A pair of strong hands caught both of my arms from either side as the portal winked out and the blast from my staff faded. Roxa was on one side, holding my right arm with both of hers, while Gordon had caught my left. A bit to the side, the Alter that I had pulled through with me went stumbling until Jazz caught him to stop the man from falling. It had been close, but we’d made it.
Made it, apparently, to an enormous room of some kind. As the others released me, I took a look around. The place was as long as three football fields set end to end, and equally wide. The floor was black grating, with some kind of red fluid running a foot or so below it, and there were tubes filled with a glowing orange fluid that served as a light source running along the floor about every ten feet. The walls were a dark red, almost black color, with more orange tube lights that ran along near the bottom and along the ceiling. Scattered here and there were huge metal crates about the size of shipping containers, with weird alien symbols all over them. One was open, revealing that it was about half full of glittering silver and blue minerals of some kind.
Right, minerals. Mining. We were on a mining ship. I remembered that. This room must have been some kind of cargo bay or something, where they held whatever they dug out.
“Pardons,” Karees spoke hesitantly, interrupting my examination of the enormous room. When my attention turned that way, I saw that all of the Alters that we’d just brought with us were staring at me. Just like they had been down on the planet below. “We are not out of the danger,” he intoned carefully, clearly trying to take the time to pick the right words. “There are the defenses and violent ones on this ship to protect it from what we are doing now. And the masters will come. It is not… intentions to be harmful rude bad, but if we are all to escape-”
I nodded quickly. “Right, um, where’s the–” Looking around, I spotted the doorway on the far side of the room. “There. Okay, Karees, keep your people here. We’ll deal with the defenses.”
Jokai spoke up, raising his hand as he said something in Latin while looking earnestly to me.
He says he’s going with you, because he can fly the ship, Tabbris translated, sounding a little shaky herself from everything we had just witnessed back on the planet below. Because there won’t be time to come get him and get all the way to the bridge before the Seosten show up.
Biting my lip, I translated that for the others before nodding. “Okay, come on.” With a quick gesture, I pivoted to head for the doors. “Guys, we need to get to that bridge right now.”
We ran. Roxa, Gidget and I took the lead, with Jokai behind us. Sands and Isaac ran along either side of him, with Jazz and Gordon bringing up the rear. Whatever else happened, we had to keep Jokai safe. Because he was right, he was the only one who knew how to fly this thing.
“It’s a fucking escort mission,” Isaac muttered from behind me. “I hate fucking escort missions.”
I wasn’t going to dignify that with a response. Instead, I just kept going. The doorway from the big cargo bay led out into a corridor. Instead of the grated floor, this one was solid, a dark blue material that looked and felt almost like marble under our feet. The walls, meanwhile, were pure white, with blue trim about a third of the way up, and more of those pipes with glowing liquid for lights near the top. These were white rather than orange, leaving the corridor itself pretty bright.
It was a long corridor, that curved at the far end. All along the way, there were little hatches that led who knew where. But Jokai, who was the only one who actually knew where we were going, kept pointing forward. So we didn’t slow. There wasn’t time to check all the hatches. Not now.
“Flick, left!” Sands shouted. My eyes were already snapping that way, as my object sense registered something appearing there, just in time to see a small ball-like turret finish popping out of the ceiling. Its twin-laser cannons were just twisting around to face us as the other girl shot a ball of webbing at it that clogged the barrels. Before the thing could blast them free, I finished switching my staff into its bow form and drew back an energy arrow. It flew straight at the turret, blowing the thing off the ceiling with a screech of tearing metal.
A second turret had appeared along the right-hand side in that time. But that one was dealt with by Isaac’s trio of floating drones, which essentially ganged up on the thing to blow it away.
Finally, a third turret had popped out of the floor. This one was larger than the other two, more like something that would be manned by someone. Its twin cannons were as long as actual rifle barrels, and the thing was powering up to send a couple shots straight through us.
