Month: January 2019

Interim Incursion 43-08 (Avalon Part A)

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Through the maze of corridors in the Crossroads blood vault bank, Avalon Sinclaire sprinted with Sands Mason, Shiori Porter, and her own great-something grandfather. The sound of their racing footsteps echoed up and down the halls as the quartet followed their memorized directions toward the goal that so many had been working toward for literally generations.

“How small do you think the odds are that we’ve actually got a clear path to the vault now?” Shiori asked as they went straight through the second-to-last intersection. They’d already followed Doug’s pen marks to get back to the actual path without encountering any problems.

Without looking at the other girl, Avalon snapped, “About as small as me being able to throw a stick and hit the sun. Keep your eyes open, watch for spells or traps.”

Sure enough, barely a few seconds later, Dries called a sharp halt. The man, who had been content to stay behind them up to that point, moved past the girls. He stepped a couple feet forward before raising a hand and extending it slowly, with a look of intense concentration. “There,” he murmured, while tiny sparks of what looked like electricity danced over his fingers.

Biting her lip, Avalon glanced to the others before hesitantly asking, “What is it?” She still felt awkward, talking to a man who was actually related to her without wanting to stab him repeatedly. It was a really new experience that she just… really didn’t know how to react to.

It also didn’t help that Flick wasn’t here. Of all the times throughout this year that Avalon had imagined what would happen at this point, how all of this would go down, Flick had always been there. Her presence in those imagined scenarios, no matter how bad they went, was always a comfort. But now… now she wasn’t. She was off helping with another part of the mission which… while important, wasn’t here.

God, that felt selfish to think. Avalon knew that. Consciously, she knew it was wrong, and tried to shove the feeling away. But it just wouldn’t completely disappear. She wanted Flick to be with her. Especially now. They were so close to reaching the spell that Liesje had left, so close to finally ending this whole thing after all this time. Flick should be here with her. With them. With Avalon and Shiori. The two of them having to do this part without her was wrong.

Dries was answering. “En–en–trapment spell.” He hesitated, shifting on his feet before explaining, “If you trigger-ahh-ahh trigger it, your brain is trapped in a simulation. You’d think you were going t-t-to the vault but you’d really just be standing there.”

It took a moment, but he disabled the spell. Avalon made sure to watch what he was doing, paying close attention. Not that she had any expectation of being able to do it herself any time soon, but she wanted to learn. If the situation hadn’t been so urgent, she would have insisted that he talk the whole process through. But in this case, that felt like something that could wait.

It certainly wasn’t her last chance to observe him. Over the next few minutes, it seemed like they hit another protection spell every other step. And they started getting much nastier very quick. Dries muttered about just how dangerous the spells were as he disabled them, carefully untangling various effects with an expert touch. But even he couldn’t do it alone through simple lack of enough hands. In those cases, he would call Avalon or even the other two girls forward and tell them exactly what to do, placing a hand in one spot, pushing power here or there, saying a word, anything that he couldn’t do by himself because he was focused on another point. It was slow-going, but still a hell of a lot faster than it would have been if they’d just walked right into the spells.

And yet, even knowing that, the time it took still made Avalon squirm and twitch a little despite herself. Which, combined with the way Dries constantly squirmed and twitched, made the two of them look more alike than they ever had.

Finally, it was there. The vault in question was right in front of them, only a few steps away. As Dries disabled the last spell, however, the floor around them suddenly shook.

“Wha-what was…” Shiori started, stumbling a little as her gaze whipped around.

“Not here,” Dries assured her. “Definitely not here. That is… that is something else.”

“What do we do?” Sands asked, looking to Avalon. “That could be something bad.”

Slowly nodding, Avalon agreed, “It could. But we can’t do anything about it. We have to trust the others to deal with… whatever it is. We’re here. Come on.”

With those words, she stepped up to the vault. The doors looked like any of the others they had passed, two simple metal structures that had apparently been enough to stop the entire Seosten Empire from getting into the room beyond.

Well, that and the fact that the vault itself was actually located in a pocket dimension unreachable by any other means. But still.

As she neared them, the doors actually changed color. Instead of being that simple white-silver, they shifted to a faint red with a two much darker spots in the shape of handprints, one on either door.

Following Dries’ instructions, Avalon reached up to place one hand against either of the prints. She held them there, even as a slight tingling sensation ran through her. The spot where her hands were grew warm almost to the point of being uncomfortable, but she left them there anyway. It took almost five full seconds before there was a very soft, almost inaudible chime. The handprints disappeared as the doors turned blue then, sliding out of the way to reveal the room beyond.

It was open. After all this time, after everything that had happened throughout her life, the oh-so-important vault was open. Swallowing, Avalon glanced to the others. They were waiting for her.

She stepped inside. With the others right behind her, Avalon stepped into the vault. It was circular, with a single podium in the middle where a book sat. The spell. Liesje’s spell. It was right there.

Unfortunately, the four of them had barely taken a few steps inside before they were interrupted.

“Did you really think it would be that easy?”

The voice came from behind them, at the doorway into the vault. As Avalon and the others turned, they found themselves looking at a man. He looked… well, he looked like an elf. Or at least the Tolkien version. He was tall, with long blond hair and an eternally youthful, innocent face. His eyes were a bright, bright green that reminded Avalon of the forest, his figure almost feminine in its androgynous shape. A long, thin sword hung from his hip, while he held a bow made of solid energy. Arrayed around the man there just inside the vault were more than a dozen other figures of various Alter species, all of them heavily armed. Worse, more were quickly filing in by the second, until over twenty troops were there.

The elfen man spoke once more, as they all stared at him. “I’m afraid we cannot allow you to leave with that book. Though perhaps, if we reach a deal, you can leave with your lives. Would that be enough for you, now that you and I have finally come face to face after all this time?”

“Honestly?” Avalon snapped at the man, “I have no idea who the fuck you are. And I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t care even if I did. You’re just–”

“Paschar.” That was Dries, the man trembling with only barely constrained rage as he took a step in front of Avalon, literally blocking her from the other man. “He is Paschar.”

“Dries?” The man, Paschar apparently, sounded taken aback, his eyes widening as Avalon’s ancestor stepped into view from behind the others. “Is… is… that you? It… I… my… friend.”

Somewhere behind Avalon, she heard Shiori quietly whisper a confused, “Friend?”

It was the wrong thing to say. Dries took two steps that way, apparently heedless of the weapons being pointed at him. “We are not friends!” he snapped angrily, fury burning through his voice. “You betrayed us. You betrayed Liesje.”

“I… I betrayed my own people first,” Paschar quietly, yet firmly replied after his voice caught briefly. That bow continued to aim steadily at Dries, though he didn’t release the arrow. “I made a mistake. I betrayed them for Liesje, for you. I told you what they were–what we were doing. I told you the truth, and you almost destroyed us. You murdered Liesje’s own father.”

Avalon’s eyes snapped back to Dries as the man retorted, “Radueriel would have killed Liesje! I did what I had to do to protect her. I killed her father because I had no choice, because Radueriel gave me no choice! And I would do it again, all day, every day, to protect her.”

“I loved you!” Paschar shot back, all of the forced calm in his voice vanishing. “You and Liesje both! I loved you both. I told you the truth, I gave you the–” He stopped, taking a moment to collect himself emotionally before blurting, “You were supposed to leave! You were both supposed to run away! We were–we were supposed to…”

For a moment, the man stopped again, dropping his gaze to the floor before taking a long, deep breath. His voice shook. “We were supposed to escape… together. We were supposed to build something new, the three of us. You weren’t supposed to confront them. You weren’t supposed to kill him. You weren’t supposed to be taken away, or become the new holder of–” He sighed, closing his eyes. “I loved you. I gave you a chance. That was a mistake. One that I have spent generations rectifying.”

“Um.” Sands slowly held up a hand. “Am I the only one who is just totally lost right now?”

“Liesje and I were in love with him,” Dries quietly spoke, his eyes never leaving Paschar. “We thought he was human. We… we spent a lot of time together. Then he told us the truth. That’s how we found out that her father was possessed, that he hadn’t really made the Heretical Edge at all.”

“And you were supposed to run away,” Paschar snapped. “I told you everything to show you how far it went, to convince you that staying was idiotic and pointless. You let her go to her father. You might as well have doomed everyone yourself. I trusted you to get her out of sight, to run away. I would have run away with you. I wanted to run away with you.” With those words, the man’s voice actually shook a bit, as the admission, or maybe the memory itself, tore something from him emotionally.

“Liesje wanted to save her father,” Dries retorted, his voice cracking as well as he kept tightening and loosening his fists. “If you’d actually known anything about her, you would have understood that. You would have known. But you didn’t. Y-you just wanted to–”

“I wanted her to live!” the Seosten man all-but shouted. “I wanted Liesje to live. I wanted you to live. I wanted all of us to live! I wanted us to escape! I gave you both a chance! Do you know what that cost me? Do you have any idea what my–what I had to–what…” He trailed off, the obvious rush of emotions twisting his expression to something far uglier for a moment before he reigned them in.

In love? Liesje and Dries had been… had been in love with this… this Paschar? Some part of the back of Avalon’s mind found a twisted bit of humor in that, given that he had played Eros/Cupid while the Seosten were pretending to be gods here on Earth. But still, it left her reeling. Her mother… her family… they had been… this man right here had been the one… he…

She finally found her voice then, as her confusion and anger mounted. “Wh–you’re the one who helped chase our whole family down! You’re the one who killed my mother, who helped make my father hate me, who used a love potion on Tangle! You turned Torv against me, you destroyed my best friend! You made me kill him!”

The Seosten man’s expression softened then, as he glanced away with a visible wince. “Yes,” he murmured. “Yes, I did. I’m not proud of it, any of it. I never wanted to hurt Liesje’s family. That’s why I… why I took such a hands off, slow, careful approach. I didn’t want to do it myself. I never wanted any of this to happen.” By that point, his voice had dropped to barely a whisper.

“Never wanted it to happen?!” Avalon grabbed Dries by the arm, using it to yank herself in front of him while her eyes glowered to the point of nearly reducing the man to cinders if she’d had that particular power. “Never wanted to spend hundreds of years systematically hunting down the woman you claim you cared about and her every descendent?! You destroyed our lives! You! You chose to do that! You are a piece of shit!” Even as she spoke, Avalon instinctively triggered her gauntlets to produce a pair of humming energy blades.

She started to take another step that way, but Shiori was there on her right side, putting a hand on her arm to stop her from going any closer.

Paschar raised his eyes to stare at her, not looking away. “I didn’t want to. Liesje wasn’t thinking straight. The thing she wanted to do, the spell she wanted to make, it–” He cut himself off, grimacing as he fought for the right words before forcing them out. “It would have destroyed the universe. She wanted to block Seosten from possessing any Heretics, ever. Without Heretics, do you have any idea what would happen on the front lines of the war with the Fomorians? The front lines would become Elohim. They would overrun everything. You’ve heard about what happened the last time the Fomorians were here on Earth. Without us, without my people, you would have been overrun. Earth would be a Fomorian world and your people would be their slaves, forever.”

Avalon’s head shook once. “It wasn’t the Seosten who kicked the Fomorians offworld and put up a spell that blocks them from ever coming back.” Even as she spat the words, the girl was trying to think of a way to get over to the podium where the spellbook was seated without making what had turned into two dozen troops arrayed around Paschar reduce her to cinders. She was kind of surprised they hadn’t already opened fire. An opening. She just needed an opening, and if Paschar wanted to talk until she saw one, all the more power to him.

Besides, right now she really wanted to know what the hell had happened between him and her ancestors.

The elfen-looking man nodded. “Yes, but it was my people who helped yours last long enough for that to even be an option. Earth lasted for years before getting to that point. Do you think they could have done that without Seosten help? The Fomorians would have destroyed your civilization and turned you all into their tools to annihilate the rest of the universe.”

Dries spat from behind her, his voice full of fury that left him barely capable of coherent words. “None of that matters! What matters is you! You! You chose to hunt down our family! You chose to destroy their lives, for hundreds of years! You—you’re the reason Liesje is dead! You’re the reason any of this is–that any of that–that–We loved you!” The last three words tore their way from him in a violent outburst, a scream which seemed to make the entire room shake.  

He shoved Avalon back then, suddenly crossing the room in a blur of motion to throw himself at the other man. Before he was halfway there, the surrounding troops threw up their weapons and fired.

But their shots hit a forcefield… created by Paschar. The Seosten held his fist up, a glowing stone held tight in it that was clearly producing the shield.

Whether he’d created the shield to stop his men from shooting Dries, or to stop Dries himself from reaching him, Avalon had no idea. And to be honest, she kind of doubted anyone in the room, including Paschar in that moment, knew either.

“I loved you too,” the Seosten quietly murmured, staring at the other man through the glowing shield. “I loved both of you.” His voice cracked a little bit. “I still do. Whether you believe it or not, I do love you, Dries. But I cannot endanger the universe because of my feelings for you, just as I could not endanger it because of my feelings for Liesje. I never wanted to hurt either of you, but I will not allow the Fomorians to destroy all life because of it.”

Dries looked like he was going to say something else, but Sands interrupted. “You don’t have to!” The girl took a quick step over by Avalon’s left side, opposite Shiori. She edged in front of the other two a little bit while everyone looked at her. “We can work together. We don’t have to fight right now. We’re not… we’re not trying to use the spell to ban Seosten from ever possessing humans. We’re going to change it, we’re going to make it so that Seosten can only possess Heretics with permission. If your people work with us, if they talk to us and explain the whole situation with the Fomorians, we can be allies! We won’t be slaves, but we can be your allies. We can work together.”

