The enormous maw of the Fomorian-bred monster loomed wide, its four rows of jagged teeth lining a mouth that was large enough to drive a van into. Two pairs of eyes set at diagonal angles to one another lay both above and below that mouth on either side for a total of eight black orbs. Beyond the mouth and eyes was a creature that looked like a hook-nosed pig crossed with a frog, with a tripod of three smaller legs in front and two much larger legs in the back giving it a hunched over look.
Those large legs had most recently been used to make the creature leap half a mile before it came down, mouth wide open, toward its quarry. A sound like thunder accompanied the creature, shaking the ground ahead of its arrival in an act of intimidation meant to terrify those whom it hunted.
This particular quarry, however, was far from impressed. At one time, that quarry had been elegant and impeccably dressed and groomed. Now, after months of being on the run across this godforsaken wasteland of a planet, Elisabet was far different. She was clearly leaner, her previous clothes long-since destroyed or abandoned in favor of leather armor crafted from various creatures. Her once long and flowing dark mane of hair had been cut down dramatically. She wore a golden sword on one hip and a line of small, matching gold daggers all around her opposite arm. Dried blood and dirt in equal parts covered her face and other bits of exposed skin.
Now, the long-lived Spanish woman stood in place, watching that wide, eager mouth descending toward her. She made no motion to either escape or attack. Not at first, anyway. Instead, she stood perfectly still, allowing the creature to descend closer and closer, an instant away from swallowing her whole.
Finally, at the last possible instant, she made her move. Or rather, the ground beneath her did. Elisabet herself remained completely still, while the ground under her feet pulled back and down, taking her with it to reveal a large hole that the thin layer of sand had been covering. Elisabet was actually simply standing on a layer of sand a couple inches thick. The hole beyond was large and deep enough for the monster to fall directly into. Over a hundred feet below the surface, it squealed in surprise and pain upon driving itself onto the dozen large, gleaming yellowish spikes that had been erected at the bottom. A golden trap, literally.
A wider section of ground opened up, providing a safe spot next to the gold spikes for the woman to lower herself down to. She stepped off her sand platform and stood next to the dying monster. Her hand rose, touching the thing in its wounded side. With a thought, she pulled the gold spikes down out of it while the thing gave a pitiful whine and twitched.
The two powers she had displayed in these past few seconds were those of the creature she had originally been made a Heretic of, in the days before she was part of Crossroads. The days before Jophiel. Terrakinesis and aurokinesis. Mental manipulation of earth and gold, respectively. Though many heard aurokinesis and thought she meant the manipulation of some kind of aura. Clearly, they needed a lesson in the difference.
Either way, there was another power that had been part of her original set. She used that power now, healing the damage that had been done to the creature with one hand against its heaving side. Gradually, the wounds closed and the blood flow ceased. This was the third power she had inherited in her days of being a Natural Heretic, a healing gift.
Yet, there were two aspects to this gift of healing. One allowed that healing to be given freely. The other, however, came with a cost. A gold cost, as Elisabet had called it so long ago. And it was that latter method of healing that she invoked now. She inflicted the gold cost upon the creature she was healing. Which meant that across all of its wounds, everywhere her power touched, the creature was covered in a gold-like material. In truth, all gold touched by her power became as hard as the toughest steel, hence her ability to use it as spikes and weapons. And to line the interior of her leather-looking armor. Her gold was stronger than the gold that Bystanders knew.
A dozen holes in the creature’s body were patched over by this gold, and as it suddenly reared up, the eight eyes, once a dull greenish-brown, were gold as well.
Without a word, Elisabet turned to the nearest wall of the pit. The ground obeyed her whim, forming a wide ramp for her to walk up and out. Just as she reached the top, the creature at the bottom gave a great leap that carried it high into the air to land nearby with a loud crash. But it made no move to attack her. Its golden eyes watched the woman as she exited the pit.
Standing there for a moment, Elisabet watched the creature before giving a low whistle. As she did so, several other monsters of various sizes and shapes emerged from the sand where they had been previously hidden. All of them were covered in various gold plates, their eyes matching. They were each originally Fomorian creations, scouting monsters sent to kill inhabitants and track down Elisabet or anyone like her. Each had been mortally wounded before being healed by her power. But those healings were accompanied by the gold cost, giving her control over them. That was the cost, their free will, such as it was. If she saved a creature’s life with her power and inflicted the cost, it would become loyal to her alone, obeying her orders, both spoken and unspoken.
