Flick

Uprising 29-08

Previous Chapter

Well, if all those Seosten slaves/prisoners that we had just liberated were nervous about their situation before, a massive werelion running right into the middle of their impromptu camp while a Heretic armed with a mace rode on her back probably wasn’t exactly helping matters any.

Sands and I had just run for the past twenty minutes to catch up with these guys. Not that it was hard to find them, I just let the other girl hold my little mouse buddy so he could direct her to where his brother was (She’d been smart enough to hand Jaq over to the others so that we could find them later). Then I just shifted into my lion form, let her climb on, and took off.

The place where Roxa, Isaac, Gordon, and Jazz had stopped with the rest of the slaves turned out to be a large clearing that was sort of half covered from the sky by a rocky outcropping. Most of the former slaves were catching their breath, some lying on the ground and gasping for air while others simply bent to grab their knees. They all looked ragged, worn, tired, and scared.

As we came into view, however, all of those exhausted former prisoners were suddenly back on their feet. They looked ready to scatter and flee into the woods until Roxa came running down from atop the rock, calling, “Wait, wait, it’s okay! They’re with us! Gordon, tell them!”

But before the boy could say anything, as he too came down from the rock outcropping, one of the prisoners spoke up. His words were hesitant and a little slow, but understandable English. “We… have understanding of your speaking. We have… very hard trying to learn what they are called ‘trade language’ for if we are ever to be away from the masters.”

Lifting my currently furry head while Sands clambered off me, I looked at the man who had spoken. It was a Relukun, like the one I had killed to get my wood-traveling power. This one looked twisted and ancient, like a gnarled old tree that was about to fall over. Nonetheless, he was standing on his own two feet, and there was a smile somewhere in the wrinkled, wooden countenance. “It was a lost hoping,” he murmured, “But we did not stop it. Or stop learning.”

I think I like him, Tabbris whispered. Can we say hi? Um. When we can talk again. Please?

Trust me, I think I like him too, I replied before turning toward Sands as the girl held my clothes up to me. Taking them in my mouth, I looked over at Roxa. She was already gesturing for me to follow her over to a spot where I could safely change. In the background as I trotted after the werewolf-Heretic, I heard Sands telling them what little she knew about what had happened.

As she led me out of the way, Roxa quietly explained, “They’ve been using some magic and powers that they have to hide where we are and erase our trail. It probably won’t stop the Seosten forever, but it’ll slow them down, hopefully long enough for us to get out of here. There’s a few of them making some kind of portal thing now that’s supposed to take us up to one of the ships. We could’ve gone further, but the further we ran down here, the longer it would’ve been before they could start making the portals. I figured this would be far enough.”

I gave the other girl a nod with the lion’s head. She had a point. This wasn’t as far away as most might’ve considered safe. But as big as this forest was, it would still take the Seosten some time to search enough of it. Especially if these guys were using magic to try and keep them away. I had no doubt that the wannabe angels would eventually break through that sort of thing. But in the short-term, maybe it would be enough. It was going to have to be enough.

Changing and dressing quickly (an act that was made infinitely faster and easier since I could just touch an article of clothing, focus on it, and have it appear on my body where I wanted it), I made my way back out to where everyone else was. Sands was there, holding my staff out for me to take. Gus had been reunited with his brother, and the two mice were perched in the middle of the staff. I let them climb up on my shoulders, giving them a little attention before finally looking around the clearing.

Wow. There were a lot of Alters here. More than I could easily count during a quick scan. They were of all shapes and sizes. The majority, of course, were vaguely humanoid. But there were also a few that definitely weren’t. I saw a couple that basically looked like slime-creatures with tentacles, one six-legged bear-man with long rabbit-like ears, and even a few much smaller figures that looked like squirrels mixed with lawn gnomes. Not to mention several centaurs and centaur-like beings that stood near the back of the area, nervously pawing at the ground.

So yeah, there were a lot of people. And all of them were staring at me. Not glancing, not looking back and forth between all of us. They were openly staring directly at me, while not making a sound. Some of them looked scared, but the majority simply looked somehow… awed.

Roxa moved next to me, quietly whispering, “A few of the ones that can fly stayed back long enough to see what happened. They… saw what you did, that you could possess the Seosten.”

Oh. That explained why they were staring. Flushing self-consciously, I cleared my throat before raising my voice to speak up. “Uh, guys, we should really get out of here. The Seosten aren’t gonna give up. We stopped them from contacting Radueriel, but that won’t last forever. Before long, he’s gonna get the message about what happened, and when he does, we’re completely screwed if we’re still here. They’ll send the ships back here to scour the place top to bottom. They’ll probably burn the whole planet at this point to stop us from getting away.”

