. So were Sean, Vulcan (if he could be unconscious), Deveron, Koren, Nevada, and Professor Dare. And, of course, Professor Kohaku was still down, right there in the middle of the room.
“Gaia.” I spoke without thinking, pain and desperation in my voice as I fell to my knees on the other side of Avalon. “Please. You have to stop him. He’ll have another way out. I know you think he’s trapped in here, but he’ll find a way. He’ll get away and we’ll lose Valley. Please, stop him.”
“Yes,” the woman agreed, already starting to the door. She paused, glancing back to where Sariel and Tabbris were. “Can…”
“I have magic that will stabilize her,” Sariel confirmed. “Go. I’ll keep her alive until you bring back the cure from Manakel. But you should hurry. He will avoid the Committee members and Gabriel, which will slow him down. But he will have another way out.”
Without another word, Gaia left, chasing after Manakel before the man found his way to whatever secret escape hole he’d set up. All I could do was pray that she made it to him in time. Please, please let her make it to him in time.
I couldn’t lose Avalon. I just… I just couldn’t. Kneeling there, staring at the girl that I had grown to adore over all these months, I fought the tears that flooded my eyes.
She looked broken, in so many ways. Bones poking through limbs, blood literally covering her shirt, face pale and eyes unseeing as she mumbled incoherently. We were losing her. We were losing her so fast.
Sariel moved then, one hand producing a field-engraver, which she used to quickly draw several spells around the floor beside Avalon, as well as on the girl herself. Nearby, I saw Tabbris doing the same, helping her mother with her own quick spellwork. The two of them drew so quickly I could barely follow what they were doing, as the runes around and on Avalon grew more and more complicated.
“We can keep her alive,” Sariel announced quietly as she glanced to me, “but we can’t fix her. We can stop the poison from making things even worse.”
“I… I don’t know what to do,” I admitted, blinking tears of frustration and helpless terror out of my eyes. “Gaia, Gaia and the others have to find him. They have to get the cure. They–”
“Stop… stop… him.” The voice was weak, and I glanced quickly back to see Kohaku. The woman’s eyes were barely open, as she stared at me. She was clearly fighting to stay conscious, and losing that fight. “Escape…” she continued even more softly. “He’ll escape… Hatch. Hatch in… in nursery. Hatch in nursery.”
She collapsed once more then, eyes falling shut as her body slumped. It had been all she could do to pass that message along. The nursery, that son of a bitch was going to escape through some kind of hatch in the nursery.
My gaze snapped back around, just in time to see Sariel with her own eyes closed. She opened them after a second, head shaking. “Gaia knows,” she informed us, “but she won’t make it in time. She and the others are… occupied. Manakel wasn’t lying about the threats he could produce. They must have been hiding dead bodies here for decades, at least. Between that and the forces he already had, it’s… taking time.”
“We don’t have time!” I blurted then. “Valley doesn’t have time! We–” I was on my feet then, starting to move. “We have to slow him down.”
“I have to keep the spell going,” Sariel informed me. “Or Avalon won’t make it long enough for that cure to matter. And you can’t face him alone.”
“She won’t be alone, Mama,” Tabbris corrected her, moving to stand next to me. “We can’t beat him, but maybe we can slow him down, just enough?”
My mouth opened, then shut, as a light clicked on in my mind.
“Actually… maybe we can beat him.”
He better still be there, I directed inwardly while sprinting down the hall a few minutes later. I had made my way through the hospital as quickly as I could. There had been basically nothing in my way, since every possible threat was busy throwing itself at Gaia and the other much more powerful people. We can’t be too late, we can’t be!
He’ll be there, my Seosten partner assured me. We’ll make it.
She was right. I skidded my way into the nursery, just in time to see the man himself. He was there, on the opposite side of the room as he strode toward some door, already raising his hand.
The hatch. It had to be the hatch, his escape portal. He was going for it.
My voice filled the room then, and I heard the loathing within it. “Manakel.”
Two steps from his exit, the man spun to me. I saw the toll that his trip through the hospital had taken on him. The strain of all the zombies he had raised and was using to keep the others busy was visible right there on his face. He was sweating, fighting to keep himself moving.
And yet, even then, I had absolutely no doubt that he could easily kill me if we were to fight one on one. He could have been half-dead and he’d still put me down before I could blink.
