As the intense display of firepower erupted on the screen in front of us, no one spoke for a few seconds. It was Tristan who finally found his voice, sounding as awed as a little kid seeing fireworks for the first time. “Oh, my God. I mean, I saw some big fights with Granddad Nick, but nothing like… like this.”
On either side of the boy, I saw Vanessa and Tabbris each take one of his hands. The latter looked back toward me, her nervousness showing before I gave her a reassuring thumbs up. I’d noticed, as much as she had gotten better about spending time on her own, Tabbris still liked to know where I was at any given time. She clearly loved her older siblings (and they loved her), but I was a safe retreat for her when things were overwhelming, and I’d felt her fear that I might disappear somehow. Any time she possessed anyone else in training, she always went right back to possessing me again before we did anything else, because she wanted to have that safety net so that she could jump back into my body whenever she needed to.
Athena gave a nod of satisfaction then, dragging my attention back to the situation at hand. “The fleets will remain occupied for the time being.”
“You’re not worried about not being in control and giving orders yourself?” I asked. “I mean, those are your people out there.”
Her eyes met mine. “Yes,” she confirmed. “And I have trained them for this kind of action for many years. Praetor Kulls was handpicked for this command, and the men and women under him all know their duty. Interjecting myself now would show a lack of faith in them that would hurt far more than it helped. If the time comes that they require my aid, I will be there for them. But for now, my faith and trust is in their ability.”
It was easy to see what she meant. As I watched through the viewscreen, the battle unfolding right in front of us was indescribably chaotic. The largest of the capital ships were spacing themselves out, exchanging staggering firepower in a nasty slugging match, while the moderately sized ships engaged in more maneuvers around one another, both sides working to create an opening for their fighters and shuttle-sized craft to hit the weak points of the giant ships.
That was, at a glance and after several conversations with Athena, my best estimate of how these kind of battles went. There were the one or two person fighters, the ‘medium’ ships that could hold anywhere between fifty to a few thousand crew members, and the capital ships that held tens to even hundreds of thousands of crew.
Very broadly and generally speaking, it kind of worked almost like a paper, rock, scissors situation. The fighters were effective against the much larger ships (in enough numbers) specifically because it was hard to target them and they could swarm over weak points. But fighters failed against the medium sized ships because they had enough armor to withstand hits while also being quick enough to target and shoot down the smaller ships more effectively than their larger, slower brethren. Meanwhile, the medium ships may have had the armor to protect themselves from the little fighters, but the capital ships could blow them away easily, and they didn’t have the fighters’ maneuverability. So little ship beat big ship, medium ship beat little ship, and big ship beat medium ship. And they all essentially tied against each other in equal numbers. There were obviously exceptions to all of this, but that was a general understanding of it.
And, of course, there were more than just regular old lasers and that kind of weaponry involved. Even as I watched for those few seconds, I saw portals opening up here and there, bits of ships being partially torn away by some kind of metal-manipulation or telekinetic power before being repaired by the same from the opposite side, random forcefields that popped up, giant spears of ice or stone forming and being thrown back and forth, figures made of fire flying through space, and more. So much more. Everywhere I looked, there was a scene that would have required millions of dollars in special effects shots to pull off in a movie. It was completely batshit insane just to look at, let alone to try to make any sense of.
Beside me, Roxa seemed to have the same impression. The werewolf-Heretic gave a low whistle, head shaking. “Fuck, I wouldn’t wanna be the guy who has to try to make some kind of sense out of all of that chaos. I mean, keeping track of a battle on this scale is bad enough, but add in magic?”
Apollo nodded. “Something this scale, they probably have thousands of mages on both sides, purely focused on working to counter the other side’s spells. What you’re seeing is just the bits that slip through, the… leaks in the dam. If either side slipped too much, you’d see entire ships go down in seconds. Magic,” he added quietly, “can be pretty scary.”
Gordon spoke for all of us then as he flatly and quietly noted, “Then I hope our side doesn’t slip.”
“They will not,” Athena assured us. “As I said, they have been trained for this, and have all of the experience necessary. They will do their duty. We must simply do ours. And to do that, we need an appropriate… there.”
