Dexamene

Interlude 2B – Elisabet (Heretical Edge 2)

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The enormous maw of the Fomorian-bred monster loomed wide, its four rows of jagged teeth lining a mouth that was large enough to drive a van into. Two pairs of eyes set at diagonal angles to one another lay both above and below that mouth on either side for a total of eight black orbs. Beyond the mouth and eyes was a creature that looked like a hook-nosed pig crossed with a frog, with a tripod of three smaller legs in front and two much larger legs in the back giving it a hunched over look. 

Those large legs had most recently been used to make the creature leap half a mile before it came down, mouth wide open, toward its quarry. A sound like thunder accompanied the creature, shaking the ground ahead of its arrival in an act of intimidation meant to terrify those whom it hunted. 

This particular quarry, however, was far from impressed. At one time, that quarry had been elegant and impeccably dressed and groomed. Now, after months of being on the run across this godforsaken wasteland of a planet, Elisabet was far different. She was clearly leaner, her previous clothes long-since destroyed or abandoned in favor of leather armor crafted from various creatures. Her once long and flowing dark mane of hair had been cut down dramatically. She wore a golden sword on one hip and a line of small, matching gold daggers all around her opposite arm. Dried blood and dirt in equal parts covered her face and other bits of exposed skin. 

Now, the long-lived Spanish woman stood in place, watching that wide, eager mouth descending toward her. She made no motion to either escape or attack. Not at first, anyway. Instead, she stood perfectly still, allowing the creature to descend closer and closer, an instant away from swallowing her whole. 

Finally, at the last possible instant, she made her move. Or rather, the ground beneath her did. Elisabet herself remained completely still, while the ground under her feet pulled back and down, taking her with it to reveal a large hole that the thin layer of sand had been covering. Elisabet was actually simply standing on a layer of sand a couple inches thick. The hole beyond was large and deep enough for the monster to fall directly into. Over a hundred feet below the surface, it squealed in surprise and pain upon driving itself onto the dozen large, gleaming yellowish spikes that had been erected at the bottom. A golden trap, literally. 

A wider section of ground opened up, providing a safe spot next to the gold spikes for the woman to lower herself down to. She stepped off her sand platform and stood next to the dying monster. Her hand rose, touching the thing in its wounded side. With a thought, she pulled the gold spikes down out of it while the thing gave a pitiful whine and twitched. 

The two powers she had displayed in these past few seconds were those of the creature she had originally been made a Heretic of, in the days before she was part of Crossroads. The days before Jophiel. Terrakinesis and aurokinesis. Mental manipulation of earth and gold, respectively. Though many heard aurokinesis and thought she meant the manipulation of some kind of aura. Clearly, they needed a lesson in the difference. 

Either way, there was another power that had been part of her original set. She used that power now, healing the damage that had been done to the creature with one hand against its heaving side. Gradually, the wounds closed and the blood flow ceased. This was the third power she had inherited in her days of being a Natural Heretic, a healing gift. 

Yet, there were two aspects to this gift of healing. One allowed that healing to be given freely. The other, however, came with a cost. A gold cost, as Elisabet had called it so long ago. And it was that latter method of healing that she invoked now. She inflicted the gold cost upon the creature she was healing. Which meant that across all of its wounds, everywhere her power touched, the creature was covered in a gold-like material. In truth, all gold touched by her power became as hard as the toughest steel, hence her ability to use it as spikes and weapons. And to line the interior of her leather-looking armor. Her gold was stronger than the gold that Bystanders knew.

A dozen holes in the creature’s body were patched over by this gold, and as it suddenly reared up, the eight eyes, once a dull greenish-brown, were gold as well. 

Without a word, Elisabet turned to the nearest wall of the pit. The ground obeyed her whim, forming a wide ramp for her to walk up and out. Just as she reached the top, the creature at the bottom gave a great leap that carried it high into the air to land nearby with a loud crash. But it made no move to attack her. Its golden eyes watched the woman as she exited the pit. 

