Esh

By Blood 17-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Right, so the positive part of all of this was that I wasn’t facing down a full Heretic all by myself this time. I had Avalon and Twister with me. Which was good, because I was pretty sure this guy was more dangerous than the woman back at the truck depot had been. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but something about him just told me I would have been in very deep trouble if I was here alone. Or maybe I was just nervous about how important this step of the mission was. If I had failed back at the depot, someone else could have dealt with her and the rescue would go on. But here, right now? This was it. If he managed to stop Avalon’s device and call for reinforcements, the rescue mission would be over. And, worse, our friends would be captured or even killed. 

But yeah, no pressure or anything. 

With his energy-blade spear still held out toward Seth as though daring the ghost to make a move, the man narrowed his eyes at me. “Does this mean your bitch mother is here, little girl?  Because I would definitely like to have a word with her. Do you think she’ll come if you scream?” 

Well, I certainly wasn’t going to make the first move. If he wanted to waste time talking while Avalon’s device did its thing, I wasn’t gonna object. And I definitely wasn’t going to let him goad me into attacking first. With my staff held defensively in front of myself, I retorted, “I guess I should’ve expected that only the most psycho assholes of you Eden’s Garden people would be put on guard duty in a literal slave camp. Anyone with a shred of decency probably wouldn’t last long here.” 

The man chuckled as though what I had said was amusing for some reason. His eyes moved from me to Avalon and back again, brow knitting slightly as he thought hard. When he spoke, his voice was even. “I hate to rain on your parade, but you’re not breaking this tower, little girls.” 

Break the tower. He didn’t realize that Avalon’s thing was already attached and doing its work. He thought we were here to physically break the tower, or smash up the consoles, or… whatever. The point was, he didn’t know exactly what was going on. And we had to keep it that way.  

Seth spoke up then. “I know I’ve done some questionable things in my…” He paused, glancing down before grimacing at his ghost form. Then the man amended, “I know I did some questionable things in my life, but at least I can safely say I never helped keep a bunch of people as slaves. And I certainly didn’t go around murdering everyone who didn’t look the same as me while pretending I was some sort of hero.” 

I knew what he was doing. He was trying to pull the Heretic’s attention toward him and away from Avalon and me so we could make a move. But the man with the spear seemed to realize the same thing. A slight smirk crossed his face as he focused on me. “Puppeting a ghost to try to distract me, little girl? You’re going to have to try harder than that.”

My mouth opened to say something, but the man was already moving. His free hand snapped up, a wide blast of concussive force erupting from his palm. It caught both Avalon and me, launching us off our feet to fly backwards before we crashed into the glass windows. They were obviously heavily reinforced, because we didn’t go straight through them. Still, the glass cracked under our impact, and I was pretty sure a bit of me cracked too. Owww. 

At the same time, that spear of his sent a lance of bright, crackling lightning at Seth. The ghost man managed to dive downward through the floor, but I could feel the lightning sap at his energy, leaving him almost completely empty. He was barely present, a flickering form at the edge of my consciousness. 

Rebounding off the spider-webbed glass, I could see the Heretic man already lunging toward a console. He wasn’t going to waste any more time with us. He was already calling for reinforcements, his hand a mere couple of inches from hitting that button. And then our whole mission would be for nothing. 

I couldn’t move fast enough. My head was still groggy, still too out of it to focus on summoning my portal power, or anything else. Nearby, Avalon was in much the same state. We were both struggling to fucking move fast enough to stop him. But it wouldn’t work. We were going to be too slow. We were going to fail. 

But we weren’t alone. Twister had left my shirt while that was going on, transforming into some sort of small bug to almost entirely disappear. She reappeared just then, shifting from the bug back to a gorilla with both hands catching the Heretic’s arm. With a loud grunt, she yanked him away from the console. 

Unfortunately, he didn’t go very far. Even with that incredible (relatively speaking) gorilla strength that could lift a thousand pounds, Twister could still barely push him back from the button that would have ended our entire mission. With one human arm against both of her massive gorilla arms, the man still managed to only be pushed back a foot or so before lashing out with his other fist. It took Twister in the face, knocking out several teeth and doing who knew what other sort of damage. She went staggering backward, releasing the man. He followed up with a blast of fire from his mouth, clearly intended to melt the gorilla’s head. 

Thankfully, Twister was faster than that. She transformed into a snake, dropping to the ground while the fire filled the air where her injured face had been an instant earlier. 

The man adjusted his aim to look down at the snake while simultaneously reaching out to the console again. But by that point, Avalon and I were finally moving once more. We threw ourselves that way, the girl beside me snapping her hand out. Her gauntlet created a quick shield that reached out over the button, blocking the man’s hand for that crucial instant. 

At the same time, I opened a small portal in front of the Twister snake, just as the man breathed fire at her once more. The flames reappeared through another portal right in front of his face, making the man attack himself with his own fire. 

