Emerging from the portal, I found myself standing shin-deep in a dark swamp. Which was just super-lovely. Between the smell, which immediately made me want to retch, and the feeling of the slimy water against my legs, which also made me want to retch, I was doing great. Seriously, everything smelled like rotten eggs and a few dozen boys locker rooms. It was bad.
Wrinkling my nose and trying not to gag too much, I turned in a circle while looking around. In addition to stinking so much my eyes almost watered, this place looked creepy as hell too. The green water was sort of… mucus-like, and there were tall, crooked and gnarled trees with long red and black vines hanging from the otherwise bare limbs. Here and there were large boulders.
Swamp. Swamp in every direction. How was this supposed to help me? Why had I sent Elisabet the message to have me sent here? According to her, I was supposed to have ended up in a ‘hazardous situation.’ That was all she was allowed to tell me. That and that I was supposed to ‘act on instinct’ rather than follow a script. That was why she couldn’t just tell me what to do. So now I’d gone through the portal, ready for that so-called hazardous situation, only to end up in a swamp with nothing and no one else in sight. Which was disconcerting, to say the least.
Keeping my eyes open, I whispered under my breath, “Okay, so where are we now, exactly?”
“Nowhere near Earth, or my world,” Rahanvael answered, her ghost appearing nearby. The glow from her form illuminated the area around us a little bit, but that only served to make things look even more creepy. “And, with any luck, nowhere near any of Fossor’s people.”
Shaking myself, I nodded, putting my arm up against my nose. “Yeah, lucky us. At least we’re not back in Fossor’s hellhole now.” Pausing, I felt my stomach roll a bit for a different reason than the smell. “But my mom is. So let’s go. I’m supposed to act on instinct, and my instinct says walk this way.” I pointed in a random direction. “It’s as good as anything, I guess.”
So, I started walking, picking my way through that awful snot-like liquid that filled the swamp. After a few steps, I belatedly focused on the infrared vision power I’d picked up back in Vegas to check around me. There were a few hot spots, mostly parts of the snot-water that were apparently best to avoid judging from the temperature I could see. But not many. There actually wasn’t much in the way of visible heat at all around here. Still, trudging through this dark swamp was made slightly better when I could actually see somewhat to be warned about any animals.
Thinking about animals, of course, made me ask myself what I was going to do if they had anything like crocodiles around here. Which was a thought that made me quickly produce my staff with Jaq and Gus attached. Seriously, I’d had enough to deal with already without adding in possible monster crocodiles in this snot-swamp. The constant stench in this place was almost bad enough to qualify as an attack on its own.
Thankfully, one of the first spells I’d learned back at Crossroads had been the one to create breathable fresh air. And between my lessons with Shyel and the instant-inscription power, it was easy for me to touch the collar of my shirt to inscribe the spell there, activating it. A second later, the air I was breathing smelled and tasted a lot better. Which helped, as I began to trudge forward through the swamp while switching between my special vision active to watch for any heat signatures, and my normal vision to double-check that I wasn’t being snuck up on by something that might not register to infrared. Between all that, my item sense, that anti-stealth vision thing I’d picked up from the Pantler, and Rahanvael scouting ahead now and then, I could hopefully avoid being ambushed. If there was any more ambushing going on today, I wanted to be the one doing it.
For awhile, I just walked in silence, trying to think about everything that had happened. Mom. Fossor. The others. We’d been so close to escaping, then that asshole pulled this shit. And if I didn’t get back there, if I didn’t stop his plan… No. I would get back there. I would stop him. But right now, I had to focus on the immediate situation. Which was getting out of this swamp.
Eventually, I estimated that I’d been walking for about forty-five minutes. At that point, Rahanvael appeared in front of me, finger raised to her lips for me to be quiet. A moment later, I heard a series of heavy thudding sounds, punctuated by loud splashes. Something really heavy and large was stomping its way through the swamp ahead of us.
Already crouching, I looked over to Rahanvael, keeping my voice to a barely audible whisper. “What did you see?” As I asked that, my eyes were scanning the swamp ahead of me. The heat vision could make out what looked like that ‘really heavy and large’ thing in the distance, but it was pretty far away. From here, it just looked like an indistinct blob of red/orange.
The ghost hovered down next to me, her voice equally quiet. “There’s a party of soldiers following the big thing from a distance, spread out to surround it. I believe they’re hunting the creature. Multiple species involved, but similar armor. I wasn’t close enough for details.”
“Okay,” I murmured, “let’s see what else we can find out.” To that end, I reached out, quietly breaking off a small twig from a nearby branch. With all the noise that big thing in the distance was making, I probably could’ve gone bowling without attracting attention. But still, there was no sense in pushing things.
With the stick in hand, my eyes closed. I focused on the power that allowed me to mark objects to see and hear through them, imprinting it onto the little twig. Then I held my free hand up, pointing high into the sky over the general area the creature and the people hunting it were in. A moment later, two portals appeared. One was right in front of the hand with the stick, the other far off and high up, where I was pointing.