Or rather, it would have, if Gidget hadn’t thrown herself straight at the damn thing. She knocked it bodily off target, so that the twin laser blasts went up into the ceiling rather than hit any of us. With a snarl, the mechanical cougar bit down on the nearest barrel, snapping it off the turret after shaking her head back and forth like a dog worrying a bone. The barrel crumpled under her teeth before she tossed it aside. Then the second barrel was subsequently demolished under a couple hard slams from her front paws as she jumped up and down on it.
“Good girl!” Roxa called, taking a knee to give Gidget a tiny bit of the affection she deserved.
“Can you send those things ahead to scout?” I asked Isaac once the dust had settled and we were sure that none of us had been hit. “Make sure we’re not about to run into a better ambush.”
He made a face at the question. I got the impression that he didn’t like the idea of sending his weapon so far away from himself when he might need it. “Why can’t the big metal cat go?”
My mouth opened to snap at that, but I stopped myself. I understood his reluctance to send his weapon away, even if he wasn’t exactly that diplomatic about it. “Because your drones are faster, smaller targets, and they can fly,” I pointed out as patiently as possible. “And you can send two of them ahead to scout while keeping one back so it can communicate with them.”
For a moment, I thought that he was going to argue with that and waste even more time, as the boy stared at me long and hard. But in the end, his flat expression melted into a wide grin. “Great,” he abruptly replied as if there was nothing wrong, “just as long as there’s a reason.”
Two of the drones flew forward then, and we kept going. There were several more areas with turret defenses that popped out. But we were ready for them each time. As we continued through what turned out to be a literal maze of corridors, Jokai never hesitated. He seemed to know exactly where we were going, immediately pointing each time we came to an intersection.
Jazz spoke up after the fourth such area, grimacing as she gave a violent shake of her head. “You know, in the interest of avoiding certain cliches, I’m just gonna say that this has been the perfect amount of difficult. Yessiree Bob, all these random automated guns are exactly what I expected to find on this ship, and we are barely making it thr-oh son of a bitch.”
That last part came as a group of figures abruptly popped out of seemingly nowhere. They had clearly been invisible or something, because they were suddenly all around us. There were nine of them, six fairly humanoid in appearance and wearing a blue version of the black armor that we had seen previously, with white accents. The other three were larger and wore no armor, one of them looking like an oversized gorilla with massive arms and fists that were several times bigger than my head. Finally, the last two looked like crocodiles, except they had dozens of legs and a pair of long, scaled arms with nasty claws on the end of their hands. They were all pissed.
The nearest two guards snapped their guns up, even as I caught hold of Jokai’s arm and dove to the side. There was a squeal from the weapons, and a pair of orange energy blasts sailed through the air where we had just been. They collided with the wall, leaving a scorch mark.
In the background, I saw the trio of drones attacking one of the other guards, even as Sands webbed one of the gorilla-thing’s massive fists to the floor. Meanwhile, Gidget was leaping on a crocodile-monster, while Roxa lunged at the other one with a pants-wetting snarl.
Right, the others were doing their part. But I had to keep Jokai safe. And I knew how. Straightening up in front of the guards, I kept myself between them and the former prisoner. “Oh, no, lasers!” I blurted rather unconvincingly, holding my arms out to either side. “Please, whatever you do, don’t shoot me with your lase–”
They shot me with their lasers. Both of the guards that I was facing opened up, firing several more orange blasts directly into my chest and stomach. Blasts which did precisely diddly squat, thanks to Doxer’s power and the fact that I was ready for them. The energy absorption gift that I had inherited from that son of a bitch meant that the lasers barely tickled. I felt their power like a heat in the pit of my stomach, and a tingling in my arms that I needed to get rid of.
So I did. Throwing my hands out, I pictured the energy leaving me. The shots flew back the way they had come, sending the thoroughly surprised guards to the floor with a pair of screams. A second later, I felt the familiar wave of pleasure that made me gasp.
Unfortunately, it was a really bad time for something like that to happen. Another of the guards had come at me with some kind of black metal blade. He had clearly timed his attack for the moment when the Heretic killgasm should have left me unable to defend myself.
Except, I wasn’t the only one piloting this particular body. While I was briefly distracted by the rush of pleasure, my hand jerked up to snap my staff into place to block the man’s descending sword smacking it aside. The guard seemed completely surprised by my quick reaction, stumbling a bit as he tried to recover. Too late, my staff spun around, and crashed into the side of the man’s head to send him crashing to the floor.