Standing there for a moment, Elisabet watched the creature before giving a low whistle. As she did so, several other monsters of various sizes and shapes emerged from the sand where they had been previously hidden. All of them were covered in various gold plates, their eyes matching. They were each originally Fomorian creations, scouting monsters sent to kill inhabitants and track down Elisabet or anyone like her. Each had been mortally wounded before being healed by her power. But those healings were accompanied by the gold cost, giving her control over them. That was the cost, their free will, such as it was. If she saved a creature’s life with her power and inflicted the cost, it would become loyal to her alone, obeying her orders, both spoken and unspoken. 

These were what remained of the creatures she had managed to turn to her side over these past few months. They died often, torn apart by the unending legion of beasts or even by the Fomorians themselves. Not that there were many of those actually on this world, but they did make occasional appearances. Elisabet had killed a couple of them already. Mostly, however, she avoided them as much as possible. It was never fun to fight an adult Fomorian. Figuring out what might be able to kill it before it tore you apart was terrifying, even for someone like her. 

At least with these creatures of hers, she had cannon fodder to throw at them while she escaped. That was the only reason the woman was still alive and free right now. That and the fact that even the Fomorians couldn’t search an entire planet that easily. But they kept getting closer to catching her. The attacks were coming closer together as the genocidal monsters continued to press constantly, never letting up. She was going to have to do something, and soon. Any day now, one of them was going to get lucky, or she would be sloppy. And that would be the end of her, before she could tell anyone the truth about Maestro. 

That, almost more than anything else, was what kept her going. When all she wanted to do was collapse from exhaustion, Elisabet told herself that the monster called Maestro had to be stopped, and no one else seemed to know he even existed. 

She had to get back to Earth. She had to stop that thing. Whatever he wanted Jophiel or some other powerful Seosten to do, it was apocalyptically bad. If she died before she could tell anyone about it…

Besides, she was too damn pissed at the thought that that Gemini thing inside her head had been manipulating her for so long to just lay down and die now. Planetful of Fomorian monsters or galaxyful, she was going to get home. Whatever that took. She was going to get home and make absolutely certain that humanity was prepared to deal with the threats in front of them. Both the Fomorian one and the Maestro one. No more half-measures. It was time for humanity and the Seosten to get on the same page and end these problems. 

Unfortunately, it was taking the woman a long time to actually get back to Earth to start any of that, given the handicaps she was working with. The invaders had already thoroughly swarmed over the Meregan transport areas. She was pretty sure that those humanoid giants weren’t all dead, but they were deep in hiding and she couldn’t find them anymore than the Fomorians could. It being a big planet to search worked against her as much as for her in that particular case. 

She couldn’t get to the Meregan transports. She was cut off from the Committee link, and blocked from using any of the transport powers or spells that could have taken her off this planet. Her options for getting out of this were few and far between, and getting worse by the day. But she refused even the thought of giving up. She was a survivor, damn it. She just had to keep going, keep living, keep escaping.  Either Jophiel would find her, or one of the others. Perhaps Felicity would accidentally trip her way into ending up here again. That sounded like something the girl would do. Or Elisabet’s own risky, haphazard plan would actually end up working. Either way, giving up was not an option, ever.

She would get home, help or no help. If no one showed up, Elisabet would do it herself. She just had to resort to another method, a more… unique and slow way of returning to Earth. A way that was almost more hypothesis than anything else. She and Jophiel had talked a bit about the possibilities of it, but as far as she knew, it had only been attempted a handful of times with mixed results. And none of those had been working from the kind of handicap that Gemini had inflicted on her. 

What it amounted to was residual energy. Any time magic was used to transport to anywhere, it left behind residual energy. Energy that had already been shaped toward transportation. The amount of that energy varied depending on how powerful the original spell was, lasting longer with more energy the further the transport and the more people involved. But even short transports that took place centuries earlier would leave a tiny, almost undetectable trace of power. And the more transports that took place in that same general area, the more of that energy would build up. That was why many large organizations tended to create specific buildings or rooms devoted to transportation. Because the more they were used for that, the easier it was to shape the magic in that area toward portals and other transportation spells.