Sadly, that didn’t seem to do much. Either he was immune to his own fire, or to all of it.  But at least I managed to stop him from disintegrating Twister. And Avalon had blocked his hand from hitting the button. For the moment, at least, we were still in business. And if my mental count was right, just under half the time had passed. So we still had a minute and a half. We just had to keep this going for ninety seconds. Then he could hit all the buttons he wanted. 

Our lunge had ended with me on one side of the man, and Avalon on the other, closer to the button. Twister, meanwhile, transformed into a leopard, snarling dangerously in front of him. Three of us for one Heretic, keeping him busy for just ninety seconds. Eighty-nine, eighty-eight. 

With a grunt that sounded like it was half-anger and half-amusement, the Heretic abruptly sheathed himself in skin-tight metal armor. At the same time, his elbow snapped up and back toward my face. I managed to snap my head out of the way, but a wide, wickedly-curved blade emerged from that elbow in mid-motion and that cut across my cheek, drawing blood. Worse, I felt that side of my face go a bit numb, even from that very slight cut. It was poison. I could smell it. And if a tiny bit of it from a glancing cut to my face affected me that much, taking a full dose would have ended this fight for me. 

In the exact same instant that he was cutting my face with his elbow-blade, the man opened his mouth and a new burst of fire emerged. This time, however, it wasn’t a simple ball. The flame poured forth and transformed into what looked like a leopard identical to the one Twister had turned into. Though this one was made of fire. 

From the corner of my eye as I was spinning away from that blade, I saw the fire leopard leap down from the man’s face and almost landed on top of Twister, before she threw herself away from it. She shifted up to a bird to fly backward before turning into a komodo dragon. Both times, the fire-creature followed suit, matching her shift for shift and giving chase. 

And the man wasn’t even done there. Even as I was still in mid-pivot to avoid the worst of the poisoned blade, my gaze caught sight of Avalon being lifted off the ground by some sort of energy coil that came from the man’s left side. It was wrapped around her throat, jerking her back and forth twice before she managed to bring her own gauntlet up with an energy blade extended. Hitting it as hard as she could, the girl still couldn’t make the coil release her. Instead, she was slammed backward into another part of the window. Again, it spider-webbed, and I heard a yelp of pain from Avalon. 

Right, so this was going swimmingly. Three seconds in and half my face was numbed so I couldn’t talk right (meaning casting any spells that required verbal components was right out the window), Avalon was being slammed repeatedly into a reinforced glass window, doing who knew what sort of damage, and Twister was being chased out of the room and back down the stairs by a fire-creature that could match all of her shapeshifting and would literally incinerate her if she tried to fight it head-on. At this rate, we wouldn’t have to worry about the fact that there was roughly eighty-four seconds left before the communications would be locked down, because we wouldn’t last another five. 

Except we had to. Everyone was counting on us. In the midst of that panicked, desperate moment, Avalon and I met each other’s gaze. I was still pivoting away from the blade, just as the man’s energy coil was yanking her backward and bracing to throw her into the window even harder. For a frozen instant, we saw each other. And we knew we had to do better than this. 

The man slammed Avalon toward the glass, a bellow of rage escaping him. At the same time, he spun toward me and brought his hand up to send another blast of concussive force, just like the one that had caught both of us before. If it hit me, I would be hurled clear across the room once more. And if Avalon hit the glass as hard as that coil was slamming her toward it, she would break. 

A portal appeared in front of my hand, and I shoved it through just as the other end appeared next to Avalon’s. She was ready, our hands clasping for just an instant before I vanished. I possessed her. Yes, she had been immune before. Immune to all of it. But as part of the spell that had been done over Christmas, her immunity was adjusted to allow her to let anyone in that she wanted. And in that moment, she definitely wanted me to possess her. 

The incredibly destructive blast of concussive force passed through the space where I had been a moment earlier. But now I was inside of Avalon, and in the very instant that we were about to hit that glass, I boosted the other girl with everything I could, shoving all my Seosten-gained strength and speed into her. 

Just before she would have hit the glass back-first, Avalon snapped her hands back, catching herself against the window with her palms. It was enough to send a shock of pain through her, but with her own enhanced strength and the boost I was giving, she was able to bear it. At the same time, she brought her feet up and pressed them against either side of the energy coil. A snapped word triggered the defensive measures she’d put into her boots, sending a burst of electricity out of them and into the coil. It did enough damage to make the energy construct sputter and fizzle out of existence. 

With the coil gone, Avalon was released. We dropped back toward the floor, as the other girl flipped over to land on her feet. Her arms came up into a ready position, and her gauntlets created a pair of energy gloves over her arms and hands for protection. Cracking her neck, she spoke, voice dark. “Did they put you in this position because you’re tough, or because it keeps you away from anything important?” 