The elderly, gnarled Relukun who had spoken up before moved forward. He had Jokai with him, and was murmuring something to the chameleon-like being. After a moment, Jokai turned and started talking to the other Alters in Latin, while the old tree-man came to where we were.

“Our peoples,” he started, “they have started the spells which will take all to the starboats. But it will… take more minutes to finish such spells. They are doing the working as fast as they able.”

“They’re up on the overlook,” Gordon informed me, gesturing that way. “Apparently, the spell needs a clear look straight at the sky in order to work properly. I just asked them, and they said it’s going to take at least another twenty minutes to get it set up. If they don’t do it just right, the spell could just fling everyone into the middle of space instead of sending us onto the ships.”  

Isaac blanched noticeably at that little nugget. “Uh, yeah, tell ‘em to take their time and do it right, then. I withdraw any and all complaints I might have made about how long it was taking.”

Nodding slowly, I looked to the Relukun. “Do you think they–” Pausing, I frowned before hesitantly asking, “I’m sorry, could you tell us what we should call you, sir? I’m Flick.”

“Oh, right.” Roxa quickly lifted her hand to gesture that way. “Flick, this is Karees. He’s basically the leader of these guys, since he’s been here the longest. He spent eighty years here on the planet. Before that, he was in a few other slave camps. He’s the one who convinced them to listen to Jokai and the others when they were trying to convince them to leave the camp.”

Smiling a little at that, I nodded. “Thanks. And it’s really good to meet you, Karees. I’m glad you managed to convince the others to take a chance with us. And now I just hope you didn’t misplace that trust and we manage to  get out of here without getting everyone captured again.”

The Relukun shook his head at that. “Whether one way or some other,” he announced solemnly, “we will no longer be Seosten prisoners. Our people here will be their slaves for no more again.”

Swallowing, I lifted my chin, deciding to focus on the part about getting everyone out  rather than the implication of what the former prisoners would do if it looked like they were about to be captured. “The ships that Jokai was talking about, it sounds like your people are using a spell to send us up to them? Won’t the other Seosten think of that and be up there waiting for us?”

Karees smiled at me. “We have thinking of that,” he answered easily. “Before leaving prison place, some of us did went to wipe away and break spell transports. They will have to be remaking them. It will take them as far time as it is taking us to be making them up again.”

“Right.” I nodded gratefully at that. “Good to know. So we might just beat them up there after a–wait, aren’t there guards on there already? And a crew? I mean, they’re mining ships, right?”

It took the tree-man a moment to process what I’d said before he answered. “They are being not used right now. There is guards and crew, but only very few, just enough to keep ship stable.”

“A skeleton crew then,” Isaac put in. “Possibly made out of actual skeletons, for all we know.”

Ignoring the boy, I murmured, “So we should be able to take one then. Will all your people fit on one of the ships? And can you guys fly the thing, because we haven’t covered that class yet.”

“Jokai,” Karees replied with a nod toward the younger man, who was apparently trying to comfort some of the more frightened people. None of them could really stop staring at us, but a few were doing so with looks that made it clear that they thought we might be just as bad as the people they had just escaped from. They were beaten down, oppressed, and rightfully suspicious of anyone who came claiming to offer some kind of help. Especially when that help came from people they only recognized as Heretics.  I just hoped we could change their minds.

“He and his… shackle-mates,” Karees continued, “were taught to work the ships under guard.”

“Shackle-mates,” Jazz echoed, having approached while we were talking. “Does that mean they were imprisoned in the same cell together or something? Or that they had work detail together?”

Karees nodded his ancient, gnarled head, looking a bit like a tree that was bowing against powerful wind. “It is both,” he replied. “Jokai and his shackle-mates were lived together, trained together, worked together.” His face twisted a bit as he finished quietly. “They were… friends.”

Catching his look, and the phrasing that he used, I hesitantly asked, “Were? You say that like…”

“Jokai’s shackle-mates were killed,” the Relukun confirmed. “During one training mission, when Jokai was taken for other things. The Seosten who trained them to handle ships insisted that they should mine area they should not. Ship was damaged very badly. Seosten blamed prisoners, and Jokai’s shackle-mates were executed.” His face twisted a little in grief once more before the old man quietly added, “That is why Jokai ran away, why he risked escaping. He chose to rather be dead than be slave anymore, and took one chance at escaping there.”

I cringed at that, but it was Jazz who spoke up. “You mean they killed his friends just because they did what the Seosten told them to and it went wrong? But that’s–that’s…” She worked her mouth, standing there staring at Karees for a moment while apparently unable to find words.

“It’s wrong,” I finished for her. “That’s why we have to get the rest of them out of here. Right?”