But that same energy that made creating transportation spells in the area easier could also potentially be used in another way. The idea was that if one gathered enough of it, they could create a new transportation spell without actually casting it. The residual energy could be pointed in a new direction. That way, someone who couldn’t actually cast transportation spells would still be able to use one. 

Again, however, that idea had only been tested a few times that Elisabet and Jophiel knew of. And only a couple of those had been successful. None of which had been used to jump to another entire world, let alone one in a different universe. This was completely uncharted territory. 

Beyond the simple fact of it being untested, there was also the logistical issue. Namely, the fact that she needed a lot of this residual energy if she was going to make it work. And, considering the energy would be lost once it was used, there wasn’t room for any mistakes. She had to be absolutely certain that she had enough energy gathered before she even started on this. 

So, for the past couple of months, Elisabet had been doing more than simply surviving and escaping. She had been using her own magic to point her toward places where transportation magic was used. She would make her way to each site and use the crystal she had created to absorb the tiny trickle of power in that area. 

With that thought, the woman looked down while summoning the crystal to her hand. It was about the size of a softball, and appeared to be made of clear glass. Light blue liquid-like magical energy filled up the bottom half of the crystal. Half. She was halfway done filling this thing up. Once it was full, she would have enough shaped transportation energy to attempt a real escape. 

Unfortunately, it was getting harder to find decent pockets of this stuff that weren’t near heavily patrolled areas. She had to venture further and further out, and take more risks just to get a few more drops to fill her orb. It was the equivalent of wandering a post-apocalyptic Earth, scrounging the last vestiges of gasoline from random stations along a broken freeway.

Willing the storage crystal back into its pocket dimension where it would be safe, Elisabet pushed off to continue walking across the desert. Her converted monsters, cut off from their previous masters and controlled by her, trailed behind. They spread out around the woman, taking up guarding positions just in case another threat presented itself. Or rather, for when the next threat presented itself. Because it would come. They always came. For months, Elisabet had been hunted across this world. And they would keep coming until she either escaped for good… or they caught her. 

As she shook off that possibility, Elisabet felt something grow warm against her thigh. The leather pouch that hung there was hot. Frowning, the woman opened the pouch and looked inside. The rock that she had enchanted to lead her toward transportation magic was glowing. Which was… odd. The only reason it should be detecting that much energy would be from a truly powerful transportation spell very nearby. 

Fomorians. It could be the Fomorians sending a massive army almost directly on top of her. With a thought, she summoned a different enchanted stone to one hand, touching it to her forehead before using the spell on it to render herself completely invisible. Meanwhile, her own converted monsters burrowed into the sand while spreading out, ready to counterattack anything that appeared.

But nothing happened for some time.  The transportation magic detector she had made was still warm, though it had faded a bit to simply point in the correct direction. The spell it had detected was off to the east and had completed. The Fomorians weren’t jumping an army on top of her, so what were they doing? It could still be an army coming her way, or it could be something else. 

Either way, she had to find out. It would be dangerous, but worth it. If this transport wasn’t intended for her, or even if it was and she could evade them, the energy left behind would be enough to fill up at least half of the remaining crystal. And that was entirely too tempting for her to resist. Which was another reason it could’ve been a trap, technically. But she doubted they knew what she was doing. 

She had to get to that spot, see what had arrived, and gather the residual energy before too much of it dissipated. A massive transportation spell right nearby just as she was heading that way? With any luck, this could cut down on the time it would take her to get home by months. 

But it could still be a trap as well. So she took as many precautions as possible, rendering herself undetectable with multiple spells that she had stored up for emergencies. Then she moved that way, the converted monsters spreading out. Some moved ahead, while others trailed behind. 