Oh, the man definitely didn’t like that. A snarl escaped him while two more blades extended from his metal form, these ones attached to his wrists. The blades turned from silver to red with white tips to show just how hot they were, before he launched himself at her, at us. He wasn’t playing around anymore. He wasn’t wasting time. He was just going to kill us. 

Avalon didn’t back off or retreat. She met the man’s lunge with her own, energy-sheathed arm snapping up to block his left super-heated wrist blade as he swung for us. I could still feel the heat from it, and it was very clear that Avalon’s energy constructs couldn’t take a lot of hits like that. As it was, the ‘glove’ around her arm flickered just a little. 

Still, it held for the moment, and she was already pivoting and ducking under the swing from his other hand. Her foot lashed out to kick as hard as she could into his leg. It was like hitting a brick wall. Well, a brick wall when you didn’t have much in the way of enhanced strength. The man clearly barely felt it, the blow drawing what amounted to a snort-chuckle from him. At the same time, he made two more energy coils appear. These ones didn’t come from the man himself, but from the wall behind Avalon. They lashed out in an attempt to grab her arms. 

But Avalon was quicker than that. Even as those energy coils lashed up from behind, she was already using her mimicry power to create a pair of her own. They weren’t as strong as his, but they still managed to intercept the coils before they could grab onto her. Meanwhile, Avalon launched herself upward into a flip to carry herself over the man’s head before landing behind him. Her energy-covered fist lashed out toward the back of his head. 

He twisted just in time, catching the blow against his elbow blade to deflect it. In the same motion, his hand snapped down to catch her extended arm, yanking Avalon forward even as his other hand went toward her face, blade extended. 

That was my cue. Lunging out of the other girl, I ended up on one side of the man and caught his arm in mid-swing. Strong as he was, I barely managed to halt its forward momentum an inch from Valley’s face before she jerked her head out of the way. Unfortunately, the second I caught hold of his arm and stopped it, the man gave a soft grunt before a series of razor-sharp spikes emerged from the metal covering his skin. My hands were punctured and cut in several places, though it wasn’t nearly as bad as it would’ve been before I gained a bit of boosted strength from that Heretic woman. Still, it hurt, making me yelp a little as I released him reflexively. An instant later, his metal fist collided with my face in a backhand that made me reel away from him. 

He instantly tried to follow that up by making a pair of spikes emerge from his fist before driving it right toward my throat while I was recoiling. But Avalon made a lasso of energy emerge from her left gauntlet, catching the man’s elbow in mid-swing before jerking it as hard as she could to the side. Which made his eyes snap that way, mouth opening to breathe fire at her. But before he could, I brought my staff around, triggering the rocket-burst power not on myself, but on the top-back spot of the staff itself. The visual-effect flames emerged from that spot, and the staff was suddenly moving much faster than I could swing it by myself. At the same time, I activated the staff’s own built-in kinetic boost, further speeding it up. It slammed into the side of the man’s face just as he was about to breathe fire at Avalon, snapping his head to the side. 

Jerking his arm free of the energy lasso (it sputtered and faded from the force of his violent motion), the Heretic man made a sharp gesture with his hand. A telekinetic force (or maybe just his concussive blast power coming from the floor, I wasn’t sure which) caught hold of Valley and sent her flying upward toward the ceiling, even as several long metal spikes emerged from that ceiling, ready to impale her. 

But I was ready, already flinging my hand upwards while summoning a simple coin to it. As Avalon’s gaze met mine, I hurled the coin to her. It flung that way, flipping end over end before she caught it in one hand. An instant before she would have hit the spikes, the other girl disappeared. She possessed the coin. 

In the meantime, the Heretic was coming after me, swinging with one of his wrist-blades toward my throat while simultaneously making a long spike of metal erupt from the side at a diagonal angle to catch me if I ducked away from the wrist-blade.

So I didn’t duck. Instead, I triggered the kinetic-boost on the back of my staff while my thumb found the little bit of wood that had been embedded in it. My entire body vanished just as Avalon’s had, as I possessed the wood in my staff. It flew up just past the side of the man’s face while he was swinging that wrist-blade, and I popped out of it in mid-air, my foot lashing out to collide with the side of his head before using the impact from that to kick myself up and into a backward flip away from him. 

In that same motion, my hand was snapping outward, as I sent the Avalon coin, which I had immediately summoned back to my palm as soon as the girl possessed it, flying past the man’s head while his gaze was snapping toward me. She appeared behind him, already projecting twin ropes from her gauntlets, which wrapped around his arms before she yanked back as hard as she could. It was just enough to pull his arms away from protecting his chest, leaving him open (well, as open as he could be with metal armor covering his entire body) for a second.

