Our borrowed and slightly cobbled-together ship wasn’t going to win any big races, that was for sure. Not against most other ships that we could’ve been racing against, and definitely not against the Jitterbug. We were basically a guy limping along with one leg and unstable crutches, while the Jitterbug was… well, a teleporter. Mom didn’t just have a head-start, she had already won the race. The one to get to Fossor’s planet, anyway. I just had to hope that, whatever she had to do there, it would take long enough for us to finally make it and stop her.
Stop her. Stop my mother. Fuck, god–I really did not like this Denuvus chick. I was willing to go out on a limb and say I was not a fan. Making my mother do–making anyone do something against their will made her horrible enough, but my mom? After everything she’d already been through with Fossor, and, and… and everything? Fuck that. Fuck Denuvus. If I could find her, and manage not to be completely controlled by her voice before–
Okay, thinking about the things I wanted to do to that bitch for pulling this shit with my mother wasn’t easy when I let logic slip in. She was dangerous, too dangerous for me to do anything to by myself, that was for sure. And yet, I really, really wanted to punch her. I couldn’t even picture her properly because I had no idea what she looked like, but I still imagined it.
The only advantage we really had was that we knew where my mom was going. There was really no other reason for Denuvus’s orders to kick in right now. She had to be heading for Fossor’s homeworld. We still didn’t know what the puppeteering bitch might want there, but it was the only thing that made sense. She had known that Mom was with Fossor, and almost certainly knew that he would take her to his world now and then.
We knew where she would be, so I didn’t really have to spend any time trying to solve that particular mystery. Which meant the next few days were mostly spent doing nothing but sitting around this tiny, cramped ship, urging it to go faster with every fiber of my being. It didn’t help, of course. But I still thought about it very, very hard.
The other thing I spent a lot of time doing, while we were all collectively sitting around rocking back and forth as though that would make the spaceship get to another planet any sooner, was talk to Rahanvael. She didn’t know what Denuvus might want there either. Not specifically anyway. She knew her brother had kept a lot of powerful items locked up in various safe locations, but it could be any of them. Or it could be something else. Hell, for all we knew, Rasputin being there and Denuvus having designs on the place (or something on it) could be related! We just had to get there and find out.
We also checked in with the people back on Earth. Or, well, in the Sun, but still. The last person I had possessed (which was intentional) had been my dad, so I’d used the partial recall to let him know what was going on. He uhh, he wasn’t happy, to say the least. They were sending another ship out to help with this whole situation, but even with the help of some powerful transportation magic, it wouldn’t be here for awhile. Dad and I had a long conversation about that whole thing. Part of him clearly wanted to tell me to stop and wait for backup. But this was my mother, his wife. We’d just gotten her back after so long apart. There was absolutely no way I would sit around and wait to see what happened. By the time those reinforcements showed up, it could all be over. So, reluctantly, he had agreed that I needed to do this. We were the closest group to Fossor’s world. We had to stop whatever Denuvus had planned. And not just to save Mom, but also because, well, hadn’t the people of that world been through enough? We might not know what Denuvus wanted, but I was willing to bet it wouldn’t be sunshine and rainbows for anyone there who might get in the way.
Finally, after several days of sitting in what amounted to a slightly oversized van, we were getting close to our destination. Well, somewhat closer anyway. We still had about half a day to go. Still, we were all going to be glad for the chance to get out of this thing and stretch our legs. The front of the ship had two seats, one for a pilot and one for the co-pilot, while the back had about a dozen of them arranged along the walls of the compartment. The seats could face inward, toward one another, or turn to face the front or back of the ship. They also reclined like airplane seats when in the front or back facing position, so we were able to sleep… somewhat. Still, this whole thing had been like sitting on a plane for several days in a row, and that wasn’t exactly an experience I was eager to repeat.
“How many more do we have?” Asenath asked, while holding up the half-finished bag of blood that Shiori had passed her a minute earlier. “We should keep rationing them. We don’t know how long this’ll take, and…” She paused to consider her words. “And we don’t know what the animal situation on the world is.”
Stasia, the other vampire in our little group, shifted in her seat while flatly putting in, “Besides which, if we cannot reacquire your special transport ship, the trip home could be very long indeed. This may have been an unpleasant few days within this ship, but an extended trip all the way back to Earth without enough blood to maintain our functions…” She trailed off before simply finishing with, “Not my idea of a good time.”
The other thing they weren’t saying out loud, of course, was that they weren’t going to drink from the people on that world. Again, they had been through enough. Hell, for all we knew, Rasputin was there using those people as Lunchables right at this very moment.