As one further deterrent against possible attack, Elisabet triggered her decoy spell. It manifested a fake copy of herself up ahead that was fully visible and would draw any attention. If this was some kind of ambush, they could jump the decoy instead. She could also switch locations with the decoy at any point, appearing where it was and vice versa. 

Only once she was fully satisfied that she had taken as much care as possible to avoid potential devastating consequences for investigating this new energy, did Elisabet pick up speed on her way toward it. 

Five minutes later, she arrived. Crouching on the edge of a sand dune, she peered down below. Ground zero of that transportation magic was right there. At first, she saw nothing but some scattered rocks. It looked like a large boulder had exploded. The energy reading from her enchanted stone was off the charts.

So where was the army? Where was anyone? They had to be here, unless they had already moved out in the completely opposite direction from where she had come. Which would be rather useful for her own purposes, but she didn’t want to think she was that lucky. That was entirely too naïve. 

Wait, there. A figure was picking its way out of the sand where it had been partially buried. Humanoid, but too covered in dust, dirt, and sand to really identify. It also set off Elisabet’s Stranger sense, somewhat. 

It was also the only one. A quick scan of the area with her own non-Committee powers confirmed that. This figure was the only one in the area. So why had they used so much power to get there? 

They weren’t Fomorian, that much was clear.  The response from the Stranger sense was entirely too mild for that. This was an Alter, but not an extremely powerful or dangerous one.

It was also… throwing up. The figure literally turned over onto its hands and knees and lost its most recent meal. Which did a lot to convince Elisabet that this wasn’t some kind of trap. Looking around once more, she rose and slowly descended, while leaving her decoy up on the ridge for the moment. If this turned out to be dangerous, she could switch places with it and escape. 

The figure noticed her approach, quickly scrambling to its feet. 

Her feet. The figure was female, with teal skin and white hair underneath all that sand and dirt. 

“Elisabet?” she blurted. “You’re Elisabet, right?”

Pausing, the Spanish woman slowly demanded, “Who are you? How do you know my name? What do you want?”

The young girl, a Nereid, Elisabet realized, drew herself up. “It’s okay, I’m here to help you get home. 

“My name is Dexamene. Nicholas Petan and Flick sent me from the future.” 

Author’s Note: The most relevant chapter to understand a bit more of what just happened at the end there is Interlude 15 which was posted three years ago. 

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Interlude 15 – Nicholas Petan

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Five Years From Now, In An Alternate Dimension

“My Lord?” the soft voice of a young female with teal skin and bright white hair spoke up tentatively.

Nicholas Petan turned away from the window of the ship where he had been studying the green and brown planet that they were approaching. He took in the sight of the Nereid, pausing for a moment to remember her name. At one time, it wouldn’t even have taken him that long. But, as the years and centuries passed, the number of those he was responsible for had grown beyond what he could have imagined when he was still young. Even then, however, it often felt as though he had done too little.

After that brief pause that actually only lasted a couple of seconds, he had it. “Yes, Dexamene?”

“Um, I was just… I was wondering, sir…” Dexamene hesitated. She looked nervous, and Petan recalled that this was the first time the sea nymph had addressed him directly. She was the daughter of one of the ship’s top navigators and a marine, but she herself had only graduated from their shipboard academy a month earlier. Shortly before they had sent Tristan back in time, actually. Now that he thought about it, she and his descendant had been friendly with one another. Which probably meant…

“You would like to know if Tristan arrived at his destination correctly and safely?” he guessed.

Judging from the way the nymph flushed, she was embarrassed. Yet her head bobbed up and down quickly even as she fidgeted there. “Y-yes, my Lord. I-if it’s not too much trouble, I mean. I was just—um, w-worried about him. I know we can’t—umm, that we can’t contact him or anything because of the um—the time travel. But do we—umm, can we know if he’s—umm–” She stopped, swallowing hard.