Landing from the flip at that moment, I spun in a full three-sixty. In the midst of that, my hand caught the small mouse form of Twister, who had been saved from the fire-creature by Grover. The ghost boy obviously wasn’t bothered by the flames, and had simply used some of the power I gave him to punt the thing out the window. Now, as Twister leapt off the nearby console toward me, I scooped her up. Then I continued my spin before fastball-chucking her straight toward the Heretic. Sailing straight at him, Twister transformed from a mouse all the way up to a rhino, colliding with the man while maintaining that same speed from being hurled as a mouse with all my strength. 

That was enough to knock the man to the ground and crack his armor, though he gave a wild backhand swing and actually threw the rhino-Twister away from him, cutting her pretty deeply with his blades in the process. Still, the cracks were at least something we could work with.

And work with them we did. Before the man could finish pivoting from his knees to drive his blade into the briefly-prone Twister-rhino, I was there. My foot lashed out, using a bit of rocket-burst against my leg to make it go even faster and harder, colliding with his arm to knock it off-course.  

Some sort of kinetic force or wind slammed into me, just enough to make me stagger backward. By the time I caught myself, the man was back on his feet. Avalon’s foot was already colliding with the small of his back hard enough to make him stagger forward a step. He pivoted that way, blade lashing out toward her while he simultaneously raised his opposite hand to send a concussive blast my way. 

But I was already running forward, diving into a feet-first slide with a little boost from my staff to carry myself under his blast before I popped back to my feet. As Avalon caught his blade against the side of her newly-reformed energy gloves, I was there to slam my staff as hard as I could into one of the slight cracks we could see from the rhino’s collision with him. Before impact, I used the rocket-burst on my staff once more. The armor didn’t break, but it was hit with enough force to widen the crack somewhat.

Before he could recover, Avalon shoved his arm out of the way with both of hers, just as her foot snapped up. In mid-kick, this weird gel substance appeared over her leg before instantly hardening. It was almost like my resin stuff, but clearly tougher. I’d seen her use it a couple times before in training, and it was hard enough to take a full barrage of shots from either Sarah or Sean’s guns. Unfortunately, it only lasted for a few seconds at a time. But a few seconds was all she needed to shield her leg from the impact as it collided with the same crack in the man’s armor. It was just along his left side, where the lower part of his ribs would be. 

While the man was spitting curses, Avalon’s hand met mine. I vanished once more, possessing her and giving the other girl a new boost. Our opponent lashed out with a swing, but with the added speed and strength my boost gave her, Valley ducked and spun under the blade, her energy-sheathed fist lashing out to hit that crack yet again. It was widening with each blow, though slowly. 

The man’s hand was snapping down to catch Valley by the hair as she was half-crouched in front of him. But I was already popping out from her extended-fist. My form materialized right there, our hands still touching. Which meant Valley disappeared right as the man’s hand was about to grab her hair, as she possessed my glove. 

I could possess her, and she could possess any item, including my clothing. And over the next few seconds, we used that. My hand caught his elbow to stop the man’s swing. Of course my arm buckled under the force, but Valley popped out of my glove, appearing on the other side of his arm so she could yank it back. Which gave me an opening to drive my staff into that crack once more before snapping it around under his extended arm so Valley could catch the end and possess it, vanishing even as his head turned that way to breathe fire on that spot. In the same motion, I brought the opposite end of the staff snapping upward before projecting a cloud of sand into his face to try to block his vision. I was pretty sure he had plenty of extra senses, but every little bit helped. 

While he was grunting from the sand flying into his eyes, Avalon popped out of the staff, holding it for me as my hand caught her elbow so I could possess her once more. But I immediately popped out on the opposite side of her, even as Valley was triggering the boost on my staff to send the bladed tip of it rocketing hard into the man’s chin. It didn’t cut through, but the force knocked his head back a bit while I appeared on the opposite side of him from where I had been an instant earlier. My arms wrapped around his arm, yanking backward so Valley could rear back with a violent kick into that same crack on his side. 

The man screamed in blind rage, still reeling from the sand in his face as I sent as much as I could into his eyes. They were shielded with some weird transparent metal too, but I was still able to coat them with the sand and block his vision. With that bellow of anger, four different metal spikes erupted from the floor where Valley had been. But she had already possessed my staff, which was still in her hands. And in that second, I recalled it back to my grip, spinning while triggering both the boost on the weapon and the rocket-burst to drive it into the crack. Which, by that point, had spread out over almost his entire front. 