The surrounding Alter soldiers looked at each other, while Paschar just stared past Dries at Sands. Slowly, his head shook. “That is a fine, noble sentiment, girl. But it is… naive. Do you think that the Fomorians will quietly wait for us to sort out that kind of thing? Do you think they’ll hold back their attacks until we have reorganized our entire society? Your people have often had a thing called a draft, in times of desperate military action and war. This is your draft. It may seem unfair, and… and it is. It truly is. But the alternative is complete universal devastation. The Fomorians will not negotiate. They will not stop. They will not spare man, woman, or child. They will destroy this universe and all life within it. And we cannot afford to give them one more centimeter. I’m sorry. I truly am. But it won’t happen.”

He paused then before adding, “But I have come to offer a deal. Walk away. Leave this vault now without the spell, and neither I nor any of my people here will stop or harm you or any of yours. You can leave. You can walk away. Then we take this spell, and your family will be safe. With the spell gone, we’ll have no reason to come after you. You can leave.” His expression actually turned pleading then. “Please. Just walk away. I don’t want to hurt any more of you.”

“You know what, dude?” Sands spoke up for all of them. “Fuck you.”

With those words, the girl swung up hard with her mace, bringing a wall between them before blurting, “Go, go!”

Avalon and Shiori were already going. Pivoting on their heels, they sprinted toward the podium. Behind them, Sands worked to cover them with rapidly generated walls while backpedaling. There was other fighting going on in the background, with Dries. Avalon tried not to think about it. The book. She just had to get to the book.

“Go!” Shiori blurted, just as a sleek, eel-like Alter slipped past the wall and lunged at them. She intercepted him, diving into his path in a collision that took both to the floor.

Avalon kept going. The podium was right in front of her. She felt a tingle around her as she neared it, hand extending.

“No!” The voice came from surprisingly close. Paschar. He’d used his boost to reach Avalon, slamming into the girl. Both of them went to the floor, as she tried her best to roll with the impact. They hit the ground, skidding and tumbling over one another.

Then… then she was rolling on grass. Avalon felt that and dirt under her as she scrambled to her knees, gaze snapping around wildly. The podium was gone. The vault was gone. Everything was gone. She was sitting in a grassy field, in the middle of nowhere. Nearby was a cliff overlooking the ocean. “Wha–”

“Where are we?” Paschar demanded. He was there, about ten feet from her and already picking himself up. “What happened?”

Avalon scrambled to her feet as well, igniting her blades once more while glaring that way. Her mouth opened to say something, only to find herself interrupted by another voice.

“Hello, Paschar.” The beautiful, tall brunette who suddenly stood between them announced before turning to Avalon. Her form was partially-translucent, like a ghost. “Hello, Hannah.

“I’ve been waiting for you for a very long time,” Liesje Aken informed them.

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Interim Incursion 43-07 (Tristan)

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The entrance to the staff elevator was set up against the wall a couple feet from the regular one, only really hidden if you weren’t looking for it (and hadn’t just seen a creepy yarn-creature disappear into it a few seconds earlier).

Standing in the elevator with Scout, Sean, and Columbus after they’d pried the doors open, Tristan Moon bounced his foot anxiously while staring upward. “Top floor. Gotta get to the top floor. That’s where the bomb is.” He could see it perfectly in his mind, the memory of that Strings-creature’s thoughts crystal clear. As was the memory of just how terrible possessing it in the first place had been. It wasn’t like possessing a normal person. It was like being part of a hive. He’d nearly lost his mind and entire separate sense of self just in those brief seconds. It was an experience he never wanted to repeat, and shuddered now at the thought that the memory would always be a part of him.

But it saved Scout, so it was worth it. And if it helped them disable this bomb, it would be even more so. All they had to do was get to the thing before Strings set it off.

“It’s not moving,” Columbus blurted while hitting the elevator button a few more times. He grimaced, looking to Tristan. “Strings must’ve shut it down. I could try to get into it and turn the power back on, but–”

“Too long,” Tristan quickly agreed. “We’ll just have to get up the old fashioned way.” He wasn’t quite to the point of blind panic. From what he’d read in that… creature’s mind, even once it was armed, the bomb would still need time to gather energy before it actually exploded. They couldn’t exactly dawdle, but the explosion wasn’t going to happen any second.

Spending years helping Grandpa Nick and growing up on his ship had really helped with that whole ‘keeping calm when a bomb wasn’t literally seconds from exploding’ thing. Even if he tried not to think about that time too much at the moment since he knew it would be at least five years before he could have any contact with them. Consequences of time travel that had been thoroughly hammered into his head by Nicholas, Gaia, and more recently by Apollo and his mother. No matter how much he missed Nicholas Petan (or the other people who meant a lot to him, like Dexamene), he could not have any contact until their current time had caught up with the other man’s.

So for now, Tristan focused on dealing with the current problem, moving under the hatch in the elevator roof before looking up. It was pretty high, about nine feet up in this enormous elevator. Luckily, he could handle that. First, he touched the spell on his clothes that would send them into the pocket of the Seosten bodysuit that he wore underneath, not wanting to rip them. Then he let Bobbi-Bobbi off his arm, letting her sit in the corner of the elevator in snake mode for the moment.

Flashing the others a quick grin, the boy couldn’t help but note, “Let’s just hope that safety plaque over there isn’t lying about how much weight it can hold.”

Focusing briefly on his growth power then, Tristan made himself tall enough to reach up and push the hatch open. Then he reached down for Sean, picking the boy up before giving him a lift out of the hatch. He did the same for Scout, Columbus, Bobbi-Bobbi, and Vulcan before catching onto the edge, shrinking down to his normal height, and climbing out to join them.

Standing on the roof of the elevator, all four of them (plus the cyberforms) looked up. The shaft was long, with the top floor where they needed to get at least the equivalent of forty stories away.

“Why is this thing so big?” Columbus demanded with obvious exasperation. “The vaults are all below us, right? So what the hell is above us that takes up that much room?”

“Offices,” Tristan answered, remembering what he’d taken from that piece of Strings (that String?). “Security training rooms. Apartments for the permanent employees. I think a bowling alley too. Things like that. Even an on-site hospital. Oh, and generators for all the power they need. Electrical and magical.”

He paused then, before making a face. “Can we go? I sound way too much like Nessa right now. And Strings already has enough of a head start anyway. It’s gonna take time for them to get the bomb going, but not that much time.”

“I don’t think I can teleport that far,” Columbus murmured while staring up that way. “Especially not with all of you. I could try teleporting from floor to floor in those little elevator doorways, but that’s gonna wear me out pretty quick.”

“Nah,” Tristan replied, “I’ve got this one.” He moved to the other side of the lift, making sure to give the others as much room as possible before growing once more. That time he hit his full ten foot limit, which brought him within a few feet of the next floor. Close enough that, with brief hits from his boost, he could hop up and grab the elevator doorway, hauling himself onto it.

It wouldn’t have been hard to get up the elevator shaft normally. He could’ve done it as a child, scrambling up between the walls and cables. But with the added height and boost, it was even easier. He hopped from floor to floor, jumping to the side of the shaft, using the cable, or just clinging to the wall with his feet dug into small crevices. He climbed the elevator shaft in just a few short seconds, barely slowing to pay attention to what he was doing long enough to make sure there were no trap spells waiting at various stops.

Then his head hit an invisible forcefield just as he was starting to make one of the last jumps, and Tristan yelped. Nearly losing his grip, the boy windmilled before grabbing a nearby wall to catch himself. Grimacing, he looked up. Sure enough, the powerful shield hummed a little. He was three floors from the top.

With a sigh, he looked back. This was going to have to do. Settling himself against the nearest elevator doorway, the boy reached out for the cable and began to haul back on it. Bit by bit, he hauled the elevator with his friends on it up to meet him.

The bomb. Every bit of him itched to go after that bomb. But Grandpa Nick had hammered it so many times into his head to not run off by himself in situations like this. And there had been more than a few involving bombs, some of which were much closer to going off than this one was.

He knew they had time. He’d seen it in that String’s… brain, such as it was. But even telling himself that the bomb would need at least a few minutes to fully prep and deploy once Strings got to it didn’t really help that much. It was a bomb, they had to get to it now. Now. Holding himself back, forcing himself to be calm and smart about things, it wasn’t easy.

“What happened?” Scout asked him as soon as he’d hauled the elevator up to his level. She was standing with Bobbi-Bobbi wrapped around her waist, the snake’s head resting on her shoulder as both stared at him. She glanced upward at the several floors-worth of shaft yet to go.

“Forcefield,” he replied, “gotta find another way up.” With that, he shrank back to his normal size, before turning to face the closed elevator doorway leading to the corridor beyond. “Bobs?”

His snake unwrapped itself from Scout, lunging to him while he held his arm out for her. As soon as the cyberform was reattached to him, Tristan shifted her from cannon-mode to blade-mode and shoved the end through the tiny crack in the doors, using that to pry them open before pushing the rest of the way.

The others joined him, stepping off the elevator roof and into the corridor. The place was deserted. It looked like the lobby of some office building, complete with an empty receptionist’s desk ahead of them. There were signs on the wall about how to get to each office through the three different corridors (one to either side and one straight ahead past the desk), and even a flyer advertising some kind of staff basketball tournament.

Quickly scanning all of the signs, Tristan pointed. “Stairs. There, that way!” Without another word, he started running to the left, trusting the others to follow.

“How much time do we have?!” Sean called as he ran alongside Tristan, with Vulcan a few feet ahead. “And why does a bomb have a time delay before it goes off anyway?”

“It’s the only way they could do it,” Tristan replied without breaking stride. “The bomb needs a lot of power to break through the whole building with its defenses and take out everything below us. But if they had it just sitting there with all that power, Heretics who weren’t on their side would’ve noticed. They would’ve sensed it. So they had to leave it and let the thing charge up when the time came. Besides,” he added, “they figured if the bomb took a few minutes to charge up, they could nail Avalon and whoever was with her on their way out of the vault. You know, destroy the spell after she brought it out for them.”

“Two birds, one bomb, got it,” Columbus put in from behind him. “So we just have to get to it before it finishes charging up.”

Nodding her agreement, Scout added, “What if it’s about to go off?”

“It can’t be,” Tristan informed her and the others, “we’d feel it. Believe me, we’ll know when the bomb hits its half-charged point.”

He started to elaborate on that, only to stop as they reached the door leading into the stairwell. Without pausing, he lashed out to kick the door open, passing right through it. Unfortunately, a familiar hum brought him up short. Cursing, he lashed out to punch the forcefield blocking the way on the stairs. “Damn it!”

He looked toward Scout then. “Can you use your scope-portals to find the shield generator and destroy it?” Then his eyes flicked over to Columbus. “Or, or can you teleport through it?” He was mentally flailing, every other thought he had some version of wishing that Vanessa was there. She was smarter. She could have figured this out.

Scout’s head shook, even as she lowered her rifle. Her voice was soft. “Scope can’t go through.”

“Neither can I,” Columbus reluctantly muttered. “It’s protected against teleportation.”

“Can we just cut up through the ceiling?” Sean quickly put in, staring upward while shifting Vulcan into his minigun form.

Tristan’s head shook. “It’s all made out of starship grade metal. Trust me, Vanessa made m–starship grade metal!” He interrupted himself to repeat those words, eyes widening.

“Tristan?” Scout prompted as he went silent for a second, mind racing. “Are–”

He interrupted her that time. “Engraver! I need a–” Fumbling in his pockets, he finally came out with a field-engraver, promptly shifting himself up to a tall enough height to reach the ceiling even as he began frantically drawing a rune there. Too slow, it was too slow! He had to be faster. But he also had to get it right. It had to be just right. And he was too focused to explain anything. Thankfully, the others didn’t ask. They just waited while he drew the spell, planting power in it at the appropriate times.

Time. How much time did they have? Not enough. Faster. Remember faster. Draw faster. Work faster. Tristan scrambled, almost messing up the spell, which would have been the end of… everything. But at the last instant, he caught himself and adjusted the swirl of the line he was drawing. Just a little more. Do it right. He had to do it right the first time.

Finally, he tapped a hand against the completed rune, shoving the last of the power into it before dropping back to his normal height. “Please, please, please…”

It worked. The rune briefly glowed with a pale red light, before tiny darts of energy shot out of it to form a circle about four inches across. There was a brief high pitched sound like an electrical saw, before a small hole abruptly appeared in that space where the circle had been.

“Columbus!” Tristan blurted, “now, now, you can get through that, right?!”

With a nod, the other boy caught hold of everyone, pulling them in and snapping, “Hold on.” He stared up through that hole to the next floor up, and quickly transported them. Then they were through. They were on the next floor, in a hallway just outside what turned out to be the gymnasium.

Without wasting a second, Tristan was already moving for the stairwell ahead of them. He didn’t say anything to the others. There was no need, they were right behind him.

“What did you do?” Sean quickly asked once they hit the stairwell. “How did you do that? Did Vanessa-”

“Not Vanessa,” Tristan started before cutting himself off. Reaching ahead of himself on the stairs, he muttered a prayer… and was rewarded with no forcefield. They were already past it, and the bad guys hadn’t put one on every level. Pumping his fist briefly, the boy started to race up the stairs three at a time while continuing to explain. “Grandpa Nick! They use bigger versions of that spell during battles in space to transfer metal from these big blocks they have in order to patch holes or weak points in the hull. I just reversed it and sent metal from that little spot to other parts of the ceiling. It would’ve taken longer to make something big enough for all of us to get through, but since all you needed was a clear view to teleport through…”

By the time he finished giving that brief explanation, they were at the top floor. The door was locked, but Tristan was completely done with letting things delay them. He simply shifted Bobbi-Bobbi back to her cannon form, pointed, and blew the door open.

They emerged onto the top floor, an area for executive offices and the suites for the bank’s leadership and owners. It looked like a semicircle with half a dozen open doors spaced evenly along either side of a much larger set of doors that were straight across from the stairwell and elevator. The smaller doors led to vice-presidential areas, while the big ones right in the middle marked the entrance to the bank owner’s private home and personal office.

“Through there,” Tristan announced, moving for those doors. “They’ve got the bomb in the owner’s private quarters, it was the only way to make sure no one found it before they were ready.”

