The next several days felt increasingly odd, to say the least. Not because there was anything specifically wrong, but because there was basically nothing to do. Nothing important, anyway. Our days basically consisted of using the truck to make a single jump in the morning to the next moon or asteroid that was used as a recharge point, and then waiting around twenty-four hours until the truck was ready for the next jump. Of course, we could have used extra power to recharge the jump system faster. But the people at the prison camp knew how long the trip was supposed to take. Plus they had a system showing them when each recharge point was used. If we suddenly started coming much faster or making longer jumps, they would know that something was going on. And the last thing we wanted to do was give them a reason to call in for help or be on guard when we got there. We needed them to be as bored and convinced that this was a routine trip as possible.
So, we did it the slow way, and spent hours just sort of hanging out and talking, playing games, or training. A lot of training, especially whenever Avalon got to choose. She made sure we trained as much as we could in the various alien environments we ended up waiting around in. There was one small moon that had this greenish-gray stuff all over its surface that alternated between being very sticky or slippery seemingly at random. Avalon had a field day getting me and the rest of the people our age (Shiori, Columbus, Sarah, Sands, Jazz, Douglas, and Gordon) to run exercises and drills across that stuff. Hell, it was even a good way of testing that rocket-burst power that the Eden’s Garden Heretic I killed back at the truck station had had, the one that projected flames from her feet and back to launch herself forward. And I wasn’t just limited to boosting myself that way. I could use the power on anything I was holding to make it swing faster and harder than I was capable of swinging it by myself. That was one of several new ones I’d picked up from her. I’d gotten a list from Tabbris when she did a partial recall to touch base with me, and used some of the downtime to practice with them a bit. Suffice to say, I would have a couple new tricks up my sleeve when the time came.
In any case, as far as training on that weird surface went, Asenath and Twister played along too. They even got Bobbi to run some drills with us. Jiao didn’t participate with either our training or the other adults when they tried it out, but she watched all of us with quiet interest.
In any case, Avalon really liked that stuff, even though we could never figure out exactly what made it shift from sticky to slippery or if there was any sort of pattern. She even managed to convince Deveron to dig up some of it and put it away in a sealed extra-space container so we could use it later. I’m pretty sure she was hoping to find a way to duplicate it so she could put the stuff in a real training room or even a combat arena. It was cute watching her be so excited about it. She got all science-technical about figuring it out.
We trained, we watched movies on the televisions they had set up in the truck, played some card games, told stories (though that one was mostly us listening to stories the older people told), and in general just did whatever we could to kill time. At least the others were able to sleep more. I, of course, was awake through ninety percent of the day. Or rather, what would be the day on the planet we were heading toward. The relative time at each base didn’t really matter much. The point was, we slept during the prison’s daytime to stay on Asenath and Jiao’s schedules, and because we wanted to hit the camp in the middle of the night. But thankfully all of the adults in the group, including Deveron, Seamus and Roger Dornan, Klassin Roe, Professors Kohaku and Tangle, and Tribald Kine, had enough stamina powers of their own that they barely needed sleep either. Actually, in Kohaku’s case, I was pretty sure she didn’t sleep at all. Not even for a few minutes. I’d never seen it, anyway. So, I basically sat around with them and listened to the stories they told. It meant that I heard a lot about the first rebellion from Mom’s old teammates, and a good bit about Mom herself. Especially about when she was a student. Klassin talked about when he had still been Jonathan Ruthers, the spoiled, entitled asshole son of the one and only Gabriel Ruthers. He and Mom had really not gotten along, to the point of her punching him. Which is probably what initially led to then-Headmaster Ruthers not liking my mother very much. At least the first thing.
I spent the week hearing all sorts of stories about all that and more. It was fun. It was… different. And yet it still didn’t detract from the utterly strange feeling that came with the fact that there was nothing important to do aside from wait to get there. We were, with any luck, going to take these prison guards by surprise. It just meant taking this long, boring, careful route to do it.
Maybe the issue was that I felt like I had been on the opposite side of this situation. Not being a prison guard watching over a bunch of slaves doing hard labor, of course. But doing normal things while other people plotted sneak attacks against me and the people I cared about. I had been in the position these guards were about to be in, being hit by surprise in an area that was supposed to be safe. Maybe that was what made me feel odd about it.