For ten more seconds, we repeated that a dozen times, Avalon constantly popping in and out either my staff, glove, or some other item, while I, in turn, took turns possessing the girl herself. Sometimes I boosted her and helped attack, other times I simply went in and immediately out again from her extended arm, behind her, in front of her, or from some other angle. I threw my staff with Valley inside it, letting her pop out behind the man before recalling it, or hit him and let her pop out to take the staff in her own hands so she could hit him a second time while I possessed the wood spot briefly. Sometimes I let the staff go all the way past him before she popped out, while other times I recalled it immediately and we hit him when he twisted to anticipate the attack from behind. He never knew what was going to happen. Every move he made to attack one of us, we weren’t there anymore. At one point, we both possessed the staff (her possessing the staff itself and me possessing the small wooden spot on it), just after I used my object-resizing power to shrink the staff down to about the size of a slightly large toothpick and threw it that way. Before the guy could figure out where we had both vanished to, I popped out of the tiny flying staff in front of him and drove my knee into his face, just as Avalon popped out of it once it passed his head, appearing behind him so she could bring both gauntlet-covered fists in to slam hard into his ears. 

It was ten seconds of total chaos, but chaos the two of us had trained at over and over again. We had practiced these maneuvers, and our opponent had no idea how to deal with it. Every time he tried to counter attack, every swing, every blast of fire, everything he did met empty air as the person he was targeting had already vanished. 

Finally, the man screamed, “Enough!” His hands came slamming together, sending out a burst of kinetic energy that made Valley and me both stagger away from him. Snarling in rage, he went to drive his hands together once more, only to stop as there was a loud beep from the nearest console before every single one of them went dark. The antennae itself made a groaning sound as it clearly shut off. 

“What–what did–what was that?!” The man demanded, his gaze snapping around. 

“That,” I informed him, “was your time running out.” Already, I was rising, gripping my staff. Valley’s hand found it, before she disappeared into the weapon once more. 

As I reared back, the man was focusing on me. His mouth opened to scream, attack, or… or do something. But before he could, Twister caught both of his arms. Or rather, the octopus she had transformed into did. Eight long, red octopus arms caught his two, four for each one. In that instant, she yanked backward, holding his arms out of the way and leaving an opening. 

The staff left my hand, sailing spear-style straight at the man as I triggered the last of its kinetic boost. It slammed into his side, and that was finally enough to finish what the crack had started. A small chunk of his armor fell away, leaving a glimpse of his exposed torso. 

It wasn’t a huge opening, but it was an opening. And Valley took advantage of it, popping out of my staff while it was rebounding off the man. She caught the weapon before it could fall, then drove it as hard as she could, blade first up into the opening we had created. The staff went all the way into the man, driven as far as Avalon could shove it at an upward angle. 

The man staggered, slumping a little. With Twister still gripping his arms in her octopus-form, and my staff driven almost halfway up through his torso, he faltered. The rest of the armor he had encased himself in broke apart, and he lifted his gaze enough to snarl, “You’ll burn in–” 

“You first,” Avalon interrupted, spinning around as she projected a blade from her gauntlet to cut straight through the man’s newly-exposed neck. 

His head hit the ground a second before the rest of his body. And Avalon, a shocked gasp of pleasure escaping her, wasn’t far behind. 

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By Blood 17-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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And there it was. The communications tower was directly in front of us as we crouched in the bushes just a few feet away from the path leading up to the door. The tower itself looked like a lighthouse with a huge radio antenna on top. One of the metal statue guardian things, like what had been in front of the dorms at Crossroads, was perched up beside the door as though ready to deal with any threat that approached. And something told me it was probably stronger than those ones. Either way, it was a problem we were going to have to deal with, because we certainly weren’t on the list of people allowed to go in there. The only way we would be able to shut down the communications was by getting in that building. The antennae itself was surrounded by a powerful forcefield. It might have been possible to get through it, but not without drawing far too much attention first. We had to do this the quiet way for as long as we could. Our best-case scenario was the bulk of the people here having absolutely no idea that anything was wrong until the truck with all our friends in it was already in the compound. 

All of which meant we needed to sneak into this building and disable the communications without setting off every alarm in the entire prison facility.  We wanted them to have no idea the communications were even down until the moment they tried to use them. Because the longer it took them to realize there was a problem, the less time that they would have to come up with a solution. 

Kohaku had been scanning the building ahead both visually and with all of her relevant powers for the past minute. Finally, she spoke in a low voice. “One Heretic inside. From what I can tell, they’re alone and not connected to anyone. They seem to be watching a movie in there. But if we pick a fight with the guardian…” She turned her gaze to the currently-motionless statue. “Give me a moment, I may be able to disable it without a fight.” 

“That’d be nice,” Twister put in. She was back in her own form, crouched on the far side of Avalon. “You sure I can’t get up there and take a peek?” 

Avalon’s head shook. “I still haven’t seen any animals around here. There was nothing in the forest. No birds, no squirrel or rat-like things, nothing. I didn’t even see a butterfly. Or a regular fly. You turn into anything and get close, they’ll know something’s going on.” 

“Exactly,” Kohaku agreed. “The Heretic in there is distracted, but we don’t know how distracted. And we don’t know how sensitive the detector on the guardian is.” With that, she paused to consider for a moment, frowning thoughtfully. “Avalon, how long will your device take?” 