Just as they reached the doors, the group suddenly felt a heavy rumble go through the floor around them. It only lasted for a second, but all of their eyes widened as they looked to each other.

“It’s half-way through powering up,” Tristan snapped. “Which means we’ve got three minutes. Three minutes before it goes.” Even as he spoke, the boy was already racing for the doors. These too were locked, and resisted two quick shots from Bobbi-Bobbi. “Fuck!”

Scout’s hand caught his arm then, as the girl unslung her rifle with the other hand. “Together,” she muttered.

The others were already moving to do the same. Columbus put his hand to his goggles to move them up to full power, while Sean set Vulcan down to let the cyberform shoot on his own, taking VJ in his rifle form to add just a little more firepower. Together, they took aim for the middle of the doors, where they joined. Tristan counted down from three, all while hearing the inevitable clock of that bomb counting down each precious second.

They fired together, a sudden deafening cacophony of violent gunfire and lasers that blew the doors in, leaving a smoldering hole where they had been. Alarms finally started blaring, but none of them cared. They had to get to the bomb, now!

Two and a half minutes. Tristan’s internal clock was telling him that was how much time was left, even as they raced through the broken doors and he led the way in a dead sprint. Could they make it to the bomb in two and a half minutes?

They had to. It wasn’t a question. They would make it because there was no other choice. The Seosten Empire was not going to win this. Period, end of story.

Paying no attention to the lavish penthouse they were racing through, Tristan and the others ran straight for the back room, where the generator was. That would give the bomb its initial oomph, which it had just spent the past several minutes charging up into the devastating, skyscraper-demolishing explosion that it was about to trigger.

Step by step, they passed other rooms in a blur. One and a half minutes left. One minute, fifteen seconds.

At exactly one minute according to Tristan’s internal clock, they reached the room in question. It should have been a simply utility room with a couple generators and temperature regulators.

Should have been. The Seosten had… changed it. As the group raced into the room, they found it much larger. Football field-size, in fact. At the far end lay the bomb they were looking for, a device that looked like a dark blue cylinder pulsing with energy while surrounded by coils of metal and a complicated computer system. With every passing second, the cylinder was pulsing faster and brighter.

And Strings was there. Standing just in front of them, the hive-minded creature seemed to bounce from foot to foot, waving oversized hands. “Just in time,” they called. “Just in time to boom.”

“I got this,” Columbus snapped, catching hold of Tristan. He focused, then stopped. “… can’t teleport. Something’s blocking it. Something–”

“No cheating!” Strings interrupted. “No more cheating. Just stand there and be blown sky high like good children!” As they spoke, as if to add emphasis to the words, the hive-creature hit a button on a remote they held in one hand. Instantly, the full one hundred yards behind them leading to the bomb was taken up by hundreds of crisscrossing lasers. Some stationary, some mobile. It was a maze of deadly light. And Columbus couldn’t teleport through it.

Thirty seconds.

“Keep them busy!” Tristan snapped. He was already dropping Bobbi-Bobbi, leaving the snake behind as he ran straight for the lasers.

Behind him, his cyberform along with everyone else all opened up on Strings, driving the creatures to throw themselves out of the way, just as Tristan go close enough to leap past them. A half-dozen strings raced out toward him, but he dropped his size down to being a foot-tall, letting all of them miss before returning to his normal size.

Columbus and the others had Strings then, keeping the creatures occupied. Which just left the lasers, and the distance. Twenty seconds and a football field worth of deadly beams of light.

The record for the hundred yard dash among humans was just under ten seconds. And they didn’t have to deal with a shitload of lasers blocking their path.

But they also didn’t have Tristan’s boost, so he was going to call it even.

Kicking that on, the boy felt a rush of power and speed run through his entire body. He tore across the open space toward the bomb. Every move he made was instinctive, trusting his body to know how to avoid the lasers. They came from every direction, forcing him to dive, leap, spin, roll, and lunge to avoid them. At one point, he threw himself through a tiny square of open space between three crisscrossing beams, only able to make it through by shrinking himself down briefly.

But through it all, he kept moving. He kept running for the bomb.

Fifteen seconds.

Ten seconds.

Five seconds.

Lunging through the last row of lasers, Tristan’s hand slapped for the spellwork lined along one side of the bomb. He could feel the power in the thing rumbling through the floor and making his teeth rattle.

Four seconds.

Finding the right spot, he shoved his fingers into the appropriate spots and quickly began blurting the cancel code that he’d taken from Strings.

Three seconds.

The code was out, the system waiting for verification, which he snapped hurriedly.

Two seconds.

One second.

It stopped. The bright pulsing blue light suddenly went dim, and the bomb powered down.

Half-collapsing against the device, Tristan only belatedly remembered Strings. He quickly spun that way, finding the lasers shut down as well. Scout and the others were there, about halfway to him, while Strings was glowering, vibrating with anger. “Bad, bad, bad!” they snapped, quivering furiously. “Master will not be glad for this. Master will be very angry. Master-”

In mid-sentence, another figure suddenly appeared beside Strings before falling to the ground. It was a Seosten, heavily injured. His head was bald (and covered with blood along with his clothes), and he had a snake tattoo.

“Master!” Strings blurted, reaching for the gravely injured Seosten. The man, in turn, used what looked like the last of his strength to grab onto his extended hand, before disappearing into one of the String-creatures.

Tristan had already pushed himself back up and took several quick steps to join the others. Bobbi-Bobbi wound her way over his arm to resume her place, as he and the rest braced themselves.

But Strings apparently had no interest in fighting. Spitting a curse at them and a promise to make them pay for hurting Master, they disappeared.

“Is… is that it?” Sean demanded, staring at the spot where the creatures had been. “They just ran away?”

“Don’t trust it,” Columbus snapped. “They might come back.”

Tristan nodded. “He’s right. We wait here and guard the bomb, make sure Strings or… anybody else doesn’t double back to turn it on again. We’ll keep it safe.

“And hope Avalon gets into that vault soon.”

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Interim Incursion 43-06 (Vanessa)

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Two figures, one male and one female, sprinted full-out down the corridor with vault doors on either side of them. Their footsteps, pounding loudly against the floor, echoed through the hall along with the sound of their heavy breathing.

Not even thirty feet behind them, the giant snake was hot on their heels. Its tongue flicked out, coming close enough to almost taste the pair, while the caustic gas it continuously exhaled withered the walls around itself to mark its own path. The snake was so fast that it kept nearly catching up to the two, only slowed at various corners and turns that they made to keep it from overrunning them. Even that didn’t help too much, since the snake simply shrink down for a few seconds to make the turn.

Maybe running wasn’t the right word for what the snake was doing. Overslithering them.

“The funny thing is, I’ve had nightmares exactly like this!”

As Doug Frey’s words interrupted her thoughts, Vanessa glanced sidelong at the boy. “Nightmares about being chased through a maze of corridors by a giant snake with acid breath?”

“Okay,” Doug admitted, “the acid breath is new, but other than that!” Producing his pen, the boy clicked twisted the cap to go through his recorded options. “I don’t know what else to hit it with! It’s already shrugged off three spears and any of my spell balls that I try to throw at it.”

“Yeah,” Vanessa confirmed, “Larees said they’re kind of resistant to magic. We don’t have any spell that can hit it hard enough to matter.” As she spoke, the girl freed the Seosten laser pistol that she’d acquired earlier. They were sprinting down a long corridor by that point, racing full-out with the snake catching up with each passing step. Before it could make that last lunge, she pointed the pistol over her shoulder and triggered three quick shots. The first two struck the snake in the eyes, while the third found its flicking tongue. The snake gave a terrifying sound of pain and anger, but didn’t stop. It did, however, slow fractionally to recover, buying the two a few precious extra steps.

In those steps, Vanessa’s other hand snapped out ahead of them, sending her whip that way to crack against one of the walls. At its touch, the whip left a glistening silver rune. A quick snap of the whip the other way left an identical rune a few feet further on the opposite wall.

The two of them ran through the planted traps just fine. But when the still-reeling snake passed through them, they triggered a cloud of intensely cold, supernatural ice that made the summoned creature slow just a little bit more. Another few steps were gained, saving the two from the snake’s stomach once more. It did not, however, solve the overall problem. As resistant as the snake was, they were lucky the ice-mines even slowed it down. They could (barely) hurt it and (kind of) slow it, but nothing actually stuck. Nothing seemed to last long enough to matter. And they didn’t have time to actually prepare anything better with it so close. Unless…

“We can get far enough ahead to buy some time,” Vanessa informed the boy beside her, even as the snake was shaking off the last of the ice effect and began catching up once more. “If I boost us.” With those words, she extended a hand toward him.

Doug hesitated only for a second, before his own hand grabbed hers. With a thought, Vanessa possessed him. She let him keep running (an easy thing to do with his hat), and focused on boosting the boy. Suddenly, he was running much faster, almost flying down that corridor. The snake lost ground, particularly when they turned the corner at the end of the hall and kept going.

Vanessa only kept the boost going for about fifteen seconds. But that was enough to buy some time. Once it was done and Doug slid to a stop, she hopped out.

“Can’t get too far ahead,” the boy muttered, “or the damn thing’ll just shrink down, turn around, and go back to find the others.”

Vanessa nodded, looking back the way they’d come. They could both hear the snake’s approach, though it wasn’t in sight yet. They’d gone just far enough to buy a few seconds to talk without being interrupted by the thing trying to eat them.

Thankfully, she already had a plan.

“You can make anything you draw, right?” Vanessa quickly blurted. “I mean, anything simple without a lot of moving parts.”  

“Uhh, yeah?” The boy was clearly confused. “I mean, for about ten minutes at least. Why?”

“Can you draw it big enough to block the hallway?” she pressed, already turning to start running so they could stay ahead of the snake. “Look.” she pointed as they passed another set of doorways on either side of them. “Can you make things that fit into that doorway from one side to the other, so the doorjambs hold it in place? Like a wall.”

“Sure,” he confirmed, glancing at her while they ran to maintain their lead over the snake. “But you know it’ll just melt through anything we put in its way.”

“Path of least resistance,” she replied, “it wants to catch us.”

Now he was even more confused. “What does that–”

“Take this,” she interrupted, reaching into a pocket before tossing the boy a bag without breaking stride. “Mom and Uncle Apollo made Tristan and me make up emergency camping supplies if we ever got lost somewhere. There’s books, tools, sleeping bags, weapons, everything.”

“Okay…” Doug opened the small bag, peeking within. “And why is that useful now, Vanessa? And what does it have to do with anything we just said?”

“Take it and keep going,” she hurriedly instructed, pointing down the hall. “Get out of sight so you can set things up.” Even as the girl spoke, they could hear the snake in question, and glancing back showed it turning the corner behind them. It would catch up soon, so they only had a few more seconds to talk.

She took advantage of them, quickly telling Doug exactly what to do. She told him how to set up what they needed, stressing just how important it was that he do it right.

“And what are you gonna do?” the boy demanded, even as they continued running to stay ahead of the snake for just a bit longer.

“I’m going to be my brother,” Vanessa informed him. “Since he’s not here to do it.”

“Be your brother?” Doug was baffled. “What does that even–”

“I’ll buy you time!” she interrupted, pivoting back the other way. “Just do everything I said!” With that, Vanessa began to sprint back toward the snake, raising her hand to touch a spell that had been stitched into her shirt. As it was activated, the spell sent her clothes into a safe pocket dimension, leaving the blonde girl in the simple skin-tight Seosten bodysuit.

That done, she lifted her appropriated pistol, firing several quick shots. She hit the snake’s tongue each time, even as the thing jerked back and forth wildly. It was easy. She just thought about where she wanted the shot to go, and it went there. She knew exactly where to point the gun, exactly when to pull the trigger, exactly how to adjust it for each movement… she just knew.

The shots did more to annoy the snake and sting it a little bit than any actual damage. Still, they made sure that its attention was on her. Not that there was much question of that, considering she was running straight at the thing.

The instant she was close enough, the thing struck. Its head snapped down at her as quick as… well, as quick as a snake. But Vanessa used her boost to react just as quickly. With a grunt, she launched herself up, letting her super-leaping ability carry her all the way up to the ceiling, over the snake’s lunging head and its acidic gas.

Then she shape-shifted. Because Vanessa had discovered something interesting while experimenting with her powers. When she normally shifted into her bird or bear forms, it took at least a few seconds. Longer for the bear. But if she was boosting at the time, the change was almost instantaneous.

In the blink of an eye, she was suddenly in her bird form, above the snake’s head. With a few quick flaps, she flew down the length of it to the tail, even as the snake was still trying to figure out what had just happened.

Reaching the opposite end of the snake, Vanessa flipped around in the air while shifting into her human form. Her human form with her weapons. Because thanks to Uncle Apollo, the Seosten bodysuit she wore had been given a little upgrade, which made it so that anything she was holding when she shifted would disappear, automatically shunted into the same space as her clothes, and then reappear instantly when she shifted back.

So, with weapons in hand, she landed, skidding from her own momentum while snapping her whip out to create a fire rune against either wall. Both exploded immediately, turning into a brief, yet intense ball of flame right on the tip of the snake’s tail.

That got its attention. The summoned creature shrank, spun to face the other way, and regrew almost in the span of time that it took for Vanessa to take two quick steps backward. It had inverted itself that easily and quickly, and was practically right on top of her once more.

It lunged again, but Vanessa leapt backward while snapping her whip down at where her feet had been. This time, she created a wind rune. A sudden gust blew into the creature’s face. It did nothing to damage the thing, but it did blow all of its caustic gas away for the moment.

Vanessa took advantage of that. Boosting again to speed her shifting, she threw herself at the snake while changing into her bear form. Now a massive grizzly, she slammed her meaty, furry, frying pan-sized paw into the side of the snake’s head, colliding with a satisfying thud that drew a brief noise of pain from the snake. Before it could recover, she slammed her other paw into the opposite side of its head, digging deep with her claws. It wasn’t going to kill the thing, but she did some damage. If the snake hadn’t already been pissed off, it definitely was now.