These were what remained of the creatures she had managed to turn to her side over these past few months. They died often, torn apart by the unending legion of beasts or even by the Fomorians themselves. Not that there were many of those actually on this world, but they did make occasional appearances. Elisabet had killed a couple of them already. Mostly, however, she avoided them as much as possible. It was never fun to fight an adult Fomorian. Figuring out what might be able to kill it before it tore you apart was terrifying, even for someone like her.
At least with these creatures of hers, she had cannon fodder to throw at them while she escaped. That was the only reason the woman was still alive and free right now. That and the fact that even the Fomorians couldn’t search an entire planet that easily. But they kept getting closer to catching her. The attacks were coming closer together as the genocidal monsters continued to press constantly, never letting up. She was going to have to do something, and soon. Any day now, one of them was going to get lucky, or she would be sloppy. And that would be the end of her, before she could tell anyone the truth about Maestro.
That, almost more than anything else, was what kept her going. When all she wanted to do was collapse from exhaustion, Elisabet told herself that the monster called Maestro had to be stopped, and no one else seemed to know he even existed.
She had to get back to Earth. She had to stop that thing. Whatever he wanted Jophiel or some other powerful Seosten to do, it was apocalyptically bad. If she died before she could tell anyone about it…
Besides, she was too damn pissed at the thought that that Gemini thing inside her head had been manipulating her for so long to just lay down and die now. Planetful of Fomorian monsters or galaxyful, she was going to get home. Whatever that took. She was going to get home and make absolutely certain that humanity was prepared to deal with the threats in front of them. Both the Fomorian one and the Maestro one. No more half-measures. It was time for humanity and the Seosten to get on the same page and end these problems.
Unfortunately, it was taking the woman a long time to actually get back to Earth to start any of that, given the handicaps she was working with. The invaders had already thoroughly swarmed over the Meregan transport areas. She was pretty sure that those humanoid giants weren’t all dead, but they were deep in hiding and she couldn’t find them anymore than the Fomorians could. It being a big planet to search worked against her as much as for her in that particular case.
She couldn’t get to the Meregan transports. She was cut off from the Committee link, and blocked from using any of the transport powers or spells that could have taken her off this planet. Her options for getting out of this were few and far between, and getting worse by the day. But she refused even the thought of giving up. She was a survivor, damn it. She just had to keep going, keep living, keep escaping. Either Jophiel would find her, or one of the others. Perhaps Felicity would accidentally trip her way into ending up here again. That sounded like something the girl would do. Or Elisabet’s own risky, haphazard plan would actually end up working. Either way, giving up was not an option, ever.
She would get home, help or no help. If no one showed up, Elisabet would do it herself. She just had to resort to another method, a more… unique and slow way of returning to Earth. A way that was almost more hypothesis than anything else. She and Jophiel had talked a bit about the possibilities of it, but as far as she knew, it had only been attempted a handful of times with mixed results. And none of those had been working from the kind of handicap that Gemini had inflicted on her.
What it amounted to was residual energy. Any time magic was used to transport to anywhere, it left behind residual energy. Energy that had already been shaped toward transportation. The amount of that energy varied depending on how powerful the original spell was, lasting longer with more energy the further the transport and the more people involved. But even short transports that took place centuries earlier would leave a tiny, almost undetectable trace of power. And the more transports that took place in that same general area, the more of that energy would build up. That was why many large organizations tended to create specific buildings or rooms devoted to transportation. Because the more they were used for that, the easier it was to shape the magic in that area toward portals and other transportation spells.
But that same energy that made creating transportation spells in the area easier could also potentially be used in another way. The idea was that if one gathered enough of it, they could create a new transportation spell without actually casting it. The residual energy could be pointed in a new direction. That way, someone who couldn’t actually cast transportation spells would still be able to use one.
Again, however, that idea had only been tested a few times that Elisabet and Jophiel knew of. And only a couple of those had been successful. None of which had been used to jump to another entire world, let alone one in a different universe. This was completely uncharted territory.
Beyond the simple fact of it being untested, there was also the logistical issue. Namely, the fact that she needed a lot of this residual energy if she was going to make it work. And, considering the energy would be lost once it was used, there wasn’t room for any mistakes. She had to be absolutely certain that she had enough energy gathered before she even started on this.
So, for the past couple of months, Elisabet had been doing more than simply surviving and escaping. She had been using her own magic to point her toward places where transportation magic was used. She would make her way to each site and use the crystal she had created to absorb the tiny trickle of power in that area.
With that thought, the woman looked down while summoning the crystal to her hand. It was about the size of a softball, and appeared to be made of clear glass. Light blue liquid-like magical energy filled up the bottom half of the crystal. Half. She was halfway done filling this thing up. Once it was full, she would have enough shaped transportation energy to attempt a real escape.