Lifting his hand, Petan settled it on the girl’s shoulder. He felt her cringe a little, and shook his head in wonder at just how shy and easily embarrassed she was. “Dexamene,” he assured her. “He is all right.” When she looked up at him, eyes hopeful, the man gave her the slightest smile in an attempt to be at least a little bit reassuring. It felt strange on his face, especially after he’d had to send Tristan away.

The boy had been a breath of fresh air around the ship, particularly once they had worked out the way to have the boy on the ship with them by anchoring him to Nicholas himself. That particular anchor had been enough to allow him to leave the Meregan’s world, but not enough to take him to their home dimension and planet. The Seosten magic barring him from that dimension was entirely too strong.

So, in between their battles with the Seosten and other enemies, Nicholas’s army (including their new Meregan allies) had searched for another solution. It wasn’t their primary task, of course. There were far too many other things commanding their attention. But they had tried several things over the years.

In the end, the best solution had been an alternative to the one they had used to allow the boy to leave the planet and stay with Nicholas: the anchor. But they had needed a better anchor, since Petan’s connection to his former homeworld had faded too much over the centuries that he had been away.

The magic barely recognized him as being from there at all. So, they had needed to anchor the boy to someone from there, who still lived there and whom he had at least a somewhat close connection with. And since Tristan couldn’t remember anything about his family (Nicholas’s stories about them didn’t seem to be able to jog the boy’s memory) that left pretty much only two choices: Felicity Chambers or Shiori Porter. Tristan had chosen Felicity. Unfortunately, so much had changed in those years that there was no connection between Tristan and the Felicity of the current time. So, they had anchored the boy to the Felicity from five years in the past, when she was still the way that the boy remembered her. And now, well, now he was there. And then. As Dexamene had said, it was impossible to contact him.

“I miss him too,” he told the young nymph in a confidential tone that made her blink up at him with wide eyes. “But yes, as far as I am aware, Tristan arrived safely. That is the best we could hope for.”

The teal-skinned girl bobbed her head quickly once more. “Good! I mean, I—h-he’s good. He’s home. I–” She shifted again, looking away for a moment as a very brief look of shame crossed her face.

Raising an eyebrow, Petan paused to consider her for a moment. “Is there something else wrong?”

“N-no, I–” Dexamene stopped, still looking embarrassed and ashamed as she admitted, “I kn-know he had to go home, b-but I… I w-wish I’d told him that I… that I umm…” She went silent once more.

“You cared for him a lot,” Petan realized, straightening a little then. “As far more than simply friends.”

The sea nymph looked stricken for a second before she caught herself. Swallowing hard, she gave one more nod. “I—w-wanted to tell him, but… but I knew he didn’t feel the same way. W-we were friends, sir. I didn’t wa-want to ruin that, and I didn’t… I didn’t want to say anything that would m-make him feel guilty about leaving. Now I… w-wish I did. But I’m g-glad I didn’t. But I’m sad. It’s… hard.”

Remaining silent to gather his thoughts, Nicholas wished that he had any idea of what to say to the girl. She had sent away a boy she cared deeply for, a boy she obviously had a very strong crush on, without telling him how she felt in order to avoid making him choose between staying with her and going home. She had let him go without doing anything that would make him feel guilty about his choice.

Finally, he squeezed her shoulder until she met his gaze once again, her violet eyes wide from the attention. “Dexamene,” the man informed her succinctly, “you are an incredible asset to this crew, this ship, and to me. I am very grateful that people like you are here. Thank you, for continuing to serve.”

“I—I–um–” The poor teal-skinned teenager worked her mouth before quickly stepping back. She gave him a somewhat shaky, but still acceptable salute, which he returned crisply. Then she mumbled an embarrassed thank you followed by an apology as she asked to be dismissed. When he gave that permission, the girl practically fled down the corridor, her embarrassment too much to handle by then.