Yeah, Avalon had been part of the Developer’s track, of course. On our way over to this planet, she and Columbus had both been tinkering a bit and came up with a toy that could be plugged into the computer system. Assuming it all worked out the way it was supposed to, the device would shut down the entire network with some sort of virus or whatever. The point was, it would quietly destroy their ability to call for off-world help. At least until they could get into the system and flush out the virus. Which we weren’t planning on giving them a lot of time to do.  

Considering the question briefly, Avalon tilted her head a little before answering, “Conservatively speaking, three minutes. Just to make sure it disables all the alarms first before shutting down the network itself. Once we get to a spot where I can plug it in.” 

“Okay,” Kohaku replied, clearly coming to a decision. “Felicity, take this.” She turned a bit, passing a small silver disc the size of my fist, with several runes on it that glowed faintly. “Hand that to one of your ghosts. From what I can tell, they shouldn’t be detected if they carry it over to the guardian and place it on the back of its neck. That should temporarily disable it. Just make sure they take it slow and easy. There is no need to be in a rush.” 

Nodding, I summoned Seth once more, quietly informing the man of what he needed to do while giving him enough energy to make his hands solid so he could take the disc itself. “And Seth,” I added, “you don’t have to taunt the thing first. Stay out of its line of sight, even if you are invisible. Just to be on the safe side. Go out and around, then come up along the side of the building.” 

“Eesh, okay, Mom,” the ghost retorted with a wink as he took the disc, before his voice softened. “Don’t worry so much, Chambers. I want to get Tiras out of here as much as you do, without making all these jumpy Heretics decide to execute the prisoners. Give me a minute, babe.” His eyes passed over the others before he belatedly amended, “Babes.” 

Despite his words of assurance, I still found myself holding my breath as the ghost-figure took the disc and began to make the long, circuitous trip around toward the back of the guardian. Luckily, I could hold my breath for a long time. Ten–no, fifteen minutes. I’d gotten an upgrade from killing that Heretic lady back at the truck station. Now I could hold my breath for fifteen full minutes. And, beyond that, I was able to share that ability with anyone I was touching, though the length I could hold it for went down by about a quarter for every person I did that with. By myself I could last fifteen minutes. Holding one person’s hand dropped that to about eleven and a half, and holding two people’s hands made it seven and a half. But assuming they could hold their own breath for awhile, we could keep it going for longer.

The point was, I could hold my breath much longer than it took for Seth to work his way around to the back of the statue. And I did, staring that way while half-expecting the guardian to jerk itself into motion any second. Not that I doubted the old vampire’s ability to be stealthy. It was more about doubting our luck to actually pull this off without everything blowing up. So far so good, but we were only doing this well because the Eden’s Garden people had no reason to suspect there were any problems. Seriously, they were on a tiny, out-of-the-way planet in the middle of unknown space, far from any threats that they knew of. They were probably alert for Fomorian invasion if those fucks happened to find this place. But a tiny, quiet incursion force set to rescue their prisoners? Yeah, I doubted they had the slightest inkling that anything like that was on their doorstep. Yet one tiny mistake on our part could change that, and make this entire situation a hell of a lot harder. 

But for the moment at least, that mistake didn’t happen. As we all knelt there and watched, Seth made his way around to the back of the statue and carefully placed the disc there. The second it was in place, the guardian’s eyes started to glow, as if it had detected that there was something wrong. But before it could do anything, Kohaku spoke a single word. There was a slight puff of smoke from the disc, and the guardian immediately froze once more. Its eyes dimmed, but didn’t entirely go out. It was paralyzed, not off. For the moment, we didn’t have to deal with it. 

“Go,” Kohaku urged while tugging another coin out, triggering a new stealth spell to hide us from any extra senses the Heretic in the building might have. “Don’t worry,” she assured us as we all started to jog quickly and quietly toward the door, “it won’t be a problem.” 

No sooner had the woman finished saying those words, than her hand caught hold of my arm and yanked me to the side. In that instant, my item-sense caught the presence of something very sharp moving incredibly quickly through the air right where my head had been. It was a knife, which embedded itself deep into a nearby tree.  

I was still realizing what had just happened, even as Avalon and Twister were pivoting toward the source of that knife. But Kohaku was even faster. In the exact same motion as when she had yanked me away from the incoming blade, the woman had pivoted and brought her other hand up, sending out an invisible and mostly silent bolt of force that way. 

A radio, clutched in the hand of the man who had emerged from the trees to throw that knife at me, burst apart. It didn’t so much explode as basically break into all of its component parts when that blast from Kohaku’s hand hit it. 