Lifting a hand, she pointed at the screen, toward one of the enemy ships. It looked almost like a giant tuning fork, honestly. There was one somewhat shorter (I estimated it at about four hundred meters) boxy end that was like the handle. I saw a bulge near the top that looked like the bridge, with four separate heavy cannons surrounding it. Splitting off from the front of that long, boxy part were two sections that were the ‘tines’ of the tuning fork. They were about twice as long as the first section, and along the outside, bottom, and top of each were more guns than I had ever laid eyes on at one time. Seriously, there were cannons packed into what amounted to every square inch of space along those extended ‘tines’ of the ship, facing in every direction.
Meanwhile, there were no cannons in the middle, between the tines. But that space wasn’t empty, by any means. Instead, I saw what looked like a bunch of radar dishes, all facing slightly outward, toward the end of the tines. There were about eighteen of them, nine on each side.
As we watched, each of those ‘radar dishes’ began to glow. The ones on the left gave off a blue light, while the ones on the right were red. That glowing energy grew brighter and more distinct as it rose out of the radar dishes to meet in the middle into a column of destructive purple light, which grew stronger and stronger before finally erupting from the end of the ‘tines’, tearing its way through space, and literally blew through one of the Aelaestiam ships like it wasn’t even there.
I staggered a bit, my eyes widening. Around me, the others did much of the same. The thought that… that there had been people on that ship, people who had come solely to help us save Sariel and the other prisoners, and that they were now… dead, was a lot to suddenly be hit with.
Athena’s expression was stoic, though there was a certain tightness to her eyes that told me she would be expressing her emotions later, likely in private when there wasn’t a mission on the line. “That’s the one. That will be our target. If it can be taken out, the fleet will be in much better shape.”
“You want us to get closer to that thing?” Sands asked, her eyes wide as she stared at it through the screen. “Not to insult the goddess of tactics and strategy or whatever, but do you, um, really think that’s a good idea?”
“It will be alright,” the Seosten woman assured her (and the rest of us). “Lefeunsiek ships are capable of doing extraodinary damage, as you have seen. But they require time to build that energy back up.”
Apollo nodded. “She’s right. That big gun it’s got can only fire once every few minutes. That’s why it’s got all those smaller weapons around it. Which are, you know, still dangerous.”
“Yes,” Athena confirmed. “Dangerous indeed. But not to this ship. The shields and armor of this ship will protect it through a single pass. And that pass will be enough. Provided, of course,” she added then, “that Lord Dries has completed his work.”
“I have.” The voice came from the doorway, as Dries stepped into view. He was quite pointedly not looking toward Athena or Apollo. Actually, he wasn’t really looking at anyone, his attention remaining on the floor as he carefully came in. His hands kept squeezing and then loosening repeatedly as he moved against the wall and made his way to the left side of the bridge, staying as far away from Athena and Tabbris as he could. Finally, the man knelt down and placed a couple of metal objects he had already prepared with spells on the floor. At a touch and a word from him as he glanced toward the ship on the screen, the two objects projected a single portal into the air between them. He had prepared the spell on our way here, using what Athena had told him (or rather, what I had told him that Athena had said to me, since the man really didn’t want to talk to her directly) about the Seosten security spells and monitoring systems.
“There.” Dries moved to the nearest console to where he had set up the portal. His hands moved over the controls, and a moment later, a glowing red circle appeared in the middle of empty space a relatively short distance in front of the Sunstrider.
That was the other end of the portal that he had just set up. According to Athena, Kushiel’s people would be ready for the kind of portals that Yup used. Their security would block anything like that. But this one was something special. During his centuries-long imprisonment, Dries had worked on many different escape plans. He’d cobbled together various spells, both those that he’d learned himself and those that had somehow appeared in his head after he’d killed Hieronymus, likely through that man’s own connection to the original Crossroads Reaper.
Either way, he had taken his own expertise and an understanding of magic that came through his connection to the Reaper and used it to put together some new spells of his own. None of them had freed him (though one in particular had ended up doing much the same, as it summoned the shard of the banishment orb that had led Haiden and the others to him, eventually leading to his rescue in the long run).
And this portal was the result of that extensive, single-minded research and planning combined with the Reaper-knowledge. It was a portal that was mobile. Specifically, when the portal on our end moved, the portal on the opposite end would move to stay exactly the same distance and relative position away from it. Beyond that, that end of the portal was invisible, to avoid giving away its presence. Plus, it would bypass most defenses against teleportation, even if it was limited to a relatively short distance.