But then again, these people were guarding slaves, so maybe I wouldn’t spend too much time comparing myself to them. Aside from hoping that they wouldn’t be nearly as lucky as we had been when it came to reacting to being taken by surprise, of course.
The week seemed to be magical in and of itself, because it passed simultaneously agonizingly slowly and blindingly quickly. I had absolutely no idea how it could manage something like that, what sort of time magic was involved in twisting reality that way, but there it was. It took entirely too long for that single blink of an eye to pass, or something. The quick eternal week was gone before I even knew what was happening and after I spent what felt like months silently pleading for it to be over. Yes, those were utterly opposing concepts, and yet…
To be completely accurate, we weren’t at the prison camp yet. We were at the last jump point before we would get there. The jump points themselves mostly amounted to wide garages just large enough to accommodate the truck, with what looked like enormous silos to one side. There were storage rooms full of food and drinks that were kept stocked by a different truck that went through every once in awhile. None of them had living guards, but there was some sort of alarm system that was supposed to summon reinforcements to protect the station if anything happened to it. The biggest defense they had was basically being in the middle of nowhere in deep space. The odds of anyone accidentally tripping over them were literally astronomically low. And apparently there were sensors set up to detect anyone approaching them aside from those on the approved list. Like the truck we were using, for example.
So, we were at the last station before the prison. We were all out of the truck at the moment and had been walking around the open garage area stretching our legs a bit. I was watching Shiori and Asenath talking a short distance away, when I felt Professor Kohaku approach me from behind.
“Are you ready for this, Felicity?” the Asian woman asked, stopping a few feet back.
Turning that way, I offered her a somewhat weak smile. “You mean am I ready for our extra little field trip? Boy, I sure hope so. Otherwise, this is gonna be a pretty short and disappointing rescue mission. Okay, it’s already not short.” Shrugging, I added, “I think I’m ready. I mean, we’re not gonna get another chance at taking these guys by surprise, so we’ve gotta do this.”
The ‘extra little field trip’ I was referring to was an advanced jump that I and several others needed to do. The prison may have been expecting our truck, but it also had special scanners that would have detected that the wrong people were driving it. Our forward scouting group had the fun job of sneaking in ahead of time and disabling both those scanners (in a way that wouldn’t instantly alert everyone in the camp), and the communications tower. We were pretty sure that they would eventually find a way to call for help anyway, but taking out the tower would make that a lot harder and give us time to operate. And then, assuming we pulled that off without setting off a bunch of alarms and warning everyone there, we would be ready to hit the prison from a second angle the moment everyone who arrived in the truck did their thing.
Kohaku, who was one of the people who would be going in with me (though to be entirely accurate, I was one of the people going with her), chuckled softly. “I suppose you are right about that. We don’t have much in the way of do-overs. A lot of power between all of us, yet nothing like that. Still, you have been through much worse with less. As long as we are careful, stick to the plan, and don’t… rush things, I believe we will make it through. And we will leave there with the prisoners.” A faint smile touched her face before she added, “I believe there are a few who are more nervous about this rescue than you.” As she said that, the woman was already turning to look in the direction of Shiori and Asenath, before her gaze shifted to the front of the truck where Gordon was standing by himself.
“Yeah, getting the prisoners out of that place would definitely be nice,” I agreed. “And you’re right, they are more nervous than me. They’ve got a lot more to lose.” Once again, the thought of being like Senny and losing one of my parents for hundreds of years flashed through my mind. It made me shudder a bit. We had to find her dad, and Gordon’s dad, in that place. They had both waited more than long enough.
Before Kohaku could say anything else, we were joined by Professor Tangle, along with Sarah and Sands. The five of us, along with Twister and Avalon, would be the forward scouting group responsible for dealing with that communications tower and the scanners that would alert the people inside the prison that we weren’t on the up and up. Asenath and Gordon both wanted to be included in that group, of course. As did Jiao. And they all would have been useful. But both Kohaku and Deveron, as the leaders of this expedition, had decided that they should stay with the main group. With their missing loved ones so close at that point, there was some fear that their judgment might be a bit impaired. Which was a point that none of them could really argue too much against, considering how important this was to them.