The man was an Eden’s Garden Heretic, obviously. He stood a couple inches under six feet, with a blond goatee and mustache, gray eyes, and a smooth bald head. He was wearing black slacks, a loose dark green button-up shirt, and a white tie. When the radio broke in his hand, he hissed and dropped it, eyes narrowing. “Kohaku. Should’ve thrown the knife at you instead.” 

“You would have had even less luck than you did with her, Howff.” she flatly informed him. “And you couldn’t resist trying to kill Joselyn’s daughter.” 

“Eh, would’ve been pretty fun,” came the retort as his eyes briefly glanced my way. “But I guess it can wait. You people aren’t getting out of here anyway.” 

Kohaku lifted one eyebrow. “I assume you’ve already realized you can’t call for help.” Her hand rose, showing a small gray stone that was pulsing with power. As she held it, I could see the edges of a shimmering silvery dome that filled the clearing briefly glow. “As long as this spell is active, you can’t summon any friends or send any messages. Nothing you do can get beyond the walls of the dome. Even your friend upstairs can’t hear you.” She nodded toward the tower behind us. 

The man, Howff apparently, narrowed his eyes. “All that means is that I need to take that stone from you.” 

“Good luck with that,” she informed him. Her next words were for Twister, Avalon, and me. “Go. You can get through the dome. Do what needs to be done. You can handle it. I’ll stop Howff.” 

If he had thought about it more, the man probably would have focused on stopping the rest of us. Or at least slowing us down. We were the ones who would be screwed over if this took too long, after all. But his attention was centered on Kohaku. I could tell there was some sort of personal history there that was clouding his judgment. Whatever it was, I was just glad it gave us this opening. Without missing a beat, or even looking at one another, Avalon, Twister, and I pivoted and ran toward the door. The statue was still frozen in place, with that disc keeping it motionless. Meanwhile, I could hear Kohaku and Howff start to go at it behind us briefly before we passed through the edge of the magic dome and the sound was cut off. Whatever happened back there now, it was up to Kohaku to handle. We had our own job. 

The first step of that job was the door. It was locked, of course. And there were several alarm spells on it. Beyond that, the door was made of solid metal and set into thick concrete. For a lot of people, it would have taken far too long to break through quietly, and make entirely too much noise to do so loudly. 

But we weren’t a lot of people. Even as we approached the door, Avalon was producing Seth’s knife (making the ghost-man raise an eyebrow from where he was lounging next to the guardian statue). She cut straight through the spot on the door where the alarm spells were, disabling them in two quick strokes so that anything happening to the door wouldn’t alert everyone in the prison. 

Meanwhile, I stopped in front of the door. It was still locked, and according to Kohaku, the security they used here would be too strong for my auto-unlocking power. Still, I had another way of dealing with it. Taking a breath, I raised my hands up to my face with one palm facing down while the other faced outward to the right, and focused on one of the new powers I had picked up from the Heretic back on Earth. She had ripped massive slabs of concrete out of the ground. I wasn’t that strong. But I could reshape the concrete. Which, I was pretty sure, was helped along by the rock-manipulation power I’d already had. With those two combined, while I couldn’t throw huge slabs of concrete through the air willy nilly, I could manipulate and play with it almost like clay. Maybe later I would get better at lifting it up, but for now, I was a bit more limited. Thankfully, it was enough for our purposes. 

With a grunt of effort, I shoved one hand down and the other to the side. With those motions, I used that stolen power to push the concrete below the door down, and the concrete to one side of it to the right, out of the way. It took some effort, given how thick and strong the concrete happened to be, and how new to using this power I was. But the cement finally moved, and the door started to fall with those two sides no longer holding it up. 

But Twister was there, already having shifted into a gorilla form. She caught the door before it could fall and alert the guy inside, shoving it out of the way to lean against the guardian statue. 

Now we had our opening, and we didn’t waste any time. Hoping that Kohaku was doing okay, I went through the entrance first. 

There was very little immediately in-view. The room beyond the door was circular, with a few consoles along the rounded walls, and a set of stairs that spiraled upward higher into the lighthouse. We could hear the television that the Heretic guard was watching, so none of us spoke just yet. Instead, I raised my hand to point at the consoles while looking toward Avalon. Unfortunately, she took a quick glance that way before shaking her head. Those wouldn’t do. We had to get up into the main control room. Of course, I knew it couldn’t be that easy. But I’d had to at least check. 

While I was reacting to her response, Avalon tugged out a small gray stone identical to the one Kohaku was using outside to create that dome of silence. As soon as she activated it, our friend upstairs wouldn’t be able to summon help or warn anyone either. 

Rather than move directly to the stairs, I tilted my head to look up at the ceiling. At the same time, I summoned Seth, Grover, and several other ghosts who were still with me. They’d all agreed to come on this trip and help out, so I silently let them know what I wanted. The assembled group of incorporeal figures looked at one another, noded, then flew up through the ceiling. They were on their way to burst out through the floor to attack the Heretic there. Not that I or any of them expected a few ghosts to be able to win against him, but they would serve as a pretty good distraction while we made our way upstairs. I just hoped they lasted long enough. 