Unfortunately, it was getting harder to find decent pockets of this stuff that weren’t near heavily patrolled areas. She had to venture further and further out, and take more risks just to get a few more drops to fill her orb. It was the equivalent of wandering a post-apocalyptic Earth, scrounging the last vestiges of gasoline from random stations along a broken freeway.
Willing the storage crystal back into its pocket dimension where it would be safe, Elisabet pushed off to continue walking across the desert. Her converted monsters, cut off from their previous masters and controlled by her, trailed behind. They spread out around the woman, taking up guarding positions just in case another threat presented itself. Or rather, for when the next threat presented itself. Because it would come. They always came. For months, Elisabet had been hunted across this world. And they would keep coming until she either escaped for good… or they caught her.
As she shook off that possibility, Elisabet felt something grow warm against her thigh. The leather pouch that hung there was hot. Frowning, the woman opened the pouch and looked inside. The rock that she had enchanted to lead her toward transportation magic was glowing. Which was… odd. The only reason it should be detecting that much energy would be from a truly powerful transportation spell very nearby.
Fomorians. It could be the Fomorians sending a massive army almost directly on top of her. With a thought, she summoned a different enchanted stone to one hand, touching it to her forehead before using the spell on it to render herself completely invisible. Meanwhile, her own converted monsters burrowed into the sand while spreading out, ready to counterattack anything that appeared.
But nothing happened for some time. The transportation magic detector she had made was still warm, though it had faded a bit to simply point in the correct direction. The spell it had detected was off to the east and had completed. The Fomorians weren’t jumping an army on top of her, so what were they doing? It could still be an army coming her way, or it could be something else.
Either way, she had to find out. It would be dangerous, but worth it. If this transport wasn’t intended for her, or even if it was and she could evade them, the energy left behind would be enough to fill up at least half of the remaining crystal. And that was entirely too tempting for her to resist. Which was another reason it could’ve been a trap, technically. But she doubted they knew what she was doing.
She had to get to that spot, see what had arrived, and gather the residual energy before too much of it dissipated. A massive transportation spell right nearby just as she was heading that way? With any luck, this could cut down on the time it would take her to get home by months.
But it could still be a trap as well. So she took as many precautions as possible, rendering herself undetectable with multiple spells that she had stored up for emergencies. Then she moved that way, the converted monsters spreading out. Some moved ahead, while others trailed behind.
As one further deterrent against possible attack, Elisabet triggered her decoy spell. It manifested a fake copy of herself up ahead that was fully visible and would draw any attention. If this was some kind of ambush, they could jump the decoy instead. She could also switch locations with the decoy at any point, appearing where it was and vice versa.
Only once she was fully satisfied that she had taken as much care as possible to avoid potential devastating consequences for investigating this new energy, did Elisabet pick up speed on her way toward it.
Five minutes later, she arrived. Crouching on the edge of a sand dune, she peered down below. Ground zero of that transportation magic was right there. At first, she saw nothing but some scattered rocks. It looked like a large boulder had exploded. The energy reading from her enchanted stone was off the charts.
So where was the army? Where was anyone? They had to be here, unless they had already moved out in the completely opposite direction from where she had come. Which would be rather useful for her own purposes, but she didn’t want to think she was that lucky. That was entirely too naïve.
Wait, there. A figure was picking its way out of the sand where it had been partially buried. Humanoid, but too covered in dust, dirt, and sand to really identify. It also set off Elisabet’s Stranger sense, somewhat.
It was also the only one. A quick scan of the area with her own non-Committee powers confirmed that. This figure was the only one in the area. So why had they used so much power to get there?
They weren’t Fomorian, that much was clear. The response from the Stranger sense was entirely too mild for that. This was an Alter, but not an extremely powerful or dangerous one.
It was also… throwing up. The figure literally turned over onto its hands and knees and lost its most recent meal. Which did a lot to convince Elisabet that this wasn’t some kind of trap. Looking around once more, she rose and slowly descended, while leaving her decoy up on the ridge for the moment. If this turned out to be dangerous, she could switch places with it and escape.
The figure noticed her approach, quickly scrambling to its feet.
Her feet. The figure was female, with teal skin and white hair underneath all that sand and dirt.
“Elisabet?” she blurted. “You’re Elisabet, right?”
Pausing, the Spanish woman slowly demanded, “Who are you? How do you know my name? What do you want?”
The young girl, a Nereid, Elisabet realized, drew herself up. “It’s okay, I’m here to help you get home.
“My name is Dexamene. Nicholas Petan and Flick sent me from the future.”
Author’s Note: The most relevant chapter to understand a bit more of what just happened at the end there is Interlude 15 which was posted three years ago.