Recovered by that point, I blurted, Thanks, Tab! Then I brought my foot down on the guard’s back while spinning my staff up and around into position. With a grunt, I drove the bladed end down through his neck, turning his cry into a gurgle that was quickly cut off as yet another wave of pleasure filled me.
That was three of the six humanoid guards down. And as I quickly looked up, my searching gaze found Jazz practically laying atop the body of another one, her sword driven through his head as her aura flared up around her and she panted from the effort. Meanwhile, Isaac and his drones had just dealt with the fifth guard, while Gordon was finishing off the sixth and final humanoid figure with his tommy gun.
That left the three non-humanoid guards. First, there were the two crocodiles, one of which was being torn apart by a vicious Gidget. The thing kept trying to bite her, but she barely seemed to notice, basically throwing herself into its mouth and taking it apart from the inside.
The other crocodile, meanwhile, wasn’t faring any better against Roxa. She had half-shifted into her wolf-form, fur covering over her skin while her face had bulged out. The body of the crocodile was torn open around the stomach, its internal… parts spilling out while Roxa herself kept ripping into it mercilessly.
Which left the gorilla. With a roar, the thing tore its oversized hands free of the webbing that had held it down. It beat its chest twice, then lunged for Sands.
The other girl… suddenly wasn’t there. Oh, she was there, but not in the spot where she had been standing. Sands was abruptly moving almost fast enough to be a blur. She twisted away from the outstretched gorilla hands, spinning to the side before slamming her mace into his face. She connected with enough force to snap the big furry monster’s head backward with a cry. Without pausing, she leapt up, smacking him again before dropping to run behind him. Her mace crashed into the back of the gorilla’s left leg, before she was suddenly around to his right.
Sands wasn’t quite a blur. I could follow every motion she made. But she was faster, much faster than she should have been. Which was especially devastating in these close quarters. And, unless I missed my guess, she was stronger than she should have been as well.
Oh! It’s the boost, Tabbris whispered. That um, that S-Seosten she killed, she got his boost power. She can make herself several times faster and stronger than she should have been, for a short time. She, uh, she probably doesn’t even know how she’s doing it.
Whether Sands knew how she was doing it or not, she was definitely using it. As the gorilla reeled backward and stumbled to one knee, she was back in front of it again. Her mace swept upward, conjuring a metal wall up to about chest-height (her chest, not the gorilla’s). Then she leapt up and over it, landing on the gorilla’s back. I just barely had time to see that there were spikes in the wall before Sands’ forceful collision with her opponent’s back drove it crashing down, literally impaling its neck on the spikes in the wall. Even that didn’t kill the thing, though it did slow it down an awful lot.
And Sands wasn’t done yet. Still crouching on the gorilla’s back, she made a sweeping motion with her mace that made the metal wall she had created extend itself up and around the monster, trapping it by the neck and one arm. It was like the thing was locked in some kind of medieval stocks. It heaved and growled, struggling to break its way free. But before the metal could do more than groan a little, Sands was moving. She launched herself up off the monster’s back, turned in mid-air, and came down with her mace outstretched. There was one last, almost pitiful howl from the thing before the blow landed. Then it was over. The force of the blow against the gorilla’s trapped head had… separated it.
Sands was on the floor, mace lying beside her as her aura flared up once again. She was gasping for pleasure. But there wasn’t time to wait. I grabbed the girl, pulling her to her feet while Roxa picked up the mace. Then we were running once more, with Jokai right behind us. The former slave was babbling something that Tabbris quietly translated as awe for what we had just done. I mostly tuned it out, focusing on where we were going. There would be time to deal with what we’d just done later. For the moment, every passing second was another second where Radueriel could show up. And as well as we were doing with the mooks, I had no doubt that we would be completely screwed if we had to fight him directly.