Once that was up, Athena moved to a different console, hitting a few buttons there. Immediately, the image on the main screen was split in two. Half was taken up by the view of the space in front of the ship like before. The other half, meanwhile, showed what looked like a blueprint of the tuning-fork ship (Lefeunsiek ship, apparently), along with some of the space around it. At the far corner, there was a red dot.
“The dot,” Athena explained, “is the portal.” She touched another part of the console, and several areas of the ship blueprints turned blue. “These areas are where there should be very minimal crew presence during a battle like this. Position the portal anywhere within those areas, and we should be safe to make the jump over without attracting much attention.”
“Okay, Jokai,” Larissa urged. “You heard her. Take us in.”
That was all the chameleon-man needed to hear. His hands moved to the controls once more, and we were on our way. The Sunstrider slipped past other warring ships, shielded by a squadron of fighters that came up on our side to ensure that we made it.
It wasn’t a smooth approach by any means. There were more of those invisible turrets, more fighters, and even a very persistent enemy ship that was essentially a mobile missile platform. But with our fighter escort, as well as a little help from Larissa and Haiden exercising a couple of their more impressive powers (including creating a forcefield directly over the launching ports for that aforementioned ship’s missile launchers that made them blow up inside the ship they were launching from), we finally made it close to our target ship while sending just enough shots at the thing to make them think that this was a legitimate attack run so that they wouldn’t start wondering why we were getting that close.
“One of minutes,” the man announced as the ship approached. “Can only… keep within area for ten seconds. You… must be through in that time. Fifty of seconds.”
Right, in fifty seconds, we’d have ten seconds to go through the portal. We, in this case, was Athena, Apollo, Larissa, and myself (with Tabbris, of course). We had a specific job to do over there that had to happen before any of us would have a chance of getting into the actual base.
Larissa nodded to me, and I started toward the portal, while Jokai counted down. Tabbris met me partway, her hand catching mine.
Her expression was scared, yet determined. Squeezing her hand, I asked, “Ready?”
“Ready,” she replied, and a second later, she was inside me once more, settling into her spot. I felt the familiar comfort of her presence. Whatever happened, we would do this together.
I extended my staff, holding it down for Jaq and Gus to come running up and climb on. Then I moved to the portal. Before I got there, however, another hand caught my arm. That time, it was Dries. The man had come faster than I had ever seen him move, catching me. His eyes were on mine, actually meeting my gaze as he spoke in a quick, beseeching tone. “Be careful,” the man pleaded. “You must come back. You–you must come back to my descendant with me. To Hannah. To Avalon. You must come back.”
Swallowing hard at that, I gave the man a short nod. “I’ll be back. I’ll come back. We’re gonna save Sariel, and get out of here.”
Dries kept hold of my arm for another second, before finally releasing me as he stepped back. He looked nervous, or even ashamed of his interjection, like he thought he’d done the wrong thing or wasn’t sure of himself anymore. “Yes,” he said quietly, “save and get out. Save and come back.”
I wanted to say something to him. I wanted to reassure the man, wanted to… do a lot of things. But I had no idea what to say. He desperately wanted to meet Avalon, and he wanted me to be there with him when he did. He wanted to have some kind of relationship with his descendant. I wanted to tell him that everything would be alright, that we would get back to Earth and see Valley together. But I didn’t want to risk anything by saying the words aloud. So, I just started, “Hey, Dries?” When he looked at me, I continued, “Be ready when we get back. Because I’m gonna make you teach me some of that magic you’re so good with.”
“Mom, Flick!” Sands looked visibly distraught that she wasn’t coming over with us. “Be… be careful, guys.”
The same sentiment was echoed by the others. Haiden had his kids pulled right up against him as they all watched. Everyone looked pretty upset that they weren’t coming on this part. But the fact was, aside from Haiden, none of them could have. Because the others didn’t have the ability to possess people.
I did, as did Athena, Apollo, and Larissa. Haiden had the same ability, but it had been universally decided that one of the two should stay with the others, and Larissa had won their game of Rock, Paper, Scissors.
Why did we need only people who could possess others? That was the whole plan. We would take the portal over there and possess the people in charge. In mine and Larissa’s cases, we could actually possess Seosten, which as I had seen back on the slave planet, they were absolutely not accustomed to dealing with.