Besides, they wouldn’t get to the prisoners any quicker by going with the scouting group then they would by staying here. They might be physically closer, but they wouldn’t be able to actually get to their fathers until the main assault happened anyway. Being that close and still having to wait would probably be worse than if they were back with the truck. Probably.
“So,” Sands started, “Are we ready to head out there and play Neunrei or what?”
Blinking at her, I held up a finger. “Uh. I think we’re ready to do something, but I’m not sure if Noon Ray is the right term for it. Actually I’m not even sure what that means. It’s definitely not noon. Or I mean, it won’t be when we go there. At least if we’ve worked out the planning on that right. I think it’s supposed to be barely–”
Sands and Sarah were both snickering. The latter spoke up quietly. “Not Noon Ray. Neunrei.” She spelled it for me, making it clear it was one word.
“Alexis Neunrei was a Heretic,” Tangle informed me. “He was known for being very sneaky and laying traps, for sabotaging enemy defenses. He designed some of the trap spells that we still use today. Like the one Crossroads has around the Pathmaker.” The black woman, who was in much better shape these days than when I’d first met her (once she was conscious), nodded toward the twins. “Some of the kids call it ‘playing Neunrei’ when they run around in the forest laying traps and ambushes for each other. I believe the Bystanders call it ‘going commando.’
My eyes widened and I quickly blurted, “Playing commando. Playing commando. Not going–just–” Coughing, I shook my head. “Just trust me, stick with playing commando.”
The others were giving me weird looks, but before they could say anything, Twister darted over in rabbit form before shifting back to her normal self. Which meant she had that long fluffy tail that a part of me still wanted to pet, even without Tabbris’s influence. Her voice was cheerful. “So, is the Cool Kids Club ready to head out?” She paused, considering. “We need a better name than that. I’ll workshop a few and get back to you.”
“I’m pretty sure we’re the Neunreis,” I informed her primly before looking back to the others while she was busy trying to figure that out. “And yeah, I think we’re about ready. Right, guys?”
With a murmur of agreement, Kohaku looked over toward where Deveron was talking to Tribald Kine. She must have been using some sort of silent communication, because he immediately held a hand up to stop the other man before looking over at her. They looked at one another for a few seconds, clearly having a silent discussion. Then he nodded and whistled loudly to get everyone’s attention. Once he had that, his finger twirled in a circle over his head, as he called for everyone to gather up. It was time to go over the whole plan one more time. Then the others could wish our little group luck before we headed out.
As everyone was gathering, Asenath caught my arm and stepped back a bit. Her voice was soft. “I know I said this before, but thank you, Flick. You know, for… well everything. I guess what I should really thank you for is listening to me that first night.”
“If you hadn’t been there, my father would be dead,” I pointed out. “And I… well, I don’t know what I’d be. I still don’t know what Ammon was hoping to accomplish there. But… but the point is, if I hadn’t listened to you, everything would be a lot worse for both of us. So let’s just be glad you were there and that I’m stubborn enough not to be totally indoctrinated after a month or so.”
She chuckled, but I could tell that most of her attention wasn’t on what I was saying. She was focused on what was going to happen a few hours from now, on how close she was to finally seeing her father again.
“How’s your mom doing?” I asked, glancing over to the corner of the room, where the woman in question was standing by herself. Jiao was friendly enough to everyone, but she didn’t really participate in the group stuff very much. She just stayed out of the way and did her own thing. I was pretty sure she wasn’t accustomed to working with a group.
Asenath glanced that way as well. Her mother didn’t react, but I felt confident she could hear what we were saying. “She wants to see him even more than I do. Which is saying a lot.” Those words came dryly as she gave me a brief look. “I’m not sure what I’m looking forward to more, just getting to see and touch him again, or getting answers about what the hell happened. Has he been locked up all this time? Did he go back to his homeworld? Did–” She cut herself off, head shaking while her lips pressed together tightly to contain herself. Finally, she finished with, “Let’s just say I have a lot of questions for him.” She glanced to her mother once more. “We both do.”