We hadn’t gone much further before reaching a pair of circular doors, which slid apart as we approached, granting entrance to a room that was immediately obvious as the bridge. Straight ahead was a floor to ceiling window or possibly just a viewing screen of some kind that showed the starfield beyond, with the planet taking up the bottom third. The room itself was shaped like a crescent, or a slightly widened letter C. The screen took up the open space between the two points of the C, while the doorway where we were standing was opposite it, right in the middle of the C’s curve.
In the middle of the room there were three rugged-looking seats, with control panels in front of them. Meanwhile, the walls of the bridge were lined with an assortment of computers and screens, with a several more chairs scattered here and there.
“Jokai, can you get us out of here?!” I blurted, looking to him quickly.
In response, the former slave spoke a single word that was clearly an agreement before darting straight for the middle seat. He practically dove into it, hitting a few buttons before he had even finished straightening up. The ship came alive around us. I felt a slight vibration beneath our feet as the engines came online. Jokai himself was babbling something excitedly while gripping what looked like a steering yoke to turn it.
The ship didn’t exactly have a tight turning radius. It seemed to groan in protest while slowly coming around, leaving the sight of the planet to face open space.
Or… what should have been open space. Instead, we found ourselves facing another ship. A much, much larger and frankly terrifying ship. The thing was shaped kind of like a giant hammerhead shark, with a slight bulge just behind the ‘head’ where I thought the bridge was. Where the hammer part of the ‘hammerhead’ was, a dizzying array of guns were lined up. Its ‘mouth’ was permanently open, revealing a much, much larger cannon that looked like it could blow our entire ship apart all by itself. And along both fins were open areas where I could see smaller fighter-type craft arranged.
We were all still staring as the screen abruptly changed. Now, taking up half the view was a face. A familiar one.
“Well,” Radueriel announced from what looked like the bridge of his own ship, “I will give you this much… you came very, very close. But the games are over now. There are no more hidden codes to save you. I will give you to the count of, shall we say, four. If you do not surrender, I will cut my losses and remove that ship and everything on it from existence. One–”
“Flick!” Sands was looking to me. “What do we do?”
My head was shaking, even as the others called out similar questions. “I don’t–”
“Two–” Radueriel continued with exaggerated slowness. He was in no hurry to finish us off.
My desperately searching eyes settled on one figure then: Jokai. He was still sitting in the pilot’s chair. Meeting my gaze, the normally petrified Alter simply met my gaze. He wasn’t shaking, wasn’t babbling. His fear was gone. Not because he wasn’t in danger, but because whatever happened next, would happen on his terms. He might die, but he would not die as a slave. He would die fighting.
“Three–” Radueriel’s voice droned.
“Do it,” I told Jokai, giving him a nod.
Whether he understood what the actual words meant, or just the intention, I didn’t know. Either way, his hand grabbed the controls, and he started to send the ship forward, toward the massive Seosten battleship (or whatever it was called) ahead of us.
“What the fuck?!” Isaac screamed. “What the hell are you doing?! We can’t fight that thing, just–” He stumbled along with the rest of us as the cannons on the other ship immediately opened up. We were pummeled mercilessly, and I was pretty sure that only the heavy shields and armor that they’d mentioned kept us alive through that first barrage.
It wouldn’t last. That big main cannon was already glowing. One shot and it would completely blow us apart. One shot and we would be dust.
“Four,” Radueriel finished. “As you wi–”
There was a brief flash of blue light, and a figure appeared in the middle of the bridge, right in front of the screen. I barely had time to notice the presence before they dropped to one knee, slamming both hands to the deck with something held tightly in each. A voice blurted a six syllable spell of some kind, and then the entire world went white.
It faded, and the view through the screen was different once more. Radueriel’s face had disappeared, as had the sight of his ship. Not because it was gone, but because we were. There was no planet around us, and the starfield was slightly changed. We had moved. The entire ship had moved.
The spell, the spell that the mysterious, suddenly arrived figure had cast. It had moved the entire ship somewhere completely different.
As I realized that, my eyes snapped toward the person who had just saved us. The figure had risen once more, pushing themselves up from the floor before turning to face us. “Is everyone okay?”
One word met the newcomer’s question, one single, quiet, trembling word that filled the otherwise silent bridge.
“… M… mommy?” Sands whispered.