As he watched her go, Nicholas smiled faintly before turning his attention back to the window. The ship was coming in for a landing by that point, and he could already see the Seosten defensive forces readying themselves. Not that many, if any were actually Seosten themselves, of course. The body-possessing false angels used subjugated races for that kind of grunt work. Besides, there weren’t enough actual Seosten to create entire armies across multiple worlds and hold them. At most, there would be two or three of the creatures on-world to ensure that things continued to run smoothly.

A few of the defense forces that settled into place even took (entirely useless) potshots at the incoming ship before their superiors obviously ordered them to hold fire and wait to concentrate on the doors that the invading troops should have begun pouring out of as soon as the ship settled into place.

“Captain,” he spoke while touched a finger to the communicator on his wrist. “Are the troops ready?”

The crisp response came immediately, confirming that the troops were indeed prepared. Smiling to himself, Nicholas touched the circle that he had already drawn on the wall beside the window. Investing it with power, he activated the spell while pressing his palm against the middle of it.

As soon as the spell triggered, several dozen of the ship’s finest and best trained troops (an eclectic assortment of various Alters, some armed with weapons while others relied on their own innate gifts and abilities) disappeared from where they had been waiting, and immediately reappeared directly behind the defensive position that the Seosten defense troops had set up. The scene dissolved into instant chaos as the troops were taken by surprise when the intruders came at them from behind.

They turned to meet the threat, and as soon as they did, then the doors of the ship opened up. The rest of Nicholas Petan’s army poured out, attacking from that side as well. Trapped in the middle, the Seosten defense forces stood little chance. Most surrendered after only a relatively brief skirmish.

Nodding in satisfaction, Nicholas started to turn away from the window. It was time to free the slaves on this planet, see what kind of supplies they could take from this minor Seosten outpost, and move on.

Unfortunately, just as he began to turn, a shadow darkened the sky and left the troops outside in darkness. His gaze flicked back that way while his communicator popped. “My Lord!” the voice of the ship’s captain came through. “We have three ships on sensors. They came out of nowhere, sir.”

“Seosten?” Petan asked, his voice tense as he prepared to move once they knew what was going on.

“No, my Lord,” the captain denied. “The ships, they’re reading as… alive, sir. They’re biological.”

Straightening at that, Nicholas took a moment before the word escaped him in a hiss that was equal parts anger and worry. Not for himself, but for those he was in command of, those who trusted him.

“Fomorian.”

******

Blood, screams, and worse filled the air. The Fomorians had wasted no time. Before Petan could prepare another spell to withdraw his troops, or even join them, they had already sent their drop-tubes to the surface. Essentially, the drop-tubes were incredibly long tentacles that shot from the bottom of their ships and attached themselves to the planet itself. Once they were hooked in, the various biological horror shows that the Fomorians had created were dropped down through the tube in egg-like structures, which burst upon contact with the ground and allowed the creatures to pour forth.

Both the previously-surrendered Seosten soldiers and Petan’s own troops were almost immediately engulfed by more types of literal monsters than Nicholas had ever seen before, even in his long life. They ranged from an enormous crocodile-like creature that was over sixty feet long and twenty feet high, all the way down to insect-sized bug things which injected a deadly poison into their targets.

His Alters were doing their best to defend themselves, and their efforts were admirable. Yet they hadn’t been expecting that kind of fight, not against those biological horror-shows. The Fomorians deliberately crafted their creatures to combat specific Alter-abilities, tailoring each creation as needed.

He had to involve himself, and quickly. Rather than taking the time to make it to the actual exit, Nicholas scrawled a quick spell on the floor of the ship, focused on himself. In that moment, he dearly wished that he was actually one of the Heretics whose abilities came from the Reapers or Hangmen, so that he could have absorbed the powers of those he had fought for so long. Instead, he was a natural Heretic, and his gifts had originally come from a troll whose body he had been buried with so long ago. Their blood had mixed, and granted him incredible regeneration and immunity to both disease and aging, strength, an utterly inhuman resistance to damage other than fire, the ability to adapt to his environment so that no temperature variation or even lack of oxygen bothered him, and the ability to induce fear in a target.