By that point, the snake had begun to spit up more of that acid cloud. But Vanessa boost-shifted again, going back to her bird form to retreat down the corridor a bit with a couple quick flaps, luring the thing after her and giving Doug space to work.

She repeated that process a couple of times, clearing the gas before shifting to bear to dart in and do a little damage. It was annoying the snake, which was the point. Plus, it gave Doug more time.

But it was also predictable, which Vanessa didn’t want to be, since she had no desire to be eaten by a snake anytime soon. So she had to mix things up after a few quick rounds of that.

Back to human again, and that time, she made a quick grasping motion with both hands. The air itself seemed to solidify, forming what looked like a pair of almost clear glass balls in her palms.

This was the power she had inherited from the minor Olympian Seosten that she had killed (with a lot of help from her father and Larissa) back at Kushiel’s lab. She could solidify air into these extremely durable ‘glass’ balls and then control them with her mind. According to her mother, the Olympian she had taken it from had been able to make more of the balls and then reshape them into other forms like blades. Or even combine them to make much larger things.

Vanessa couldn’t do that yet. But she could send these small, nearly invisible orbs flying at the snake, making them rebound off its eyes or any other spot she wanted them to hit. They were tough enough to ram full speed into the back of the thing’s scaled head without breaking. Which didn’t really do any actual damage to it, but did help distract and annoy it.

Clearly enraged by that point, the snake lunged for Vanessa as she crouched near the right-hand side of the hall. She let it come, then leapt to the left while mentally summoning her orbs. One flew right under her outstretched foot, acting a brief step for her to push off of before finding the other with her opposite foot. Now just above the snake’s head, balancing on her two orbs, she lashed out with the whip, smacking the wall just next to the serpent before it could recover, creating a fire rune that exploded essentially in its face.

That really pissed it off. The snake whipped around, tongue lashing out to catch Vanessa in a way more like a frog than the animal it was supposed to be. It came close to managing it, but Vanessa was faster, barely. She flipped up and backward off her floating orbs, letting the grasping tongue strike the air where she had been before landing a few yards back. Her whip lashed out to create three quick lightning runes along the floor. As the snake rushed over them to get her, the triggered electricity coursed into its body, making it seize and spasm for an instant.

That instant was long enough for Vanessa to trigger another quick wind rune to once more clear the area of gas before she darted forward. Her whip created yet another rune then, this one ice. It exploded into a freezing mist centered directly on at the creature’s extended tongue as it spasmed from the electricity.

Resistant as the summoned snake was, the ice rune only managed to freeze a very small part of that tongue. But that small part was enough. As the snake recovered and lunged, Vanessa threw herself backwards, using her super-leap to travel further horizontally that time. While in mid-leap, she snapped that pistol up and triggered several quick shots. Each landed perfectly right at the small spot that had been frozen by the ice rune. That was enough to sever it, cutting the tongue in half. And the snake, well, the snake was beyond pissed off. It made a furious, horrible shrieking sound and thrashed its head from side to side briefly before narrowing its eyes at Vanessa.

“That’s right,” she murmured softly. “Come get me.”

Whether it understood or not, the snake obliged. Suddenly, it was tearing after her even faster than it had been before, a speeding train with an open mouth rushing down the corridor at her.

With a thought, Vanessa was back in her bird form, pivoting in the air to fly straight out away from the creature. Now she could be pretty sure that it wouldn’t lose interest and go after Doug or one of the others. It was solely focused on her.

To an outside observer, it might have looked as though Vanessa were flying wildly and frantically with no plan. But she knew exactly what she was doing. While the others may have memorized the exact path to the vault they were looking for, she had memorized the entire layout of the floor. She knew exactly where she was, and exactly where she had been.

Weaving her way through the corridors, Vanessa took a long, yet purposeful route back around in a wide circle. Eventually, she was flying over the same spot that she had left Doug at. The snake was right on her tail feathers, in no mood to let her get away no matter what form she took.

By that point, Vanessa was starting to get tired. But she pressed on. Two more quick turns, and she leveled out in a long hallway. Straight ahead of her, about halfway down, was the contraption that she’d convinced Doug to make. It looked like a wall with a single hole in it just large enough for a human to crawl through. As requested, it was stuck between the doorways of the vaults, and was thick enough to take up that entire space.

In mid-flight, Vanessa shifted back to human, lashing her whip out behind her as she landed. The whip swung in a wide arc, creating a half dozen lightning and ice runes, just enough to slow the snake for a second or two.

As the creature hit the debilitating effects and powered through them, Vanessa gave one last snap of her whip. Or rather, two. These were not to lay runes, however. Instead, as her whip touched the wall, Vanessa used her weapon’s original power to copy the material. Then, with the backswing of the whip, she cracked it against Doug’s creation. Immediately, it became the same metal.

The snake was almost on top of her, and Vanessa felt exhausted. But she moved anyway, forcing herself to use her boost yet again while diving toward the hole that Doug had left. Hearing the snake hiss furiously, she crawled on her hands and knees as quickly as possible through that little tunnel.

But the snake wasn’t going to be dissuaded that easily. Though it could have taken the time to use its acid to melt through the thick wall, Vanessa and Doug might have gotten away in that time. Especially now that it was made of the same material as the nearby walls. And there was a much quicker way to chase its prey.

Before she was even all the way through the tunnel, Vanessa heard the snake behind her. It had shrunk down once more to throw itself through the hole as well. And it was gaining fast. That was how much she had pissed it off. It didn’t care what it had to do, or what size it had to be, it was going to eat her.

Reaching the end of the tunnel finally, she threw herself bodily out of it while screaming out loud, “Now, now, now!” Her voice echoed loudly through the hall.

The snake was right behind her, and lunged, just as she did, for the opening. But Doug was there. The instant that Vanessa was clear, he appeared, holding something in front of the hole. Vanessa scrambled around on her knees, grabbing onto the thing as well to help keep it in place, just as the snake flew out of the tunnel.

It was the extradimensional bag that she had given the boy a few minutes earlier. He had already dumped all the extra stuff out of it to make room. Room for the snake.

The two of them held the bag in front of the hole and let the snake rush right into it. Then they closed the bag and cinched it tight, trapping the creature within. As long as the bag wasn’t opened, there would be no way for the snake to escape. Unless it was simply de-summoned, in which case it still wouldn’t be their problem anymore.

As soon as the bag was closed, Vanessa turned and collapsed, falling backward before staring at the ceiling while panting heavily.

Doug collapsed next to her, turning his head to look to Vanessa. “You okay?”

It took her a moment, but Vanessa nodded. She was breathing hard, eyes wide as she came down from the panic high of the last few minutes. “Uh huh. Uh huh. Peachy. No more snakes for a while, okay?” Her voice was a bit squeaky from her own rush of adrenaline.

“I’m not sure if the bad guys will listen,” the boy replied, “but I am totally on board with that rule. And hey, good job calling that it would shrink down to chase you if you pissed it off enough.”

“Like I said,” she replied, “path of least resistance. It didn’t need to take the time to melt the walls if there was another opening. One we wanted it to go through.”

The two of them laid there like that for a few moments, just catching their breath. The snake bag lay between them, completely still and silent, of course. But that didn’t stop either of them from keeping half a wary eye on it.

“It definitely can’t get out of that, right?” Doug pressed. He obviously just needed to hear a little reassurance that they weren’t about to be ambushed by the worst game of Jack-in-the-Box ever.

Vanessa’s head shook. “Definitely not. As long as we keep it shut tight, there’s no portal for it to come through.”

With a soft side of relief, Doug nodded. “Good. Somebody else gets to check and see if it’s gone later.”

He paused, before asking, “How do you think the others are doing?”

Vanessa took a moment before answering. “We should probably go find out. This is too important to lie down on the job.”

Doug winced, but nodded, picking himself up before offering a hand to her. “Right.

“Let’s go see what we missed.”

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Interim Incursion 43-05 (Scout)

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At least Scout knew what power she had picked up from the Seosten woman in the other building. As the swarm of the zombies made their way across the room toward the small group and the spell behind them, Scout kept trying to shoot faster to keep up with all the targets that presented themselves. Then, as if she had flipped a switch, she could suddenly think, move, and react much faster. It was like she had been thrown into fast forward, able to aim a shot, fire, aim another shot, fire, aim a third shot, and fire that as well before she normally would have finished aiming the first one.

She could only keep it going for a brief time, but in that time, she took down fifteen zombies with precise head shots. It was like that video game that Shiori had been showing her where you could use the occasional turbo boost to throw the world into slow-motion and auto-aim at your targets.

But it wasn’t enough. The zombies kept coming. They poured through every vault door, and immediately joined the horde in rushing for the spell that was blocking communication with the outside world. Even with Columbus, Sean, Tristan, and Professor Tangle adding their own firepower, there seemed to be no end to the creatures. They were killing them, but the zombies didn’t let up. More and more kept appearing, dozens at a time, even as they were mowed down just as quickly.

Beside her, Tristan took aim at a large clump of the creatures with his cannon, charged up a powerful shot, and let loose with it. The blast bowled through them and more beyond. But it was no more effective than anything else had been at actually stopping more from appearing.

Sean and the two Vulcans were laying down a dizzying hurricane of suppressive fire together. Sweeping their firing arc from one side of the room to the other constantly, they were doing the most to keep the flood of zombies from overwhelming everyone. Columbus’s goggle-blasts and Tristan’s cannon blew through the larger groups, and Scout picked off the sneaky lone figures that tried to go around.

Meanwhile, Tangle dealt with the ones that slipped through the cracks, sending waves of her ghost-like cars and other things summoned with her weapon to crash into them and knock the collective group back once more.

They were killing the zombies as fast as they could, and the flood wasn’t getting anywhere. But it also wasn’t going away. There seemed to be an unlimited number of the creatures that just kept pouring through. And eventually, Scout and the others were going to slip up, get tired, or run out of firepower. It was looking like the zombies would win this war of attrition through sheer force of numbers.

“Block the doors?” Scout blurted the suggestion in between firing three more quick shots, two of which struck home. If they could somehow close the vaults off, it could give them a break and stop the reinforcement zombies from coming through.

“With what?” Sean asked, even as he used Vulcan to tear through another handful of the relentless monsters. Hovering over his right shoulder, VJ fired a few shots of his own as if for emphasis. “We don’t have anything to block them, unless Tangle can?” He glanced that way with those words.

Tangle, for her part, grimaced while shaking her head. “Sorry, the only thing that comes to mind is–” She stopped talking for a moment, extending her flashlight-like weapon to project an elephant, which charged across the room to trample a dozen zombies under its feet. “The only thing I can think of is breaking the portals, but we’d need to be inside each vault to do that!”

“Scout!” Tristan blurted, charging up another shot to fire. “Scout, your rifle! Use the scope-portals to see into the vaults.”

“He’s right,” Tangle realized aloud. “Scout, forget shooting the zombies. We’ll handle them. Focus on getting a view into each room. Look for runes above and to both sides of the door and hit them with whatever you can to break them. Guys, hold the line until she manages that.”

Taking a half second to put a hand on Scout’s shoulder and squeeze, Tristan urged, “Don’t worry, you’ve got this. We’ll cover here.” Suiting action to words, the boy simultaneously fired a charged shot from his cannon that blew through a handful of the undead creatures while also producing a knife with his other hand. A quick flick of his wrist sent the blade through the eye socket of another zombie that he’d barely been glancing at. A moment later, a spell on the knife ignited the zombie’s head and blew it apart.

Trying not to think about how much pressure this suddenly was (or about how it felt to have Tristan’s hand on her shoulder even under these circumstances), Scout pivoted away from the group. She let them cover her, dropping to one knee while bringing her rifle up. Taking aim through her scope at a random bit of wall near the ceiling, she fired a scope-portal about midway there, above everyone’s heads. Then she switched her view to seeing through the portal, adjusting to point it toward the nearest vault doorway. Form that position, she could barely see the entrance, firing to create another scope portal in the doorway, just above the heads of the zombies.

From there, it was a simple matter to make one more scope portal inside the vault itself. The whole place was literally filled with zombies. The room was the size of a football field, with the creatures packed in like sardines. No wonder they kept coming, if every room was like this one. The only thing slowing them down was the size of the doorway they were coming through.

Time to end that. Adjusting the scope-portal to see back toward the vault entrance, Scout zoomed in on the doorway. Behind her, she could still hear all the fighting going on, but had to force herself to ignore the distraction and just trust that Tristan, Columbus, Sean, and Professor Tangle could handle it.

Sure enough, there were lines of runes along the top and sides of the door. As Tangle had said, now she just had to damage it enough to break the spell creating the portal. For that, Scout flipped two switches along the side of her rifle, switching to her explosive rounds. Those weren’t as plentiful as the regular ammunition that her rifle basically generated on its own, but they would do the job of damaging that wall a lot better.

She took a breath, slowly let it out while ignoring all the fighting going on mere feet away from her, and fired the first shot through the portal. Shifting the scope slightly to the right, she fired again, then repeated it a third time after another shift. All along the spell where her shots struck it, the rounds exploded into miniature balls of fire.

That was enough. The damage to the spell disrupted it, and Scout saw the doorway leading into the main room suddenly disappear, leaving behind a blank wall and cutting off that horde of zombies waiting to emerge.

Quickly, she looked up from her rifle, glancing toward the door from this side. Yes, the first vault was cut off, stemming one source of the monsters, at least. Unfortunately, that left a lot more to go, considering there were six vaults along on either side.

Oh well, that just meant she had to get busy rather than continue patting herself on the back. Quickly disabling the scope-portals she’d used already, Scout got to work setting up a new line into the second vault. This time she had a better idea of what she was doing, firing each viewing portal in rapid succession to get a good line on the spell there. In the background, she heard Tangle telling Columbus and Sean to focus on one side, and felt someone bump against her as they adjusted their stance. Ignore it. She had to ignore it. They would handle the problem here in the room, she just had to do her job. Even if the thoughts of what was going on with her mother back in the main building, or her sister downstairs, were just as distracting as the zombies right here were.