“Don’t worry,” Shiori quickly assured both of them. “We weren’t stupid. Athena and Wyatt were the ones who helped pack the blood reserves, and uhh…” She shifted the sack she had pulled out to show them several dozen bags of blood still inside. “They might’ve over-prepared a little bit. We could be out here for another couple months before you guys would start running out of these things, as long as you don’t gorge yourselves.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “for some reason Wyatt thought it might be a bad idea for us to be in a confined space all alone with a couple hungry vampires. I’m surprised he didn’t make us take a year’s worth of blood, to be honest. Maybe he couldn’t actually find that much in stock.” While saying that, I watched my new monkey-tailed beetle run back and forth along my arm, from the tips of my fingers all the way up to my shoulder and back again. I could say this much about the little guy, he definitely had a lot of energy. And he was curious. He kept crawling out of my pocket to wander around. The dude was a brave little explorer. Which was why I had decided to call him Marco, as in Marco Polo. Which worked even better considering how often I ended up calling his name while looking for him when he kept wandering off.
“How does that work, anyway?” Twister, sitting up in the copilot’s seat next to Robin (the only one of us besides Persephone knew how to pilot a ship), piped up. “I know how Senny gets blood most of the time. From people who deserve to lose a little bit of it. But how do you guys end up having hundreds of bags of blood just sitting around waiting to be part of a picnic lunch? I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, but in the Bystander world, blood for hospitals is kind of important. They’d notice if a few bags went missing, and they’d definitely notice if a hundred of them disappeared. Even if you only took a couple from a bunch of different hospitals all over the world, that’s still–”
“Don’t worry,” I quickly informed her. “We didn’t take blood bags from any hospital. You’re right, they need everything they can get. There’s volunteers on the station who give blood for any vampires we run into, or who, uh, live there sometimes.” My head nodded toward Asenath herself. “With regeneration powers, giving blood isn’t really that big of a deal. I’m pretty sure you’ve even got some of mine in there.”
“I thought I tasted snoopy reporter turned heroic Necromancer in one of the bags,” Stasia informed me with a very slight smirk.
Flushing a bit despite myself, I retorted, “Yeah, well if you start experiencing an abnormal amount of being abducted away from the people who care about you by megalomaniacs who deserve to swallow all of their teeth, that’s probably a side effect of my blood. Sorry about that.”
Her gaze met mine while she gave a single nod. “I’ll keep that in mind, but do not apologize. I never object to an excuse to make someone who deserves it swallow their teeth.”
“That said,” Judas put in, “it’s a lot more fun to make that a group activity. So let’s try not to get separated while we’re doing this.”
“I have become slightly… fond of working alongside you and the Robins,” the woman agreed. Then she looked back to me and sobered slightly. “But speaking of working with a group, what about your food? Asenath and I aren’t the only ones who will be in bad shape if our nourishment runs out.”
“We’re good on that front too,” I replied, “Right, Persephone?”
Brightening a bit, the white-haired woman gave a quick nod. “Yes, Flick. We are very good on that front.” She carefully repeated my words back to me, adding a thumbs up. It was a somewhat new gesture for her, and she seemed to like making it. At the same time, she held up the other bag of provisions we’d brought so we could see inside. As promised, there was still plenty, another product of Wyatt insisting we be overly-prepared. “I assisted Mister Rendell in making many of the sandwiches, and selecting fresh fruit. He found me choosing fruit to be amusing, because of the stories of my namesake.”
Snorting despite myself, I nodded. “Yeah, well, Hades may not be here with us, but let’s still try not to get stuck anywhere. And uhh… did you choose any pomegranates?”
She just smiled at me. “Do you enjoy pomegranates?”
My mouth opened, then shut. “Ah, you know, I’ll wait and be surprised. Anyway, yeah, we’ve got enough food for awhile at least. And it’s probably easier for us to restock than you guys. I’m pretty sure we’re gonna run into and through a lot of other problems before food becomes an issue.”
Judas nodded. “As far as that goes, can I just ask if we’ve put any more thought into how we’re going to stop this Denuvus if she’s on this world too? It was one thing when we were coming here to find Rasputin and possibly any allies he managed to recruit. But with your mother being compromised,” he added with a look toward me, “that complicates things to begin with. No offense, but she’s a pretty damn strong Heretic with a lot of experience. If Denuvus gave her orders to stop us with violence, that could get… bad. Add in the possibility of Denuvus herself, and I’m afraid it goes from bad to impossible.”
“It’s not impossible,” I objected. “Difficult, sure. The main thing is to get to Denuvus, if she is around, and contain her before she can say anything. Which, I mean… that probably gets a little more difficult considering none of us actually know what she’ll look like. Denny described her, but I get the feeling she changes her appearance a lot. You know, cuz she’s sneaky like that. She could look male, female, or anything in between.”
Tabbris hesitantly spoke up. “So we have to look for someone your mama’s spending time with who isn’t someone we know? Or even if they are someone we think we know.” She frowned then. “Maybe just knock everyone out and sort through them after?”
“I like the way the kid thinks,” Judas put in. “And as it happens, I might have something that could help with any potential Denuvus shenanigans. It’s a spell that blocks anyone from talking inside a certain radius. I can’t get that radius out to more than about fifteen feet myself, but maybe with some help from those of you who can use magic, we can extend that.”