And, of course, having the Bystander-effect removed had restored what should have been his natural ability to use magic. All of that combined had made him a formidable opponent to his enemies over the centuries, and it would do the same here and now. But even then, he would have preferred an instant teleportation ability, something that could transport him out there immediately before more of his troops, his people, were killed. Every second he wasted creating and investing energy into the magic to take him out there was another one where the people who swore loyalty to him were suffering.

Finally (after what had honestly only been less than thirty seconds, even if it felt like an eternity), the spell was ready. Nicholas pressed his hand to the runes he had drawn and activated it. The hastily drawn spell lit up, and he was immediately transported from the ship to the middle of the battlefield.

He appeared in front of one of his Dryads, who was laying on the ground, bleeding from a severe stomach injury. A creature that looked like a scorpion with a snake instead of a stinger came lunging forward, tail lashing out with the poisonous serpent’s mouth wide open as it aimed for his arm.

Petan caught the snake, twisting sharply while giving a yank that tore its head from the rest of the body. Even as the scorpion part of the creature made a sharp screaming noise and tried to snatch him with its pincers, he delivered a harsh kick that put his foot through the thing’s face. The scorpion collapsed, and he tossed the snake-head aside before turning back to the injured Dryad.

“Here,” he announced, producing a small metal button from his pocket which he dropped onto her chest. “Hold it and you will be safe until we retrieve you when the battle is finished.”

As the Dryad closed her hand around the button, it activated and her body turned into what looked a lot like stone, but was actually much stronger. One of the advantages of allying with what remained of the Meregan. Considering that the ‘statue’ could have been thrown into the sun without being harmed, nothing the Fomorian horror show could do would be able to penetrate it.

That done, Nicholas straightened and turned his attention to the rest of the creatures. Perhaps someone else would have said something pithy or uplifting about the situation, something that would have lightened the mood. But that wasn’t the sort of man that Nicholas Petan was. He relied on results.

And, as he waded into the battle, delivering single blows that took the creatures apart with as little wasted motion or effort as possible, results were what he delivered. He wasn’t fancy. When he finally drew his sword to cleave the head from a charging tentacle-laden creature, he remained as silent as ever. Not a breath, nor a motion, nor an actual attack was in any way wasted. His style was an economy of motion and energy, even as he picked his way through this army. What took even the strongest of his troops three or four blows to bring down, Nicholas managed with a single swipe of his blade.

He was making his way to the worst, most dangerous threat on the battlefield: that giant crocodile. Now that he was closer, the man could see that it had a slightly smaller, humanoid (vaguely ape-like) torso, head, and arms attached just under its much larger and more prominent reptilian head. The ape arms would grab hold of prey beneath it and pass them up into the mouth of its crocodile-half.

He had to put a stop to this thing, before more of his people were killed. Yet even as Petan took a step that way after killing the last creature that had barred his path, he saw one of the Seosten troops already running toward it. Whatever race the figure was, he appeared to be humanoid, with onyx-black skin and a wiry build under his Seosten uniform.

He was also carrying some kind of double-blade sword, a staff with a blade at each end in one hand. In the other, he held what looked like a grenade launcher.

A handful of other abominations, smaller than the main target, emerged from behind its feet before moving to intercept the Seosten guard. But he spun smoothly, easily avoiding the nearest as it swiped at him with long claws. As he twisted, his bladed staff spun upward and sliced the creature’s head from its shoulders as easily as one would chop a carrot.

In the same motion, the onyx-skinned figure flipped up and around, planting one foot into the face of the next attacker to drive him backward a step. That bladed staff went through the arm and then the upper torso of the third creature, before he used the momentum from kicking off of the second one to flip himself around in the air. Adjusting his blade, he came down hard, cutting that second creature in half lengthwise, straight down the middle from his head to his torso.