Shutting out every other worry, Scout took more shots at the portal spell for the second vault, destroying it and cutting off that room as well. Through the scope, she could see the confused zombies stumble up against the blank wall where the doorway had been.

Two down, ten to go. Faster. She had to be faster with it and shut these vaults down before she and the others were overrun. Every second that she let pass without closing another portal was a second where a dozen more zombies could stagger through into the room to join their relentless companions.

Settling into a routine by then, Scout took out the third vault, then the fourth one. Eight to go, and there was definitely a noticeable lag to the flow of zombies by that point. It was helping. Especially as she’d focused on one side first, cutting off two-thirds of the zombie portals from that direction to allow the others to focus more attention on the other side. More attention meant more focused firepower, which took the zombies down faster.

As she turned her attention to the fifth vault, Scout paused briefly. A strange, tingling sensation, like she was being watched, came over her. She felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up, and briefly raised her head from the gun. Her eyes glanced around, but could find nothing. There were no zombies anywhere near her, and no other threat that she could see.

Apparently catching sight of her looking out of the corner of his eye, Tristan turned slightly to see what she was doing. Scout started to shake her head at him, but the moment he was facing her, she saw his eyes widen.

“Scout!” the boy blurted, lunging to grab her arm. He yanked her up and out of the way, falling backward in the process. The two of them crashed together to the floor with a pair of yelps.

Right where she had been crouching, Scout saw them. Ten little… strings? They came from above, wiggling as though in agitation. Confused, the girl raised her eyes, following the strings to their source. And then she saw him.

The man clung to the ceiling high above. His figure was… wrong. His legs were drawn up so that if he had been on the floor, he would have been kneeling. Though he was ostensibly facing the ceiling itself, his torso was twisted around unnaturally to face the floor below, while his head was twisted even further so that he was looking at them from a completely different angle than the way he should have been. His arms were wrong as well, twisted away from the direction of his torso to point straight down. His long, gangly fingers were attached to hands that seemed three times too large for the rest of his body, and those ten strings that had been about to grab onto Scout came from each of those fingers. Strings which were already slurping back up even as the man’s twisted-around head met her gaze with eyes that weren’t there, the sockets dark, empty voids.

Tristan and Scout both brought their weapons up to shoot at the thing as their Stranger senses went wild, but he had already inverted to drop to the floor nearby. With creaking bones, the figure drew himself up to his full, impressive height, standing eight feet high. He wore black pants and an old-fashioned striped tailcoat over a frilly white shirt and stained brown vest.  

Tangle had realized what was happening by then, spinning that way with her weapon up. Seeing the man there, however, she paused. “What the…”

“Hello.” The man greeted them while holding up his hands, palm out. The strings were still hanging a few inches out from his fingertips, wiggling in the air like worms. “We can’t let you break any more of our master’s toys. It’s time to sleep.”

Abruptly, the ten strings launched outward, shooting through the air toward Scout and the others. The five of them each had two strings coming their way, fast enough that even as her recently acquired boost kicked in, Scout realized that they were coming too fast for most of the others to escape. Her gun snapped up and she fired two quick shots while throwing herself to the side. Though her boost made everything else seem to be in slow motion, the strings were so fast they seemed to be moving normally.

Both of Scout’s shots went straight for the man’s head. But just before they would have struck home, that head literally opened up. A hole appeared right in the middle of the man’s face, leading through to the open air behind the man just long enough for the bullets to pass harmlessly through before closing once more.

Beside her, Tristan was moving just as quickly, his own boost kicking in to send him the other way while he fired a shot of his own at the man’s chest. A shot which met with the same reaction, as his torso pulled apart with a distinct slurping noise, creating a large hole that the beam easily passed through.

The cannon on Tristan’s arm shifted then, switching from gun to gauntlet with an extended blade all along the side. With a grunt, he threw himself that way, his figure blurring as he swiped at the creepy figure. In response, the man instantly bent all the way backward at the knees, his body horizontal to the ground while the blade went through the air just above him. Staying in that awkward position, he sent those strings from his fingers up.

“No!” Tangle was there, using a wave of her hand and some kind of telekinetic or wind power to throw Tristan out of the way just before the strings would have caught him. “Don’t let those things touch you.”

“But we like to touch,” the eyeless figure announced, righting himself once more. The strings danced through the air as he wiggled his fingers. “We Strings touch and play. Strings do good work for their master.”

“If they touch you, they puppet you,” Tangle informed them, keeping a wary eye on the figure as it watched for an opening, head cocked unnaturally to the side. “Like a marionette. They’ll take control. Everything you see is strings. The whole body. That’s why it can pull apart and put holes in itself like that. The whole body is just millions of sapient strings shaped like a person. They’re a colony creature.”

A colony creature. Scout’s eyes widened at that. It was true. The whole misshapen thing was just one huge collection of strings, like a… like a puppet made of yarn.

The creature (or creatures, apparently) gave an empty smile at that. Then a dozen strings suddenly burst from their chest, rushing not for the group, but for the rune on the wall that was blocking communication with the outside world. They were trying to break the spell, but were blocked by a quick wave of fire that Tangle created, shrieking in a collective voice.

“Scout, keep killing the doors,” Tangle ordered, before going after the String-thing with Tristan right behind her. The two of them were dealing with that, while Columbus, Sean, and the Vulcans focused on the zombies.

Which left Scout to get those vaults closed off. Hurriedly, the girl returned to her work. Now it was even harder to ignore everything else that was going on. The horrible creepiness of the so-called Strings and the thought of what might happen to Tristan and the others was almost too distracting. But she bore down, forcing herself to shut that out. The sooner she closed those vaults, the better for everyone.

Finishing off the vaults on one side before turning her aim to the six on the far side, Scout heard Sean telling Vulcan to keep helping Columbus. From the corner of her eye, she saw the boy rush by her while VJ transformed into his sword mode and fell into his hand. He threw himself into the path of several more strings, slicing through them with his word before shifting VJ to a shield and batting away another group. They had been coming for her, but Sean stopped them, standing in their path. “Keep going!” he blurted. “I’ve got you!”

Another vault down. Five left. Just five. The zombies seemed to have realized they were being cut off, so they were trying to pour out even faster. But there were still less vaults, allowing Columbus and Vulcan to narrow their firepower. She just hoped they could keep it up long enough for her to close off the rest.

Another trio of shots. Another vault down, its portal broken. Then another. Grimacing as the sounds of fighting only intensified behind her, Scout set another line of portals. She was moving as fast as she could, her inherited boost kicking in once again to slow everything down so she could line up her shots in what amounted to a second. Three more shots. Boom, boom, boom. Another vault cut off.

Finally, she was down to the last one. Just as she lined up her shot, there was a thud beside her. Scout’s eyes snapped down to see Sean on the ground, trying to roll over. Before he could get up, one of those strings came shooting through the air toward her. Scout started to jerk her gun around while half-falling backward, but it was too late.

It was not too late, however, for Tristan to throw himself into the string. Literally. He used his possession, disappearing into the string just before it would have struck Scout. Instantly, the string jerked backward away from her. Tristan came stumbling out of the string a moment later, falling to his knees and puking on the floor. At the same time, the String-creature itself (themselves?) stumbled as well. Giving a shriek, they leapt to the ceiling and scrambled away, disappearing into what looked like a second elevator shaft across the room.

She wanted to check on Tristan, but there was one more vault. Taking those last couple shots to close it off, Scout finally dropped her rifle and looked up in time to see Columbus finish the last of the zombies that had emerged. He was utterly soaked in blood and… and other things, panting as he stood in the midst of a pile of re-killed corpses. But it was done. The doors were closed, the vaults were cut off.

“Tristan?” She managed, looking that way.

“Good,” the boy himself replied, even as Tangle crouched by him. “I’m–uuulph. Not doing that again. Hive mind. Controlling one just gets all the others in your head and… not… not good. Not fun.”

His head snapped up then, almost violently. “Bomb. Bomb. There’s a bomb.”

“What?” Tangle demanded. “What bomb?”

“Strings,” Tristan hurriedly blurted, “the Strings. They have a bomb in the building. It’s a failsafe. If they really think there’s a chance of Avalon getting to the vault, they’re going to blow this whole place up. They’re probably on their way to set it right now.” He forced himself to his feet, stumbling a little. “We have to stop them.”

“But if they double back,” Sean pointed out, “and we’re not here, they could break the communication-blocking spell and get reinforcements that we can’t handle.”

Tangle nodded. “I’ll stay here. I can protect the spell myself, just in case. You saw how the bomb works?”

“Yeah,” Tristan confirmed. “I can disable it.” He tapped the side of his head then. “I know where it is, and how to disarm the thing. Perfect memory’s good for something after all.”

“Are you sure you’ll be okay by yourself?” Columbus hesitantly asked Tangle.

The woman gave a single nod. “Kids, I–I hate this. I hate sending you–never mind. Not time. Just go. Stop the bomb. You can do this. Get past Strings and disable that bomb. Go!”

Glancing briefly to one another, Scout and the three boys ran for the elevator.

“Tell you one thing,” Sean announced as they sprinted.

“I’m about ready for a vacation from this vacation.”

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Interim Incursion 43-04 (Doug)

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As the elevator descended toward the lower vaults, Doug glanced around at the others. Professor Kohaku, Dries Aken, Shiori, Avalon, Sands, Vanessa, and himself. They were the ones who were left to make the run for the vault. Everyone else was occupied, keeping most of the bad guys busy. Gaia, Gabriel Prosser, Professor Dare, so many powerful people who were solely focused, at that moment, on keeping the way to the vault as clear as possible. Even Grandpa Sulan was with Prosser’s group, along with Jazz and Gordon. If Doug couldn’t be with his (former?) teammates, he was glad that his great-great-grandfather could.

And who was he here with? The man who killed Hieronymous Bosch. The greatest traitor and murderer in Crossroads history, in Heretic history. One of the most infamous people who had ever lived, as far as Heretics were concerned. There was no single human being regarded more hatefully or as more of a monster by Heretics than the man who had murdered Bosch. Even now, knowing everything he actually knew, Doug could still feel that instinctive anger that came from so many years of hearing the stories about Dries Aken. Instead of trying to suppress it, he redirected it. He used that anger and pointed it toward all the lies that he’d been told throughout his life, all the lies that his entire family going back generations had been told.

That made it easier to not be so fucking scared right in that moment. Using the anger he felt about all of that and pointing it to this situation. The anger helped cover the terror.

Dries seemed to notice him staring, because the man’s head abruptly whipped around to face him as the elevator descended. His eyes were wild, and he demanded, “Are we enemies?”

“Err, wh-what?” Doug stammered, taken aback by that. “Uh, no? No, it’s just… I’ve heard a lot of lies about you and all that, so it’s kind of a big deal to meet you. I mean, I know it’s not true, but still, seeing you like this… I…” He tried to think of how to explain the whole ‘transferring anger to cover up his own fear’ thing, but it suddenly sounded stupid, so he clamped his mouth shut.

“It’s okay, Douglas,” Professor Kohaku calmly and knowingly informed him. “Everyone is afraid of what might happen next. Just remember, you are not alone. Stay with the others. The goal is the vault. Let me handle the worst of what we run into while you focus on getting to the vault.” Raising her voice a bit then to address everyone, she added, “You all remember the way?”

“Straight, straight, right, left, straight, straight, right, straight, straight, right.” Avalon was the one who spoke, but Doug ran the whole thing through silently in his head as well. Gaia had made sure they all memorized the exact route through what apparently was a labyrinth to get to the right vault. Doug had spent more time repeating the directions back than he had spent on actual schoolwork in the past couple months.

It would be just great, to pull all this off and then end up getting held back a year because his grades had suffered. Absurd as the thought was, considering how involved the actual headmistress was in all of this, it still made the boy swallow a bit at the thought. Another distraction, another thing to focus on instead of worrying about what was going to happen once the elevator reached the bottom of this apparently long descent.

Abruptly, a different distraction presented itself in the form of a clanking noise. It was faint, and came from the top of the elevator. For a moment, Doug almost thought that he might have imagined it, until he saw that the others had all looked up as well. They glanced toward the faint sound just as it came again, event fainter that time.

What wasn’t quiet, however, was Kohaku’s reaction. Her hand snapped up, and a pale green forcefield suddenly appeared over their heads. An instant later and with no further warning, something horrific dove through the roof of the elevator. A ghost of some kind. The thing was terrifying, its semi-translucent face looking equal parts rotted and melted. Holes in its throat revealed the inside, flaps of skin in its face showed muscles and gums, and one of its eyes was melted shut like a wax candle. Worse, the thing dove through with no warning other than those two very faint clanking sounds, rebounding off the shield that Kohaku had put up.

At a quick, sharp gesture from Kohaku, the part of the forcefield that the ghost had rebounded off of suddenly elongated into a blade, stabbing into the creature. With a terrifying shriek that half-deafened Doug and the others, the ghost exploded into what looked like blue-gray slime that splattered all over the ceiling of the elevator.

“More coming,” Kohaku snapped sharply. With one hand, she held out a bag. “You know what to do.”

Because of course Gaia and the others wouldn’t send them in unprepared for this kind of thing. Doug produced his pen, clicking it once to create a spear. As the weapon appeared in his hand, he reached into the bag that Kohaku was offering, taking out a bit of cloth before pushing it against the tip of the spear. On the cloth was a spell rune made up of a triangle surrounding a circle, while nine curly lines emerged from the triangle, three on each side. Between each of those lines was a diagonal equals sign, each pointing up and to the right of the whole thing, toward a second symbol that looked like an infinity symbol drawn around the handle of an upside down pitchfork.  