Grover went last, catching the activated stone as Avalon tossed it to him. He flew up the stairs to get it within range of the man up there from the moment the other ghosts ambushed him. 

Silently wishing them luck, I held a hand out toward Twister. She shifted into a tiny mouse once more, landing on my palm before running up to my shoulder. Giving Avalon a quick glance and thumbs up, I ran to the base of the stairs and then jumped. Rather than run up the steps, I used the rocket burst power I had also inherited from the Heretic woman. The flames that came out of my feet and the middle of my back weren’t actually hot. As far as I could tell, they didn’t really do any damage or anything. They were just a visual effect, showing where the kinetic force was pushing outward to shove me in the opposite direction. 

I couldn’t fly with them, unfortunately. I could get a pretty good lift off and use the power as what amounted to a rocket jump to get myself maybe thirty feet into the air before coming back down. And that was it without using my Seosten boost or added lift from my staff. With both of those, I could get even higher and further. Beyond that, the rocket burst could act as what amounted to a hover power, keeping me a few feet off the ground while moving me forward (or in other directions if I shifted where the ‘flames’ were emerging). 

I could use the rocket burst on the ground for about twenty seconds at a time before it needed to recharge. Which, with the added Seosten boost and the speed-up rings that I placed in front of me on the way, was more than enough time. I was a blur as I hover-rocketed up the stairs. Without the werewolf-enhanced reflexes combined with what the Seosten boost also gave me, I probably would have slammed right into the curved wall almost immediately. But I managed to keep going around every bend, even as Twister the mouse shoved herself inside my shirt and clung for dear life. 

I also hadn’t left Avalon very far behind. She was using the power she’d picked up awhile back to copy versions of other people’s powers in order to use the same rocket burst, and was right behind me. The two of us rocketed up the spiraling stairs, past several other floors where various unimportant rooms were. What we wanted was the very top floor, where the light would have been if this was an actual lighthouse. 

On the way, I could sense my ghosts having problems of their own. A couple of them had already been disintegrated. Not that it was permanent or anything. The magic holding their ‘bodies’ together was simply dispersed and it would take some time and effort to pull them back together. Still, I felt a pang of guilt about sending them up to get hurt like that, even if they had volunteered. I was going to have to do something nice for the ghosts for helping out so much on this trip. Even Grover, who wasn’t fighting but was floating just close enough to keep the communication-blocking spell up. 

Still, there were a few left in the actual fight, including Seth. Unsurprisingly, the dead vampire seemed to be doing the best against that Heretic. He had, after all, been the Wonderland Tiebreaker for a reason. If he had still been in his vampire form, he might even have stood more of a chance. Might have. But as it was, in this ghost body, the best he could hope to do was hold out and keep the man’s attention a little bit longer. 

Thankfully, it was long enough. I heard the Heretic cursing and threatening my ghosts just ahead of us as we reached the top of the stairs. Then we were in a wide-open circular room, much like the one at the bottom of the stairs. But this one had a lot more consoles around it, along with a central machine right in the middle that was clearly the base of the radio-like antennae. 

The Heretic was immediately visible as well. He had his back to us (I was going to assume that Seth was responsible for that), and seemed fairly unassuming in appearance. He wasn’t that big, standing only a few inches taller than me, with short blond hair and a wiry build. He wore a pair of dark cargo pants and a white muscle shirt. 

Oh, and he was holding a spear with an energy blade at the end, which he was busy driving into another of my ghosts, shattering him into ectoplasm-like stuff that quickly disintegrated. Which seemed to leave Seth as the only one left (aside from Grover out in the stairwell), having just spun out of the way from the back-handed blow that the Heretic followed up with after skewering the other ghost. 

The man instantly reacted to our arrival, sending a burst of what was clearly incredibly dangerous fire flying backward at us. But Avalon and I were ready, diving to either side as our rocket-burst wore off. The flames filled the air between us, sending a wave of almost nauseating heat over my body. Yeah, not a good idea to be hit by that. 

Avalon was already rising after that dive, pulling herself up with the help of the nearby console. Even as she rose, I could see the spot where she had stuck her device. It was out of sight from where the Heretic was standing, and already silently doing its job. 

Speaking of the Heretic, he had moved to the center of the room, his eyes darting between Avalon and me while he held his energy-bladed spear toward Seth. “Ah, traitors through and through, I should’ve known. You won’t be getting out of this alive.” 

“We’ll see,” I replied flatly, trying to keep the nerves out of my voice. Three minutes. We had to keep this guy busy for three minutes so Avalon’s device could do its thing. 

If we failed, the Eden’s Garden people would be able to summon reinforcements. And then this whole rescue mission would be over. 

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