The second the portals appeared, I tossed the stick through and dismissed them. Then I closed my eyes once more and focused on the observation mark I’d made. Suddenly, I was seeing through the twig itself as it fell toward the ground. And more than that, I was still seeing in infrared mode, even through the stick. Which meant I saw the huge heat signature coming from the big guy who was making all that noise, as well as a total of eleven smaller signatures spread out around it, clearly in stalking mode. From what I could see on my stick’s drop toward the ground, they seemed to be semi-herding the creature somewhere. Or luring it, more like. The thing seemed to be following or chasing a couple of them, unaware of the others.
Focused as I was on trying to see as much as possible and wishing my stick would take longer to fall so I could take in more, I almost didn’t notice that… well, the stick was taking longer to fall. Actually it wasn’t just dropping slower. It had stopped falling entirely, and completely frozen in mid-air, giving me time to take in the full view below.
It only lasted for a few seconds, before the stick started falling again, rapidly hitting the swamp below, landing with the tiniest plink in the snot-water as I dismissed my connection to it. But for that moment, the thing had absolutely been frozen in mid-fall. Which… wait, was that some kind of new power? Fossor had made a point of not wanting me to find out about any new powers I’d gained in those past few weeks during my tournaments. He said it was because he wanted me focused on my Necromancy.
What had I fought with a power that could explain the object briefly hovering? Was it something with gravity manipulation, telekinesis, wood control…? No, no, everything from the past few weeks blended together, and I knew I was forgetting something important. The answer was right there, but I was too distracted by this whole situation. There wasn’t time to think about that stuff.
I had the idea of where all the heat signatures out there were, anyway, and where they were moving. Figuring out the specifics about this new power, assuming that’s what it was, could wait.
Quickly, before the situation could change more, I duplicated my previous motions of grabbing a small stick, marking it to see through, and creating linked portals. This time, however, I made the portal that was close to me lower, holding the stick over it. Then I winked at Rahanvael. “No time to waste, huh?” With that, I possessed the wooden stick, throwing myself inside of it. Instantly, as my hand stopped holding it, the twig fell through the portal, which itself vanished an instant after that since I wasn’t focused on it anymore.
Suddenly, I wasn’t just seeing through a falling twig. I was seeing through a falling twig that I myself was inside of. Which was an… odd experience, to say the least. As the stick dropped toward the swamp below, I took in the sight of where all the beings under me were, focusing mostly on the heat signature furthest away from any others. I could see it moving, cautiously stalking after the much larger creature. It looked like my guy (or girl) was playing back-up, there to keep whatever that big thing was from retreating once they sprang their trap.
As the stick I was inside of fell, I experimented a bit. Yeah… yeah, with a thought, I made the falling stick suddenly stop in mid-drop. It went completely motionless in the air. I tried to hold it like that, but whatever it was still only lasted about five seconds before the stick started falling again.
Either way, I’d aimed myself pretty well. The stick I was in hit the snot-water directly in the path of the heat signature I’d singled out. Even better, there was a tree nearby. Keeping myself under the utterly foul liquid (a disgusting prospect all by itself), I popped out of the stick, eyes closed as I reached out to grasp for the tree. My hand found it, and I threw myself into the wood.
There. Now I was in the tree, and could still use my thermal vision to see the figure approaching. They were humanoid, dressed in some kind of skintight environment suit that immediately made me jealous. Seriously, the thing even had a thin hood and mask thing to cover their face. I bet it had some kind of fresh air tech attached to it without the need for a spell. They probably hadn’t smelled this swamp at all. Lucky.
Worse, from a tactics point of view, was the fact that I could see the very faint glow of a forcefield. It didn’t seem like a very strong one, probably just meant to keep the swamp at bay. But still, it meant I wouldn’t be able to make contact with the figure to possess him and end this whole thing instantly. Which was annoying. But I had other options beyond Seosten possession. That was the whole fun of being a Heretic, after all.
I heard him speak in a low voice, apparently talking to the rest of his team. He was speaking in Latin, but the fact that he was talking slow and quiet meant I could keep up with most of it. In essence, he was telling the others to stay calm and that if they managed to kill the thing they were hunting (he called it a Leunphia), they’d be able to harvest enough blood and bones from it for someone back at their camp to run his experiments for another month, to say nothing of the food it would provide. He paused then, apparently listening to one of the others speak, before replying with what sounded like a quiet agreement to a superior officer.
All of which meant that my target was clearly focused on the creature he and the rest of his group were hunting. Despite that, he was moving cautiously, watching everywhere he stepped. Unfortunately for him, he only glanced up briefly at the branch of the tree he was moving under. His gaze moved away before he could see both my hands emerge from directly above him.