The spell, once activated, would allow the target object to actually affect ghosts and other intangible creatures for the following fifteen minutes. It was one of several bits of preparation that Gaia and the other adults that made sure to have ready since there was no way for them to know exactly what the Seosten would throw at them as they neared the vault. Aside, of course, from ‘every fucking thing they possibly could.’

The others around him were doing the same, aside from Avalon, as her gauntlet’s energy constructs could already affect things like ghosts. Kohaku, meanwhile, produced what looked like two batons. Each was only a little over a foot long. Rather than hold them by one end, however, the woman held each in the middle. At a button press, a sharp metal blade appeared from both ends of both batons. Four blades in total, each with various runes inscribed along them. And at a touch from Kohaku, each gave off a soft glow.

Dries, meanwhile, hadn’t been sitting on his hands. The man took a small lens, like one from a telescope, and brushed his thumb over it while murmuring something. Then he threw the lens at the ground, shattering it. As he did so, the walls, floor, and ceiling of the lift abruptly became just as partially translucent as the ghosts themselves were. Doug could see the shaft they were dropping through. Not that there was that much to see, aside from a few other lifts (where they went, he wasn’t sure and was kind of confused by) and the blank metal walls of the shaft.

Oh, and the ghosts. Lots of ghosts. The creatures were flying all around them. Above, below, to the sides, the whole shaft was flooded with the creatures.

“Columbus was right,” Doug found himself muttering, “we should’ve brought our necromancer.”

“I don’t think she’s ready for ghosts yet,” Shiori pointed out while holding one of her frisbee-disc things in either hand. Her eyes were snapping around, watching for the first of the horde of clearly malevolent (or at least malevolently targeted, since it probably wasn’t fair to blame them for whatever the being directing them had ordered) spirits to make a move.

“Douglas, watch the floor,” Kohaku started. “Avalon, that wall. Sands, that wall. Vanessa, behind us. Shiori, straight ahead. I’ll watch the ceiling. Mr. Aken, try to back up anyone who needs it. Thirty seconds before we reach the bottom, so they’ll be–now!”

Sure enough, the ghosts were coming. Doug’s attention snapped quickly to the floor, just in time to see two of the creatures flying straight up toward them. He readied his spear, muttering a quick series of curses under his breath. Then the first ghost was there, shoving itself up through the floor while grabbing for his ankle. Instantly, Doug stabbed his spear down into the thing’s head. It shrieked and withdrew, but there wasn’t time to celebrate, because the second ghost had already grabbed onto Vanessa’s leg and was trying to yank her down before Doug stabbed it as well. It took two more quick jabs before the thing exploded into foul-smelling goo.

All around him, more ghosts were attacking from every side. He felt one snatch hold of his elbow from the side just before Sands slammed her mace through the thing. Nearby, Shiori was yanked backward with one ghost’s arm around her neck, until Avalon killed it with a quick swipe of her humming energy blade.

Thirty seconds. They just had to keep doing this for thirty seconds. Well, thirty seconds until they were let out of the elevator. There was no reason to think that the ghosts would leave them alone after that. But there would be more room to maneuver, at least.

More ghosts. More stabbing. Doug couldn’t focus on any other spot, couldn’t think about what anyone else was doing. He was too busy keeping dozens of ghosts away from the floor of the elevator. They just kept coming. No matter how fast he stabbed with his spear, more appeared. Some of the ones he struck howled and withdrew, while others exploded. Before that thirty seconds was half-over, the entire floor was covered in their ectoplasm.

All around him, the others were in the same position. He was jostled back and forth, elbowed in the side, and even had Sands’ arm smack against the side of his head accidentally as she swung for another ghost. There wasn’t enough room here, and the ghosts were flooding the elevator from all sides. There had to be hundreds of the things.

At least they weren’t the strong kind. There were several types of ghosts, and the stronger versions would have completely overrun them in these kinds of numbers. The fact that these ones were so relatively easy to kill and didn’t set off any kind of Heretic pleasure sense when they were killed meant they were the lowest tier of ghost. Barely capable of following instructions. Which, in this case, seemed to be ‘attack everyone in that elevator’.

Still, it was only thirty seconds. Thirty of the longest seconds in all of existence that hadn’t literally been magically extended, but only thirty seconds. They made it, finally, the doors opening to let them out into a octagonal-shaped room, with different hallways along each ‘side’ of the octagon aside from the one where their elevator was.

The fight spilled out into that open room, until Dries stepped forward and put a rock he had been scribbling a rune onto against the elevator. He spoke a single word, and the stone crumbled to dust. At the same time, what looked like a massive burst of electricity shot up along the walls of the elevator, disappearing through the shaft with an echoing boom.

Silence came then. The ghosts had stopped. Doug doubled over a bit, catching his breath while staring warily at the elevator. “What–what was–”

“No more.” Dries was tapping the side of his head. “G-gone. Gone. They’re gone, and they’re not… they’re not… they won’t be here.” He nodded rapidly, his attention shifting to the floor while he shuffled back and forth on his feet, clearly uncomfortable with everyone staring at him.

“Thanks, man,” Doug finally managed, not wanting to stress the poor guy out even more, but not wanting to say nothing either. “That was cool.”

“Indeed,” Kohaku agreed. “Very cool.”

That said, the woman immediately turned away from the elevator. “We need to keep moving. Is everyone good?” She gave the group a quick once over, taking a moment to check a bit of blood on Vanessa’s arm that ended up being a deep cut. It would heal, however, and Kohaku placed a quick bandage on it to stop the bleeding. “Okay, let’s go.”

Their notes said to go straight, so the group took the hallway directly across from the elevator doors. The floor was some kind of white polished stone with little purple swirls in them, while the walls were more violet. As they entered that first corridor (which was wide enough for Kohaku, Avalon, and Shiori to jog side by side in the lead), Doug could see white double-doors set on either side, each several feet apart. There were labels above each door with either a family name or, in some cases, an alphanumeric code.

The first junction came up, with a corridor cutting across their path. Again, they went straight, before making a right a few seconds later at the next one. Then a left. Unfortunately, just as Doug made the mistake of thinking that they might have a clear shot at the vault after all, trouble found them again. Or rather, they found it, in the form of a figure standing in their path at the next junction, where they were supposed to go straight.

He was a Seosten. That much was clear, from the bodysuit that he wore, to his darkly handsome features, to the arrogant look in his gaze as he stared them down. Along his throat and apparently up over the back of his neck was a long tattoo of a coiling snake. The man’s head was bald, though not bare, as the head of that snake tattoo was visible there, with its eyes facing them from his forehead.

“Oh,” Sands muttered as they came to a brief stop. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this guy.”

The Seosten held that glare for a moment, before his expression abruptly shifted into a broad smile. “Hey there, good job getting this far. I mean seriously, I’m pretty sure no one thought you’d make it, which is why they don’t have an Olympian down here. Hell, you even cut through my ghosts, you’re keeping my zombies busy, and you blocked me from contacting anyone on the outside. Bravo. No, really, congratulations. But you see, I can’t let you go any further. I just… it’s my boss, you know? He can be a real pain in the ass and if you get by me…” He whistled low, shaking his head. “I’ll be in… I think you call it deep shit? Deep shit.”

His hand waved dismissively then, as the man informed them, “But I’ll tell you what. If you turn around and go back the way you came, we’ll just let bygones be bygones. No hard feelings, you gave it your best shot. Just walk away.”

Kohaku’s voice was quiet as she watched the man. “I’ll handle him. The rest of you go on to the vault.” With those words, she started to walk that way deliberately, spinning the two-bladed baton-daggers in each hand.

In response, the Seosten man cracked his neck before tapping each arm of his bodysuit in turn. At his touch, a pair of gauntlets appeared. Along the outside of each gauntlet was a long, sharp blade that ran the length of his forearm from fist to elbow. Meanwhile, a pair of electrified whips extended from the end of the gauntlets, crackling with energy.

“Well,” he announced, “if you insist on doing it the hard way.”

“Go!” Kohaku ordered while sprinting to meet the man. She dodged around one of his whips as it was sent toward her, leaving behind some kind of shadow-clone that lasted just long enough to kick the whip out of the way before falling into ashes.

Doug and the others didn’t need to be told twice. Even as Kohaku reached her target, blades colliding with his, they were already running. Avalon, Shiori, Sands, Vanessa, Dries, and Doug sprinted down that hall.

Unfortunately, the Seosten wasn’t just going to let them go. Ducking away from a swing from Kohaku, he extended his hand after them. “Sic ‘em, boy.”

At those words, as Doug looked over his shoulder that way, he saw the man’s snake tattoo come to life. Springing off the man’s head while solidifying, the blue-green snake rushed after them.

“Heh,” Sands started, “it’s a snake, are we really supposed to b–”

Before she could finish that sentence, the snake abruptly grew. Not a little bit, a lot. In a blink, the snake was suddenly large enough that it barely fit in the corridor. And it was coming very quickly. Worse, there was some kind of green smoke coming from its mouth that seemed to melt through the walls around it.

Cursing violently, Sands whipped back around. “I changed my mind, go, go, go!”

“He’s like Larees!” Vanessa blurted, even as they ran, keeping straight once more at the next intersection.

“Not enough like Larees!” Doug pointed out, already snatching his pen once more as they ran past the next section. They were supposed to turn right there, but there wasn’t time. The snake was right behind them. Right behind them. Doug could feel its acidic breath practically melting his shoes, could hear its hissing. “Avalon, don’t you talk to snakes now? Can you–”

“Not working!” the girl blurted back at him. “Probably because it’s not a real snake! It’s magic!”

Cursing, Sands waved her mace, creating a wall behind them. It lasted only a couple seconds before the snake’s acid breath melted through it enough for the creature to burst through. If anything, it seemed even bigger somehow. And angrier.

They kept running, until Sands finally made a dozen quick walls in a row at another intersection. Then she tapped her mace against the actual corridor wall before moving to make another wall over the right-hand corridor. The new constructed wall was made of the same material as the rest of the hall, so it blended in well enough to hide that there was a corridor there at all.

“Quick,” Sands blurted even as they heard the snake coming through the walls she’d thrown in its path. “Over here.” She waved to the left-hand corridor. “We hide behind another wall on that side, let our new friend keep going down the hall, then–” She made another three walls in rapid succession to keep the snake busy. “Then we go back the way we came and find the vault.”

“It’ll notice too fast,” Doug pointed out. “Then we’ll be in the same position. Someone needs to lure it away. I’ll–”

“Someones,” Vanessa corrected him. She looked to the others. “Doug and I can do this. You guys hide. Wait for the snake to chase us, then get to that vault.”

“I… yeah.” Doug tried not to look too relieved that he wouldn’t be by himself, though he still flashed the girl a brief grateful look. Then his hand gestured to the nearby wall, where a faint pen mark was visible. “I drew a line the whole way up here, since we passed that last turn. If you follow it back to where it starts, then turn left at that spot, you’ll be on for straight, straight, right.”

Sands, who had been remaking walls over and over again as fast as she could while backpedaling as the snake kept breaking through them, blurted, “Running out of room here, guys!”

There was no more time to discuss it. Avalon, Dries, and Shiori moved quickly to the other corridor. Sands joined them, blurting, “Good luck.” Then she made another wall, blocking them off and leaving Vanessa and Doug standing in the corridor alone.

“Ready to run some more?” Doug asked the girl beside him.

“We better be,” she replied, already starting to back pedal at the sound of the last constructed walls crumbling. The final one melted under the acidic breath, before the snake’s massive head slammed through. “Because here it comes!”

The snake hissed in a mixture of fury and triumph at having found them, lunging just as Vanessa and Doug both leapt back. The two turned, sprinting away with the snake right on their heels. They left the others behind, hopefully so that they would reach the vault.

But at the moment, Doug and his companion had other things to worry about.

Like not being eaten by a massive snake. That sounded like a good place to start.

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Interim Incursion 43-03 (Sean)

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There was at least one good thing about the vault mission coming a few days earlier than expected. It meant that Sean Gerardo didn’t have time to dwell on what his parents could possibly be doing with those Runner guys. It was probably just something for their work, but still, he’d been thinking about it ever since he and the others had spotted them.

Normally he was okay with his parents not really having much to do with him. He wasn’t exactly a kid anymore, after all. He’d grown up this way and it was just the way it was. He’d moved on from getting sad every time his parents failed to show interest in him. But this time, they had been right there. They were right there, and they either knew he was there on a field trip so they could have come over to say hi. Or they didn’t know, meaning they’d paid absolutely no attention to where he was and what he was doing. That one… that one kind of stung.

But now he didn’t have to focus on any of that. Because his attention was quite thoroughly occupied. If there was one thing that was going to stop him from thinking about his parents, it was a mission to prevent the intergalactic evil empire of body-snatchers from destroying the one thing that could stop them from enslaving all Heretics on Earth. That sort of had priority.

At the moment, the Seosten and their pawns at the bank were busy fighting Gaia and a bunch of other adults. They also thought that Sean and the others were safely contained under a marble dome that Sands had created at her mother’s insistence. As far as they knew, there was no way to escape that building.

But Sean’s side had a secret weapon: Dries Aken, who knew how to create temporary holes in their anti-teleportation technology. He’d done just that and extricated the group from their covered dome. So now, while Gaia and the others in there kept the bad guys busy, Sean, Avalon, Sands, Scout, Columbus, Doug, Shiori, Vanessa, and Tristan had joined Dries, Tangle, and Kohaku to sneak into the actual vault.

“Everyone move very slowly,” Professor Tangle quietly murmured as she led them around the side of the vans. The dark-skinned woman had one hand up, a red ball of energy pulsing with power within her grasp. From what she’d said, the ball was part of a power that would keep everyone within a few feet of her invisible against most forms of detection. They just couldn’t move too quickly or suddenly. It seemed a bit like Jazz’s invisibility power, except stronger.