“Well, don’t worry,” I informed the vampire girl while putting a hand on her shoulder. “Or, you know, do worry a little bit, because that’s healthy. I mean don’t worry too mu–never mind. We’ll handle it.”
“She’s right,” Shiori agreed, moving up on Asenath’s other side while giving me a quick smile. “Flick’s here, your mom’s here, and I’m here. We’re gonna get your dad back.”
They stepped away to join the group by Deveron, and I turned my attention to Gordon. The quiet boy was watching me with his arms folded. There was a grim expression on his face, but then again, that was normal. When our eyes met, he spoke flatly. “You remember the picture.”
His father. He’d shown me a picture of his dad during the trip, so I would know what he looked like. Immediately, I nodded. “I’ll let you know if we see him, but we’re probably not going to get a look at the prisoners any faster than you do.”
“I know,” he replied, shifting his weight very slowly from his left foot to his right. It was only that single motion, but as far as Gordon went, it was basically fidgeting. He was nervous, and if it was enough to make him visibly show it even that much, I knew it had to be pretty bad inside.
If I had seen most people like that, I would have embraced them, or at least squeezed their hand, or… something. But Gordon wasn’t that sort of person. Even now that we knew why he didn’t like being touched, with the whole ice thing, it wasn’t like he had suddenly become physically open. It just wasn’t who he was. So, I gave him a thumbs up instead. “We’ll keep an eye out. If they’ve got the prisoners beyond the boundary for work, or whatever, we… if we see him, if I see him, we’ll make sure he’s safe. I promise.”
For a few seconds, it looked like Gordon wasn’t sure how to respond to that. He very slowly moved his weight back from his right foot to his left before giving a single nod. “Thank you.”
“Hey,” I replied, “just be ready to come charging in with guns and ice giant powers blazing. We hit these guys hard and fast and get out with all their prisoners, right?”
“Right,” he confirmed. I could see just a little bit of emotion behind his eyes with that word. He was as ready to get his father back as I had been to get my mother back.
The two of us nodded one another, just as Deveron started to speak. Turning my attention that way, I stepped up beside the others. My stomach was already trying to twist itself into knots. Despite all the ridiculous situations and the amount of training I had been through already, to say nothing of all the planning we were putting into this, I was still nervous about the whole thing. I wanted my friends to get their dads back. I wanted to free all those prisoners.
And in just a few short hours, I’d either get what I wanted, or we would end up in a hell of a lot of trouble.
A short time later, our little group emerged through the portal. A little group, in this case, consisting of Tangle, Kohaku, Sands, Sarah, Avalon, Twister and me. According to the adults, the portal was far enough away from the prison camp (and shielded enough) that we wouldn’t set off their alarms. One of the reasons we had to go in a smaller group right now was specifically because sending any more people through would have raised the risk of being detected. We were pushing it a little bit as it was. Which was another reason why we’d set the portal so far away. Avoiding much magic or power use, it would take hours for us to hike to where we needed to be. And that was assuming we didn’t run into too many problems along the way.
We had a little bit of leeway, at least. Deveron’s main group wouldn’t make the last jump until we sent the signal that their communications and scanners were down. But they could only stall so long before the prison people would get suspicious. So we kinda had to keep moving.
Still, we had a moment to get the lay of the land. In this case, that land was a deep orange color. The dirt, that was. We had arrived in what looked like a shallow crater from an impact of some kind. It was a good three hundred feet across, though only a couple feet deep. That orange dirt was basically a fine powder, almost like sand. Behind us to the west I could see a sheer cliff face leading up and up several miles. To the south (our right), there was a deep, somehow unnaturally blue river, wide enough to need a boat to cross normally. Straight ahead to the east was a steep dropoff. And to our left, north, a dark, foreboding forest of thirty foot tall dark black and gray trees, too-deep shadows, and probably about a bazillion things ready and waiting to kill and eat us.
Yeah, we were going into the evil-looking forest, naturally.
“We’re here, and there’s no sign of any alert,” Kohaku finally announced after taking a few seconds to assess the situation. “Let’s move.”
“Well, okay,” I replied a bit reluctantly while my gaze turned to that forest. I could swear the trees were suddenly grinning. “But I’m telling you guys this straight up.
“If we run into a gingerbread house, I am done.”