“Miss Chambers,” the man grunted, “I must say, you are very… persistent. And resilient. How is Miss Sinclaire, hmm?”
Narrowing my eyes at him, I replied simply, “I just figured you might not want to leave without finishing what you started. After all, I’m right here. And I did pretty much just kick your ass up there.”
The man chuckled low and dangerously at that. “Child, I know where the headmistress and the other members of your cavalry are. I know where everything in this hospital is. And let me assure you, if your plan was to delay me long enough to ensure their arrival, you have made a grave tactical error.”
There was a blur of motion then, before the man slammed into me so hard the wind was knocked from my lungs, before my back hit the wall, Manakel was there, shoving me up against that wall with a growled, “A very… grave… error.”
Using one hand to hold me against the wall, the Seosten man moved his other hand to my throat. I felt it close, instantly cutting off my air. All the man had to do was squeeze for another second, and I would be dead. Gone. Erased.
But I moved first. My hand caught his wrist, and our eyes met.
“Oh, Miss Chambers,” Manakel murmured with a mixture of disbelief and amusement. “I have been alive for millennia. If you believe that you stand the slightest prayer of surviving a possession attempt, you are far more deluded than I believed. Even with whatever Seosten child you have dragged along on this endeavor, you will both fail.”
“Oh, I dunno,” I replied in a flat voice, “I’m a scrappy one.”
With those words, I used my power. I possessed Manakel.
Instantly, I felt the weight of his willpower, his power, period. I felt how much he dwarfed me. Can you feel it, Miss Chambers? I heard him speak into my mind while pressing just a tiny bit of his power down on me, like a boy barely touching his thumb to a bug to pin it down. Can you feel just how lost you are? You chose this. Remember that, in whatever tiny part of your shattered consciousness exists after this. Remember that you chose to pursue your own destruction when you could easily have left this confrontation to your betters. What comes next can be blamed only on yourself.
Yes. I had brought this on myself. I had come here. I had tracked him down. I had possessed him, already knowing everything that he said was true. He was right about all of it. I couldn’t beat him. Even with the power I had taken from Charmiene, I was nothing. I was a speck of dust under the kind of mental strength that the man who had been Hades could bring to bear. He would easily, pathetically easily swat my entire mind aside like an annoying fly. My personality, my mind, everything I was, would vanish in the blink of an eye. I would be nothing to him. Tabbris couldn’t help. She was eight. He, meanwhile, was approaching the double digits of millennia. As wonderful and amazing as my little sister, my partner, was, she wouldn’t be able to help me here. Not this time. Not against someone as powerful as Manakel was.
So… it was a good thing that she wasn’t the one possessing me.
Once more, that single word was spoken. Just as it had been a minute earlier when it had first gained the man’s attention. And now, as then, it wasn’t actually me speaking.
There was a brief pause, and I felt the man’s confusion. I felt his sudden uncertainty, which slowly turned to disbelief, then denial, and finally… it was there.
Yes, Sariel. That was my plan. That was the last thing I’d said before leaving that office, that Sariel and Tabbris should switch places, that Tabbris should use her own magic to keep Avalon alive while Sariel came with me. Because Manakel had been right, Tabbris stood no chance at beating him in a possession contest. She and I both would have been completely crushed. But Sariel was different. Sariel was far, far stronger. Especially when her power was combined with Charmiene’s. Strong enough that, despite the fact that I could feel the man straining to turn back to his escape hatch, his feet remained firmly planted to the floor.
He was trapped.
Hello, Manakel, the woman’s voice spoke silently within his own head. Do you remember what you said to me all those years ago, on the ship whenever one of us was sent on a mission?
There was a brief pause, before the man’s response came. I told you only to say goodbye when you know that you’ll never see the person again.
Again, silence reigned for a moment, before…
I heard his voice start to speak. I heard his sudden panic, his denial, his rage. I felt him struggle to take back control. All of it in vain, as his hand snapped down to draw a dagger from his own belt, gripping it tightly despite his desperate attempts to throw it away, to release it, to let go. His hand held that dagger in a grip that was so tight, it was almost painful.
Then his own hand, gripping that dagger, stabbed it deep, all the way to the hilt… through his own eye and into his brain.
And the indescribable, blinding rush of pleasure that I felt in that moment? Well, let’s just say that only part of it came from being a Heretic.