Jazz. She and Gordon were with Gabriel Prosser and his people, helping to deal with the army that the Seosten had had lying in wait to act as reinforcements when the fight broke out here. Everyone was doing their part, from his group, to Gaia and the others playing distraction, to Prosser countering the Seosten’s reinforcements, to Roxa, Flick, and the others at the Alter hotel to stop the bad guys from going in the back door of the vault.

Thinking about Roxa in that moment was a mistake. It was a distraction. He couldn’t start thinking about every bad thing that could happen to her at that place, because then he wouldn’t be able to think about anything else. With effort, he shoved it aside, burying those nagging worries while reaching down to put a hand on the top of Vulcan’s head for comfort. VJ (Vulcan Junior) was there too, attached to Vulcan like a backpack, since letting him fly around would have stressed the invisibility power too much.

Even with the group inside drawing so much attention, there was still security outside in the form of cameras and a couple guards standing by the actual entrance to the vaults (hidden in what looked from the outside like a grain silo). Which was why they had to stay invisible and move slowly. Even knowing that, however, Sean was still antsy. With everything that was going on and how critical this entire mission was, the idea of moving across the lot and then the field beyond at such a… gradual pace was hard to accept. Part of him wanted to just make a sprint straight for the vault. It was right there, and the people inside were busy fighting Gaia and all the others. Surely they could make it if they just ran for it. Get to the vault and teleport out. But if something happened while they were taking their time and just sort of walking that way, either to them, to the people inside, or… or to the others like Roxa, he’d… they’d…

No. As hard as it was, as much as it let his mind drift more than he wanted it to, moving slowly was the answer. The Seosten would move entire planets to stop them from reaching the vault. If they had the slightest idea that Avalon wasn’t safely contained under that dome inside, that she was so close to the spell that her ancestor had left, they’d abandon the fight in an instant.

So they walked. With Dries and Tangle at the front, Kohaku at the back, and Sean and the others between them, the group gradually moved across the parking lot and through the field that led to the fake silo. Sean could see the two guards standing out front, their attention riveted on the main house where all the fighting was going on. He wondered how much they knew about what was going on in there from moment to moment. Did they have a way to watch the battle, or were they relying on updates? How distracted were they?

Both guards were dressed in what looked like simple ranch hand clothes, jeans, flannel shirts, and thick boots, with shotguns held loosely in their hands. Despite their appearances, however, Sean and the others knew the truth. They were both incredibly powerful Heretics who were currently possessed by incredibly powerful Seosten. If Sean and the others were going to pull this off without wasting too much time or alerting the others inside, the only chance they had was in taking them by surprise.

That in itself would have been impossible without Kohaku, Tangle, and Dries. The three adult Heretics between them had enough powers and spells to keep the group hidden. Kohaku by herself had been the head of security for the school for decades, and Dries, for all his issues, was a genius at that stuff. Tangle wasn’t particularly focused on stealth or security, but she was an experienced Heretic with plenty of motivation to stop the Seosten Empire.

They didn’t approach the silo directly. Instead, Tangle and Dries led the group slowly on a curved, rounding path, ever so gradually looping in toward the group from the side. It was excruciatingly slow, and every time the guards at the silo happened to glance that way or shift their attention at all, Sean became briefly convinced they had been exposed. Walking like this, right out in the open, was basically torture.

But it worked. Gradually, the group moved out of the guards’ line of sight and looped back from the other direction. They approached the silo from the side, moving slowly enough that any disturbance in the grass and weeds could be taken as just the wind. One step after another, they drew closer and closer to that building. And closer, by extension, to finishing this whole thing.

Finally, about twenty yards from the pair of guards, Professor Kohaku moved to the front while holding a hand up to stop them. She and Dries then moved slowly that way, relying on invisibility of their own while Tangle stayed with Sean and the others to keep them hidden. While Sean watched with the rest of the group, one hand still on Vulcan’s head, Dries and Kohaku slowly made their way closer, step by step, to the unaware guards. Despite himself, Sean had to hold his breath. This was a key moment, if something went wrong here… he didn’t want to think about it, despite his traitorous brain’s insistence on doing just that.

Dries and Kohaku split up once they reached the guards, each moving behind one of them. The security chief looked back toward Tangle, holding up a hand with three fingers raised. Gradually, she lowered each finger, then made a fist.

At the end of the countdown, Tangle used the hand that wasn’t currently raised with the glowing red orb to produce a small stone with a rune on it, activating a spell that would cast an illusion over the entire area around them to hide what was about to happen from the cameras and anyone who happened to glance that way. When he was told about it, Columbus had compared it to the humans looping camera footage. In this case, it created a hologram of the past several minutes and projected it over the area, hiding what was actually happening within it.

The guards clearly noticed something happening when the spell activated. But before they could do anything about it, Dries and Kohaku struck. Moving simultaneously, the two of them quickly slapped prepared bits of cloth against each of the men’s necks. There were three spells on those cloths, each prepared by Dries, Apollo, and Sariel working together. The first would knock the man out. The second was a variant of the expulsion rune, which would instantly kick their Seosten host out of the body. And the third would cut off those Seosten’s connection to the rest of their group through that mind-link thing they tended to have. Unless any of the Seosten inside actively tried to contact them, they wouldn’t know what had happened. And with any luck, Gaia and the others would keep them too busy to think about that.

As the unconscious Heretic guards dropped to the ground, the two utterly surprised Seosten who had been possessing them were revealed. They were then just as quickly killed as Dries and Kohaku cut their throats before they could recover from their abrupt exorcism.

With the guards down and their approach hidden by the magical hologram, Sean and the others quickly raced to the door. Dries was already working on getting it open, while Kohaku checked the fallen Seosten for anything useful, taking a couple weapons and other enchanted objects and dropping them into her jacket. Tangle, finally able to stop using that cloaking power, moved to help.

Sean, meanwhile, found himself looking toward Vanessa and Tristan. “You guys ever think this year would turn out like this when it started?”

Tristan, in turn, shrugged. Bobbi-Bobbi wrapped around his shoulders, basically did the same thing. How a mechanical snake managed to shrug was beyond Sean, but the creature somehow pulled it off.

“When your school year started, I was basically frozen in super-carbonite,” Tristan pointed out. “And also I was a kid.” He paused then, considering before giving a sharp headshake. “This year has been weird.”

“This life has been weird,” Vanessa corrected him. She was holding her whip with one hand and one of the Seosten laser pistols with the other after apparently commandeering it during the fight back in the building.

“Yeah,” Doug agreed. “I’ve only known most of what’s actually going on for a little while. I can’t imagine how long this year has been for anyone who saw the whole thing.”

“Some of us have been dealing with it for longer than just the year,” Avalon quietly muttered, exchanging brief looks with both sets of twins before turning her attention to Sean. “And some of us are practically saints for sticking through this even though it doesn’t directly affect them.”

“You’re my team,” Sean replied simply. “It affects me. Besides, kind of a personal connection to werewolves, remember? Getting rid of the bad Seosten and fixing this whole mess does affect me.”

“Now,” Sands started, teasing, “when you say personal connection to werewolves, do you mean through your uncle’s romance, or your own?”

Sean was saved from answering that by Dries, who announced, “It’s open.” He stood, stepping back as the twin doors into the silo slid apart, allowing them to enter.

“Move,” Kohaku urged, waving a hand quickly. “The sooner we get inside and close the doors, the sooner Dries can stop blocking the alarms about them being open.”

“Right, c’mon, buddy.” Sean waved for Vulcan to keep up, heading for the doorway. His cyberform partner followed, and they joined the others in entering the vault. Well, the building the vault entrances were kept in, anyway.

The room they entered was a couple hundred feet across and square. It was also completely empty, aside from six doors that lined the walls to either side. Twelve in total. Straight ahead and on the opposite side of the room from the entrance was a large freight elevator.

The elevator. That’s what they needed. The other doors were low-security vaults, and there was no way Liesje’s would be anywhere near ‘low-security’. They needed to take the elevator down into the bowels of this place.

Heh, bowels. He was still a teenage boy, damn it.

“No-no-nobody move. Nobody move.” Dries spoke quickly, already moving to draw something on the nearby wall while repeating those words to himself. “Not moving. I said don’t move so they better not. Better not move or this is going to go wrong. Wrong wrong, can’t go wrong. Too important. Stay–stay in place. Stay in that place. Not a prison. Have to stay out of prison. Look, do the spell. Do the spell, you can do the spell, see? See. Spell. Good, all good, it’s good.”

“Mr. Aken,” Kohaku started once she exchanged looks with the man himself, “has put a communication block over the building. Whatever happens in here, as long as the spell remains active, no one outside will hear about it.”

Raising her hand, Vanessa spoke when the woman looked to her. “Does that include the Seosten mind-link spell?”

It was Dries who answered. “Yes, yes, of course. Of course it includes that. But that–that…” He looked like he lost his train of thought for a moment, staring off at nothing long enough for everyone to look at each other, a bit antsy considering the time table they were working with. Then he just seemed to snap out of it, continuing. “That’s good and bad. It’s–it’s–it’s good and bad. It means they can’t send out a message. But it–they don’t get messages either. They don’t get messages, and they’ll know they’re cut off.”

“So any Seosten who are in here will know that they’ve been blocked,” Professor Tangle murmured. “And that means that–” In mid-sentence, the woman suddenly stopped. She pivoted on one foot, spinning completely around while her hand snapped out.

Three partially decayed figures were there, by one of the random vault doors that was suddenly open. They’d stumbled through the door and, seeing the group, started to lunge that way.

But Tangle was quicker. As she held her hand out, a ghostly image erupted from her. It looked… well, it looked like a car. A sedan, actually, aside from being grayish-blue and partially translucent. Like the… ghost of a car.

It certainly didn’t seem ghost-like, however, as the car literally slammed into the approaching zombies. It flattened two and sent one flying across the room. A second later, the ghost-car continued its path right through the far wall, disappearing without causing any other damage aside from its collision with the zombies.

Kohaku finished the creatures off, while Sean and the others simply stared with wide eyes. “What–what the hell kind of power is that?” Sean demanded.

“Not a power,” Tangle informed them. “My weapon.” She turned to show them then. It looked like a simple flashlight in her hand. “The short version is I record things and then project them doing the same thing that they were recorded doing. But more importantly, why are there zombies in here?”

“Security measure,” Scout announced, her brow furrowed as she pointed. “They’re not alone.”

She was right, there were more zombies emerging from more vaults. One that the girl herself shot, before the one that appeared beside it was taken down by a blast from Tristan’s Bobbi-Bobbi cannon. Another on the opposite side of the room was killed by a blast from Columbus’ goggles.

“She’s right,” Kohaku agreed. “Either an automated feature or someone below triggered them. Either way, I bet every one of these vaults is full of those annoying bastards.”

“They’ll go for the spell,” Tangle murmured. “That’s what I’d make them do. They’ll look for any unknown magic and try to destroy it. And the second they do–”

Columbus finished her words. “They’ll know we’re here. Too bad our brand-spanking new necromancer isn’t here. She’d be pretty useful right now.”

“But we can’t just stand here and babysit the spell all day,” Shiori pointed out, pretty clearly trying not to think about what Flick was doing rather than being there at the vault with them. “We’ve kinda got things to do.”

“We don’t all have to,” Sean found himself saying. “A few of us stay back, guard the spell, and the rest of you go.” Even as he spoke, a couple more zombies emerged from another vault and were put down.

“They’ll start coming faster,” Kohaku warned him. “There could be thousands of zombies in each of these vaults. You’ll need plenty of help.”

“He’s got it,” Columbus announced. “I’ll stay with him.” The two boys exchanged brief looks, their silent meaning clear. They didn’t want this to be like what happened back at the hospital, when Rudolph was… Sean shut the thought out of his head.

In the end, Tangle, Scout, and Tristan agreed to stay back as well. The five of them would guard the spell (and the exit, just in case they went for that too) from the zombies and anything else that came out. Meanwhile, Kohaku and Dries would go with Avalon, Shiori, Vanessa, Sands, and Doug to find the actual vault.

Shiori, Vanessa, and Sands were obviously more than a little hesitant to leave their siblings behind, but it was the best way. And there wasn’t time for more discussion, as the zombies kept pouring in, their appearances already starting to come faster and with more numbers. There was no telling which door they would come through next, and what had once been one or two was starting to be four or five per door. Sean didn’t want to think about what would happen if they all came at once.

When. When they all came at once.

Everyone wanted to say more, but there wasn’t time. Gaia and the rest could only keep their people busy for so long in there. Not to mention how long it might be before someone noticed something wrong in here. Every second that passed… they didn’t have time.

Killing several more zombies that had appeared to clear a path, Kohaku led her group on a sprint to the freight elevator. Then they were gone, descending deep underground to find the vault. Hopefully before Sean and the others were overrun.

“Okay,” Professor Tangle murmured while looking to the small group. “Don’t break ranks. Don’t let the zombies get past you. Stand together, shoot them as they approach. Watch for groups to cluster, and make sure they’re dead. Don’t let crawling ones take you by surprise. And… I know I haven’t really had a chance to be your teacher this year, but I want you guys to know that I’m really proud of everything you’ve managed to do so far. You’re–you’re pretty amazing.”

With VJ flying over his shoulder and Vulcan in his gun form in both hands, Sean set himself. He glanced to Scout and Tristan to his right, then Columbus to his left before replying. “Don’t worry, Professor. You might not have been there for any of our classes…

“But this is definitely a kick-ass field trip.”

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Interim Incursion 43-02 (Sands)

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As the shooting started, Sands had already tapped her mace against the floor to register that reinforced material. Then she swung it up, creating a wall out of that same material in front of herself and her sister. The building was designed to be almost impregnable through force. That included damaging the interior, such as cutting up through the floor. Which was coming in handy now, and would again in a few minutes. Once it was time.