My head bobbed. “Right, and we have Robin too. Does, uhh, can Denuvus actually affect you?”
There was a brief pause before their eyes shifted to green for Med. “Perhaps not, but that is not something we would want to test the hard way. We have no desire to hurt any of you if it turns out her power does affect us.”
With a grimace, Judas gestured. “Yeah, believe me, I’ve seen them go to town on someone before. You really don’t want to be on their bad side. Let’s operate under the assumption that they can be affected, just so we can be pleasantly surprised if the situation pops up and they’re not.”
“Fair,” I agreed. “Let’s talk some more about this spell of yours, and see if we can come up with some sort of plan. Then we should get some rest, cuz it looks like we’ve got about ten hours before we get to the planet.
“And something tells me we’re not gonna get a lot of sleep while we’re there.”
Well, whatever Denuvus had sent Mom to do on this world, it wasn’t immediately apparent as we came into orbit. I finally had my first real look at the place, as we stared through the forward viewpoint. The image was enhanced somewhat on the dingy screen. We could see the land masses down there. It looked like there were three major ones. The largest was shaped like a potato with a thick stem sticking out the top, near the middle. It was big enough to take up just under half of the planet by itself. It looked like there were a lot of large lakes and rivers on it, but still. It was a huge continent, considering this planet was a little under twice as large as earth.
Meanwhile, the other two continents were each shaped a bit like crescent moons. They were on the opposite side of the planet, where most of the ocean was. One was almost nestled inside the other, like two people spooning, though there were a few thousand miles worth of water between them. The slightly larger one on the outside looked like it was about as wide as the United States at its fattest point right in the middle, and about as long as the distance from the bottom of Mexico up to the stop of Canada. The second, smaller one on the inside was about two-thirds that size, and a lot more curved. It was more like a C than a crescent, come to think of it.
From what we could see, the smaller continent there was mostly desert. The larger one on that side had a good bit of greenery, as well as snow toward the northern end. And the massive continent on the other side of the world had a bit of everything. There were forests, deserts, snow in the north and south, tropical areas, all of it. From here it all looked like what we might see on earth, mostly because it was all just colors and vague shapes. The clouds were even white, the water blue, it was just… immediately familiar. And yet, seeing it still made a shudder run through me.
That wasn’t fair, of course. This world had done nothing wrong to me or my family. Nor had any of the other people on it. They were even more the victims in all this than we were. And yet, staring down at it, part of me couldn’t help but think that this was where he had come from. I shoved the thought down hard and swallowed before turning to look over my shoulder.
Rahanvael was there, hovering near the back of the ship, past everyone else. Our eyes met, and I gestured. “Come on, you should see this place.”
She was a ghost, of course. But the others still moved out of the way as she came closer. I stepped aside as well, giving her a chance to stare through the screen at the world she had left behind. I heard the sound she made deep in her throat as she stared that way. It was a mixture of relief as well as regret. And, I was sure, a lot of grief.
“Home.” Her voice was quiet, as she raised a finger to point toward the south-central area of the large continent, just a little bit above the snow line. “Our home was there, in a city that doesn’t exist anymore.” She looked away, gaze dropping. “Now there’s a volcano where it was.”
Fuck, he really was a spiteful piece of shit, wasn’t he? Absorbing that reminder, I sighed. “I wish we could just introduce ourselves to your people down there and talk to them about everything that happened.”
“Soon.” That was Judas, stepping over next to me in the cramped space. He was peering at the image on the screen. “You’ll be able to tell those people what happened to the monster who enslaved them, and we’ll be able to find Rasputin. But first, priorities.”
“Yeah, whatever Denuvus is up to is a pretty big priority,” I agreed in a soft mutter. “And so is my mom. We just have to find her. Them. Mom, Nevada, and Mercury. Before something bad happens. Sorry, something worse.”
To that end, I glanced toward Robin and asked, “Do we have anything yet?”
Their eyes were amber-brown at the moment, so Hood was the one talking. He was also the one who knew how to pilot the ship, as it happened. “I see a lot of dormant defenses all around the planet. Both on it, and on one of those two moons over there. If we hadn’t shut down those alert systems, we would’ve had a lot more trouble when we got here. Other than that, most of the planet appears to be stuck in very… near-Renaissance era Earth level of technology. Our scans didn’t detect any ships, except for one. I can’t say for sure, given how old and… ill-maintained the equipment on this thing is. But the basic shape and size does seem to fit the Jitterbug.”
“Where is it?” Asenath immediately asked, leaning up over the back of the seat behind them.
In response, Hood pointed to the exact same spot Rahanvael had earlier. “There. Near the base of that volcano.”
We were all silent for a moment, until I sighed and reached up to let Marco crawl off my shoulder to my hand. “Well, of course, that’s where Fossor would keep something important. Rahanvael, I hope you’re ready for this.
“Cuz it looks like you really are going home.”