Both of my hands grabbed either side of the man’s head. My hands held two pieces of wood from the tree with them. Pieces of wood that were pressed against his head as I shifted my focus to the image inscription power, creating and immediately triggering a couple quick spells on those pieces of wood. The first was the same ‘taser’ spell I’d used back at the secret subway in Vegas while controlling Marian. The second was the privacy spell I’d learned so long ago, with this guy and myself the only designated ‘safe’ people. It stopped anyone else from hearing as he jerked, spasmed, and cried out while collapsing. His forcefield might have been enough to stop me from making direct, possession-capable contact. But it wasn’t enough to protect him from the electric shock.
He hit the water, and I dropped the rest of the way out of the tree, landing on top of him while he was still reacting to the electric shock. Even then, he didn’t have time to orient himself before I boosted myself, instantly shifting into my werelion form while lashing out with one enormous paw. The blow completely blew through whatever had been left of his minor forcefield, knocking the guy to the side where he lay limp and still.
Ew, fuck, wet fur. Worse, fur that was wet with snot-water. Quickly shifting back to myself, I moved to the figure, checking him. He was unconscious, but breathing… somewhat.
I possessed him. With the forcefield down and him unconscious, there was nothing to stop me. As soon as I did, I scanned through the man’s mind. His name was Tuun, and he was part of a species known as Baugev. Essentially, they were orange-skinned humanoids with red, orange, or white hair, who had powers involving tracking, identifying blood-related family members in various groups they looked at, and varying levels of bone manipulation. Actually, it sounded like these were the same guys Pace had gotten her own ability to create that bone armor and the bone darts from.
Unfortunately, I also noticed something else. This guy, Tuun, was terrified of the idea of being possessed, of losing control of himself. Seriously, it was like this horrific phobia for him, one he had spent his entire life acting as a loyal soldier for the Seosten in order to avoid. If he woke up and found himself possessed after all, it would… it would really fuck him up. But worse than that, he’d gone to the extent of getting a friend with some kind of mental gift to instill a thing in his brain that would kill him if he ever found himself possessed. This guy was so terrified of being bodysnatched, he’d actually literally rather die. Maybe I could undo that with enough time, but I didn’t have that time. Even if I wanted to ignore how freaked out being possessed would make him, he’d set things up so that he would keel over and die if I woke him up.
I couldn’t just instantly let him go. This whole thing was life and death for a lot of people. Fate of the world stuff. But I could, at least, not wake the man up and sentence him to death.
Quickly, I searched his memory for anything important. The planet I was on was a colony known, to the Seosten and their people, as 992144, a simple outpost meant for research and little else. There was a large assortment of slaves kept here, mostly to explore and tame the land (only a small part of it was this swamp), doing grunt work. As far as I could tell, my guy Tuun here treated the slaves as well as could be expected. He did his job, wasn’t overly-cruel, and tried not to attract Seosten attention. Again, that phobia of being possessed.
Scanning all of that through his memory only took a few seconds. I was getting better. Then I gave his mind a push to stay unconscious before popping myself back out of the man. Turning, I put a hand against his arm. That time, I focused on the power that allowed me to move physical objects I was touching to anywhere else I was touching. Specifically, I moved the bodysuit he was wearing from him over to my own body. We were about the same size. Plus, I knew from scanning his mind that… yup, the second the suit appeared on me, it automatically adjusted to fit properly.
Tapping my hand against his hood, I put that on my own head as well. Tuun was left essentially in his skivvies, but he’d survive. I carefully picked him up, leaning him against the nearby tree. From a ‘pocket’ in the environment suit, I produced a thick, blade-resistant cord, using that to bind the man to the tree. I left the bit of wood with the privacy spell nearby so it would keep affecting his ability to be heard, and left him there. The man would eventually be able to cut his way free, but by then it hopefully wouldn’t matter. It was the best I could do without killing him, which… I’d had enough killing over the weeks that I’d been trapped with Fossor. This was the first time I’d really had a choice about killing or not and I was choosing to leave him alive. Maybe it was stupid, but it was my choice, damn it.
Straightening up, I realized belatedly that my own clothes were bulky under the form-fitting environment suit. A thought sent them from my body to my hands, before I stowed them in one of the suit’s larger-on-the-inside pockets. Finally, I was ready.
A sudden voice in the radio of the helmet demanded to know where Tuun was and why he wasn’t in position. Immediately, I spoke, using the voice-mimicking power I’d gotten from that guy back in the hospital when we were saving Avalon. It came out sounding exactly like the man I had just knocked out and tied up, responding in Latin, “Thought I saw a zeuk fly. False alarm, it was just an alvest.” All information I’d pulled from his memory. It would be bad for their group if a zeuk fly had been around, a good reason for him to have gone silent for a minute.
“Well,” came the response that I translated in my head to English, “are you ready or what?”
Smiling to myself, I focused, using my facial-shifting power to make myself look like Tuun through the hood’s clear mask. I looked like him, I sounded like him, and I had enough of his memories.
“Yeah,” I replied simply, also in Latin, of course.