Beside her, Scout snapped her rifle up and aimed at one of her scope-portals before pulling the trigger twice quickly. Sands wasn’t sure what her sister was aiming for, but there was a yelp of pain barely audible over the onslaught of gunfire. She kept that up for a moment, taking careful, pointed shots. The enemies they were facing weren’t going to go down that easily. They all had protection. Some weren’t even hurt that much by the bullets. But it still kept them busy. And helped distract them from the bigger threat. Namely, the adults.

On Sands’ other side, Doug appeared, putting his back against the wall she had created. He had a spear in one hand and shield in the other. “Your mom took that forcefield down pretty quick,” he remarked while clearly catching his breath. There was blood on his spear and dents in the shield.

Sands nodded. “There was no point to keeping it up. We need to fight these guys. Maintaining the shield would just drain her, and sitting here behind a forcefield isn’t the point. The point is to fight.”

“Kinda seems like you disagree with that,” the boy pointed out while nodding to the wall they were behind.

Sands grinned at him while raising the mace to make the wall as tall as she could. “Not exactly,” she replied before looking to Scout. “Ready?”

The other girl nodded, and Sands pivoted to face the wall. She made a sweeping motion with her mace. Because Sands, like others, had been upgrading her weapon over the year. Namely, she could now control portions of the structures that she created with her mace.

The wall, which she had added long, jagged spikes to all along the front, immediately began to tip forward as Sands removed part of the bottom front and directed the whole thing with her mace. With a terrifying crash, it collapsed toward the ground. The thing was tall enough that it reached all the way to the nearest wall, forcing any of the enemies who had been in front of it to scatter toward either side.

And the girls were ready. Scout already had portals set up along one side, creating a shooting gallery that she was able to flood with bullets without bothering to aim.

Sands, meanwhile, cut around the other side of the fallen wall. Her mace swung hard, colliding with the man who had just managed to dive out from under the collapsing structure. Even at full strength, which for her was pretty impressive, the mace barely seemed to do anything. It glanced off the man’s back as if she had hit a brick wall without any enhanced strength.

Sands swung again, a backhand strike with her mace. But the possessed Heretic was too fast for that. His hand snapped out, catching the edge of her weapon before his foot collided with her stomach.

His foot broke. Because, as tough as the man might’ve been, Sands was standing still in that second. And as long as she stood still, she was basically invulnerable. All of the force that the man put into his attack went right back into his leg as it met the immovable object.

With a quick gesture, Sands made a very small section of floor rise up under the staggering man’s good foot. It was barely an inch high. Then she immediately made a pulling motion that yanked the floor bit toward herself. The man was hauled completely off that remaining foot and began to stumble, even as Sands spun to bring her weapon around into a full roundhouse swing with both hands.

Even then, the man was too quick. He suddenly shrank down, dropping to about a third of his normal height so that her mace completely missed, whiffing over his head. Returning to his normal height as he pivoted, the man planted his suddenly healed foot down solidly. It had repaired itself that quickly. His hand snapped out, stopping just in front of Sands’ face before the man conjured some kind of blindingly bright flash centered right in front of her eyes. She stumbled with a yelp as she was briefly blinded, losing the invulnerability that staying still offered. Which was the opening that the man had been looking for, his fist lashing out toward her face while a gleaming metal blade slid out from his knuckles. Sands couldn’t see it, but she heard the blade appear, and felt as it cut right across the side of her face when her head jerked desperately to the side at the last instant.

Bullets tore into the man then, striking from several different angles. Scout, coming to her aid. Still not enough to kill him, but they stung and made him stagger back a step. Which bought Sands a brief opening, and she took advantage of by shifting directly into her two-dimensional shadow shape, hugging the floor like a puddle of darkness.

Using that insubstantial shadow form, Sands ‘swam’ up the man’s legs and over his back before reforming herself there to wrap up her mace around his throat tightly from behind.

He didn’t exactly go down. The man’s hand reached back to grab onto her, but before he could, Doug was there. He drove his spear into the distracted man’s hand. The blade broke against the skin, but the impact was enough to draw his attention that way just as Doug slammed his shield into the guy’s face.

Sands’ vision had come back by then, just in time for her to make that out. It was also in time for her to see the man snap his hand up, that blade that had extended from his knuckles cutting through Doug’s shoulder.

Choking him wasn’t working. The man clearly didn’t need air. Or at least not enough to matter in the short term. Instead, Sands released the man and swung her weapon one way, then the other, conjuring two quick marble pillars that wrapped around his arms to hold him in place. For a moment, anyway. With her other hand, she threw something into the air.

As expected, the man shrank once more to free himself easily from the pillars that held his arms. Which was when a shadow appeared over his head. His gaze snapped up, just in time to see Sands’ theriangelos rhino, conjured from the bit of prepared wood that she had just tossed into the air.

The man made a tiny noise in the back of his throat, already starting to dive out of the way. He was, after all, possessed by a Seosten, who boosted him to escape.

But two quick bullets from Scout caught his face, even as Doug’s hands lashed out, sending two metal coils from his palms that wrapped around the man to hold him. A new power that he’d picked up from the hospital trip. It was kind of gross, actually, seeing metal coils emerge from his palms. Columbus and Shiori kept calling him Scorpion for some reason.

The rhino fell, slamming into the man from above while he was held by those chains. And as tough as he may have been, that wasn’t something he could just shrug off. As the rhino straightened up under Sands’ command, the possessed man lay unconscious at its feet.

Which, of course, still left the actual Seosten. A glowing figure appeared, quickly resolving into a beautiful dark-haired female form. The so-called angel acted instantly, turning into a blur that kicked the feet out from under Doug, caught him by the arm, and threw him into Sands. She was even quick enough to dodge to the side just as another bullet from Scout tore through the air right where her head had been. She pivoted, her hand lashing out while she activated some kind of spell that brought five little marbles to her palm, throwing them. The tiny metal balls flew, correcting their course to collide with the sniper-girl in the distance before exploding in bursts of flame and made the girl yelp while falling over. Her rifle clattered to the floor.

“Scout!” Sands blurted before scrambling out from under Doug and to her feet. “Throw me at the bitch, then get ready to grab her,” she blurted to the boy beside her while grabbing onto his damaged shield. With a thought, she possessed it.

He did. Like that Captain America guy that Columbus kept talking about, Doug hurled his shield at the Seosten woman. As it spun through the air, Sands waited until the last second, just before the woman’s hand snapped out to catch it. Then she dove out of the thing, hitting the marble floor to slide between the woman’s legs and out the other side. In the process, Sands made a last second gesture with her mace, sending a thin pillar up. The pillar crashed into the shield as the Seosten woman held it horizontally in front of herself, slamming the thing up into her face.

As she slid between the woman’s legs, Sands popped back to her feet on the other side, already spinning to slam her mace into the back of her head. But the Seosten was still too quick. Even stunned by the shield to the face, she spun to catch the incoming mace with one hand. She yanked the thing from Sands’ grip, tossing it aside just as Doug’s chains caught both her wrists from behind. Her arms were yanked to either side, but the woman simply glowered briefly before giving a hard yank. Doug was hauled off his feet and brought flying toward the woman, even as she used the resulting slack to pivot in place, bringing up her foot to kick the boy when he reached her.

But Sands was quicker that time. Her hand caught the woman’s shirt, possessing it just long enough to pop out the other side. Landing directly in front of the woman, she braced herself. Simultaneously, Doug crashed into her from the front, while the Seosten’s foot slammed into her back. Neither made a dent against her motionless invulnerability, Doug yelping as if he had hit a wall, while the Seosten’s foot snapped, just like her host’s had.

Sands tried to follow up from that by slamming her elbow back into the woman’s face. But despite her broken foot, the Seosten was still too fast. Her head snapped out of the way, before she caught the back of Sands’ neck and gave a hard shove, smashing the girl’s forehead into the still-recovering Doug’s face. The next thing Sands knew through the moment of being dazed, she was being yanked around before a fist found its way into her stomach. Then she was flipped to the ground. A coin landed on her chest, before the spell on it was activated to create some kind of metal cocoon/shell that covered most of her body aside from her head and feet, trapping her against the floor.  

Oh well, it wouldn’t hold her. Sands started to shift into her two-dimensional shadow form to escape. But in that instant, she was struck by some kind of electrical shock, drawing a cry from her and leaving her unable to focus. Dazed, her eyes blinked up just in time to see the Seosten ignite one of those laser sword things, which she started to drive down toward Sands’ exposed face before she could recover or even think of using any kind of power.

Doug was there. Clicking his pen, he made some kind of ball appear in his other hand, flinging it at the woman’s face just before it exploded into a flash of blinding light that made the Seosten recoil, her laser sword missing Sands.

Another click of his pen and another simple ball was thrown. This one burst into goop. As the Seosten threw a hand up to block her face, the goop covered her arm. It instantly hardened and began to spread over the rest of her body, completely encasing her arm, then her shoulder and over her chest. As it continued to spread, the Seosten woman cursed, yanking a field-engraver out before drawing something quickly on the rapidly-spreading stuff. It turned to dust then, freeing her. Her hand immediately launched another of those coins, which struck Doug in the chest and expanded into a metal cocoon similar to the one trapping Sands. This one kept him upright, but he was just as contained.  

An instant later, the woman clearly heard the heavy pounding of Sands’ now-charging rhino, just before the animal would have slammed into her. That Seosten speed kicked in, and she managed to twist aside enough to avoid being gored by the horn. But the massive beast still sent her crashing along the floor while her laser sword flew from her grasp. But she got back up just as quickly, muttering a couple words while throwing what looked like a one foot long rope at the rhino. As the enchanted rope struck the theriangelos, it apparently cancelled the spell, dropping the animal back into a simple wooden block.

Doug and Sands were both trapped, and every time Sands tried to use her shadow-form to escape, the cocoon shocked her. From the sound of things, the boy wasn’t having much better luck.

Then the sound of a gunshot filled the air, followed by several more in quick succession. The Seosten woman was struck several times. Unfortunately, the protective magic she clearly had meant that none of the shots were lethal. Still, they hurt enough to get her attention. Scout had clearly recovered.

Taking several painful shots from all sides, the woman hit something on her arm to throw up a forcefield around herself, before turning right toward one of the one of the random pillars in the room. Scout’s gun was barely visible as it fired yet again through one of its portals.

Evading that bullet despite the fact that it came through a portal behind her, the Seosten threw yet another enchanted coin that way. That time, the coin exploded into some kind of white light which disintegrated the pillar, leaving Scout… not exposed. The girl wasn’t there. Her rifle was, set up on a tripod and left to fire through an automated routine.

Realizing that in the same instant that Sands did, the Seosten woman spun… too late. Scout was there, having worked her way around behind her during that distraction. Using the solid-energy power that most of the team had picked up from the Tzentses to form a dagger, she slammed into the woman hard while driving it into her neck repeatedly, yanking it out and then driving it in again several times before they hit the ground together.

In the end, the woman was dead and Scout lay atop her body, her own exhausted panting cut off by the gasp of pleasure that came along with her pink aura.

“You guys okay?” Columbus was there, with Shiori and Sean. Vulcan was trotting alongside them, while Vulcan Junior flew overhead, sending out the occasional shot at an enemy.

“Little help?” Sands asked. “I can’t get out.”

Columbus and Shiori both used their metal-manipulation powers to tear the cocoon apart, freeing Sands before doing the same for Doug. By that point, Avalon (with Porthos riding on her shoulder), Vanessa, and Tristan had arrived, the boy picking up Scout’s gun along the way and tossing it to her. The nine teenagers were together once more, while sheer chaos surrounded them. The adults were still fighting in a furious tornado of violence and magic. Sands knew that both the Columbus, Shiori, and Sean trio and the Avalon, Vanessa, and Tristan trio had dealt with more than the single enemy that her group had. But the adults were in another league beyond even that. It was awesome, in the original sense of the word. Most of the possessed Heretics and enemy Seosten weren’t paying any attention to them. They didn’t have the chance to.

Looking to Avalon, Sands started, “Think it’s time for the next–”

“Get down!” Her mother’s voice interrupted, as a new forcefield dome suddenly covered the nine of them. Sands saw her mom appear nearby, just outside of the field with her crystal weapon in one hand, shaped like a spear at the moment.

“It’s too dangerous here,” the woman sharply informed them. “Cover and turtle.”

“But Mo–” Sands started.

“Cover and turtle now!” her mother snapped, holding a hand out to conjure some kind of wooden spike, which she sent flying at an enemy.

With a heavy sigh, Sands focused on her mace, making a wide sweeping gesture. Another dome, this one made from the same material as the floor, rose up and over to cover them.

It was only dark for a second before everyone produced their own glowing rocks for light. Avalon and Columbus also held privacy coins that would ensure their words weren’t overheard by anyone who happened to have enhanced senses (and happened to somehow be paying attention through the fight).

“Yes,” Avalon dryly replied to Sands’ earlier question. “It’s time for the next part.”

The annoyance that Sands had pasted across her face when her mother had told them to turtle had already vanished, since she no longer had to put on a show. “Great, so that means–”

Again, she was interrupted. That time, it was by a sudden bright light as a portal appeared directly in front of them. Through the portal, they could see the area just outside the main building, behind the vans and safely shielded from view.

Without missing a beat, the group quickly moved through the portal, disappearing from the room with all the fighting going on. They emerged to find three figures standing there waiting for them: Dries, Professor Tangle, and Professor Kohaku. The latter two had worked their way to the vault after the vans drew everyone’s attention, before guarding Dries as the man had worked over the past few minutes to make a brief hole in the security that kept people from teleporting out of the main building.

Now Avalon and the others were out, while everyone inside believed they were trapped under that dome and simply hiding through the fight. A fight which was really nothing more than an elaborate distraction, drawing everyone in to deal with the flashy spectacle of Gaia, Haiden, Sariel, Apollo, Dare, Larissa, and several other Seosten.

“Everyone make it?” Professor Kohaku asked, casting her gaze over them briefly as though doing a headcount before nodding to herself. “Great, sounds like Gaia and the others have everyone’s attention in there.

“Let’s go open that vault.”

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