The figure was practically poetry in motion, flowing like an unstoppable river to cut through two more creatures that sought to interfere. By that point, only one was left: a monster about the size and general shape of a gorilla, with six arms and hard, rock-like skin.

The thing came at the guard, bellowing a loud challenge. That challenge, however, was erased (along with the creature itself), as the figure simply raised not the double-bladed staff, but the weapon in his other hand: the grenade launcher. He triggered the weapon, and the monster was engulfed by the explosion.

Petan briefly thought the strangely competent Seosten soldier was too close, but even as the explosion itself neared him, he was lifting a hand. Somehow, possibly an ability of of his race, he absorbed the shockwave and heat, then directed it under his feet to boost himself into the air.

The giant monster’s ape-half grabbed for the rising figure. Yet even as Nicholas watched, the Seosten soldier twisted in the air to plant his feet against the nearest of the incoming hands. A quick swipe from that double-bladed sword cut clear through the wrist of the opposite hand, cutting it free. As the beast howled, the figure pushed off that hand, firing a shot from the grenade launcher into the ape-head.

Again, he absorbed and redirected the energy from the explosion to drive himself even higher. Now, the figure was level with the enormous crocodile head. It opened that massive maw and lunged inward, toward its tiny snack.

The soldier, however, was ready. He fired a handful of shots from the grenade launcher into the thing’s face. The monster reeled from the explosions, stumbling a little as it roared.

While it was recovering, the unknown Seosten guard flipped over in the air, coming down on top of the monster’s massive snout. Even as its dull eyes tried to focus on the figure, he was already aiming that grenade launcher essentially straight down before pulling the trigger.

The explosion was unbelievable that time. Nicholas realized that the soldier must have used up the last of the thing’s energy supply in one final blast.

And yet, the thing still wasn’t dead. It had been knocked to the ground, but even then, the giant crocodile was trying to pick itself up, using its ape-half’s remaining hand to push off of the ground.

Neither, apparently, was the Seosten soldier dead. He had clearly absorbed all of that energy from the point-blank explosion. And now, he was running up its snout toward its eyes. The grenade launcher was gone, and the man now held his double-ended blade in both hands. Nicholas heard a distant scream of effort and exhilaration as the guard lashed out. Both ends of the blade lit up, all of the power that the man had absorbed from the explosion filling it even as he drive the blade down into the thing’s skull right between its eyes.

The blade, enhanced and empowered by the captured energy from the explosion, cut straight through the monster’s head, all the way down through its mouth, and out the other side. The head was literally cleaved into two halves that fell away from the main body even as the man himself landed in a crouch on the ground far below where he had been.

It was down. Dead. Gone. The last of the troops that the Fomorians had sent to the ground.

“Who are you?” Nicholas demanded, stepping that way to put himself between his remaining people and this figure. “The Seosten would not have someone of your… skill protecting a backwater outpost.”

The man pushed himself up, breathing hard before focusing on Nicholas. “You’re right,” he said simply. “They wouldn’t.”

With that, the onyx-skinned man fell forward, collapsing even as a second, female figure emerged from within him. The second figure was ghost-like for a moment before solidifying. She wore some kind of environment suit that covered her whole body and face, yet was skintight.

The soldier had been possessed.

“Seosten,” he started to spit the name, bringing his sword up.

But the female figure shook her head. “Not quite,” she replied before reaching up to take off the mask of the suit. “I just killed a couple and stole their power. But trust me, they really had it coming.”

Then the mask was off, and Nicholas found himself staring for a moment before he found his voice. “You do not… appear to be five years older.”

“I’m not,” she replied. “It’s only been about a year for me, since you sent Tristan back. And now I need you to do the same for me. Send me back four years, to when I… when I left.”

“If you don’t,” Felicity Chambers finished, “Fossor is going to use my mother to kill every Crossroads and Eden’s Garden Heretic in existence.”

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