We would work our way quietly through the ship, eventually making our way to more important people. Once we did… well, once we did, it would be time for the next step. Those steps would lead directly toward our being able to create a portal that led past all of Kushiel’s security and into that facility, a portal that the others could use to join us down there.
So the others weren’t being left out completely, not in the least. Their turn would come soon enough. We just had to do our part first.
“Hey, don’t act like we’re leaving you out of all the danger, guys.” Giving them all a nod and salute as I reminded them of that fact, I added, “Remember, this is just phase one. You’ll be there for the rest of the phases.”
“Ten,” Jokai got down to then. “Nine… eight…”
Looking to Athena and Apollo together on one side of me and Larissa on the other, I offered, “So, uh, I guess this is it.”
Larissa put a hand on my shoulder, squeezing it. “It’s alright,” she promised, “we’ll take care of–”
“Go!” the call came from Jokai, interrupting her. “One… two… three….”
Right, right, ten seconds. Time for reassurance later. Or not, since we’d be right in the middle of things. I took a breath, watching as Athena went through the portal, followed by Apollo, and then Larissa. The adults went through first, with me bringing up the rear.
Alright, partner, I thought to Tabbris, let’s go get your mom.
A second later, I was through the portal, emerging into a room that looked like some kind of maintenance bay, full of broken down tank-like vehicles, a couple of those hovercycle things (V-Carrus, I remembered), and more that I didn’t recognize. There were two huge floor to ceiling (which was about twenty feet up) doors straight ahead of us that were probably used to let the tanks and hovercycles either leave the ship or go into a larger bay where the rest of the vehicles were, as well as a few smaller ones dotted around the room that clearly led elsewhere inside the ship itself.
There were also a handful of already-broken and smoldering robots, as well a couple of apparently unconscious figures lying here and there throughout the room. Clearly, the adults had been busy in the couple of seconds before Tabbris and I arrived.
“We must move quickly,” Athena started the second I appeared, “The defenders were dispatched before they could set off any alarm, and the ongoing battle will mean that the crew is thoroughly distracted. But the longer we dally, the higher our chances of being discovered. And,” she added pointedly, her voice flat, “the higher our casualties in the battle.”
“Right.” Larissa was already moving to one of the unconscious bodies on the floor. Reaching down, she caught hold of him before disappearing.
I did the same, heading for another of the bodies. This one was a short, squat figure that looked like Mike from Monsters Inc, only covered in fine, silky smooth white fur instead of green skin. Alright, partner, I sent to Tabbris, Let’s see if I can do this one myself.
It took longer than if I had let the other girl do it for me. I had much less experience than she did. But I had to get better at it, and we’d been practicing over the time that we’d spent with Athena and the Aelaestiam. So, after a brief delay where I had to try a couple times, I finally managed to possess him.
Err. Right, I realized, I guess I got that part, but I think you’re gonna have to poke him awake.
Okay! Tabbris chirped. Then I felt her carefully working the man’s adrenaline (or whatever his species’ equivalent was), coaxing him out of unconsciousness. He snapped awake, big eye opening, and I felt his overwhelming fear.
It’s okay! I sent to him quickly. Listen, just hold on. Look–hey, I know how this looks, but I’m not a Seosten, okay? I–oh man, believe me, this is too hard to get into right now. But I’m not going to hurt you. I swear. We’re not here to hurt you. I just need to borrow your body for a little bit. And yeah, I know how that sounds, but it’s literally life and death. Lots of lives and deaths, actually. So… just sit back and I promise I’ll try to get us all through this.
Yeah, I wasn’t sure that actually worked. He was still afraid, terrified really. And I didn’t have time to actually convince him that I wasn’t there to hurt him. We had to keep moving.
Taking control of his hands, I pushed us up, managing a grunt. “Ugh.” My voice sounded rough, like I was gargling concrete. “I really don’t like this part of Seosten powers.”
By that point, the others had all possessed bodies of their own, and the four of us moved to the nearest door. Athena, possessing a tall, pitch-black figure with a flat, gorilla-like face put his hand against the panel there, then ushered us through as the door slid open.
We went. Apollo first, possessing a matty-furred Rakshasa. I followed after him, with Larissa in the body of a frog-like Menmeran right behind me. Athena came after us. Together, the four of us, possessing other bodies, began to make our way through the Seosten warship in the middle of the most intense battle I had ever seen.
Phase one had officially begun.