The other girl didn’t say anything at first. She just kept staring at Karees for a few seconds. Then her eyes moved to look at the other Alters. I watched as her gaze passed over them, almost as if she was seeing them, really seeing them, for the first time. Her eyes seemed to widen as she took in the sight in total silence before finally looking back to me. “Yeah,” she replied softly, voice cracking a little bit even on that single word. Then she dropped her gaze, staring at the ground.

I wasn’t going to push any further than that. I’d seen her reaction. That was enough. Instead, I looked over to the others. “So basically, we just have hope that we get up to those ships before our friends back there either get up there themselves, or manage to contact Radueriel.”

“How much damage did you do to their communications?” Gordon asked then. “The Alters who stayed behind to watch what happened, they were saying that you broke them pretty badly.”

I nodded at that. “Yeah, I shot them up pretty bad. Hopefully they won’t be able to patch them together too soon. Guess we should just be glad they don’t have anyone who can make the jump out to Radueriel’s station instantly. Or that they’re not–” As the next thought came to me, I frowned abruptly. “Wait, why exactly wouldn’t they just go to that building we came out of when we got here, the one with the portal directly onto the station, or any of the other portals?”

Karees answered. “When our peoples destroyed spells that would take Seosten masters to the starboats, they also did the same for spells that would take them to other places on world. They will be having to go on feet or with the volucercarrus. But either will not be immediate as spell.”   

“That’s what they call those hover-bike things,” Roxa put in before I could ask. “Volucercarrus.”

The Relukun nodded once more. “For quicker, some have taken to call them v-carrus at times.”

“V-carrus,” I echoed, sounding it out for myself. “Almost sounds like vicars.” Looking up at that, I smiled despite myself. “I think I like that one. Vicars. Easier to remember than volcanocarass.”

“Okay, one,” Sands put in. “Volcano-car-ass is not hard to remember. But volucercarrus is.”

“So vicar it is,” I replied with a thumbs up. “The vicars, how long will it take them to get there?”

Gordon was the one who answered. “It took us four days hiking. Figure something like five miles an hour, hiking twelve hours a day, that’s sixty miles. Four days would make it two hundred and forty. I was talking to some of the other prisoners, and it sounds like the v-carrus can do about three hundred miles an hour. But that’s over open ground, not through trees and hills. Even if they sent someone immediately, it’ll probably still take them most of an hour to get there.”

“They were focused on me first,” I murmured thoughtfully. “So the earliest they would’ve sent them was when I took off, which was about…” I looked at the watch on my wrist. “Forty minutes ago. You said it’ll take twenty minutes to finish the portal spells, and that’s about how soon any vicars they sent could make it to Radueriel.” Hissing a little, I shook my head. “It’s gonna be really close. Really, really close. We’ve gotta get up there, take over the ship, and book it.”

“Book it?” Karees was staring at me with obvious confusion. “You wish to record these events?”

Forcing myself not to giggle to avoid making the guy feel bad, I shook my head. “Sorry, I mean ‘go’, we need to go very quickly as soon as we get up on that ship, before Radueriel shows up.”

“Our people will ‘book it’ as soon as we can,” he announced in a deeply solemn voice before reaching out to touch my arm with his wooden hand. “We thank you, for everything you have been doing. Some of ours may not know if you are to be trusted. But we know what you have done, what you have risked to free us. That is not something that we will just lose our minds of.”

Swallowing a little, I met the man’s gaze as he squeezed my arm. “I promise,” I started while moving my other hand to rest on his arm, “we’re not done. We’re getting everyone out of here.”

True to his word, it wasn’t that much longer before the Alters up on the outcropping called down. From Tabbris’s translation, they were saying that the spells were ready, but that we had to hurry.

“Don’t have to tell me twice,” I muttered before realizing that none of the Alters down here were moving. Instead, they were all still staring at me. There were a few whispers going around, but for the most part, everyone seemed to be waiting to see what I was going to do.

Karees spoke up from behind me. “They have seen what you do. They have seen your power, seen you do what the Seosten do to the Seosten. They have seen you master the masters.”

“I’m not–” Stopping myself, I breathed out. “I just got lucky and managed to kill one of their really powerful people, that’s all. If Charmiene hadn’t left herself open like th–”

The whispering was louder now, and even Karees couldn’t stop himself from interrupting. “Pardons, Charmiene? What of the Nemesis?”

“Nemesis?” I echoed. “That’s what Radueriel called her. Wait, wasn’t that one of the–oh.”

The Relukun nodded. “Charmiene the Nemesis, you… you are saying that you… that she is… that… that you…” There was emotion in his voice, as he stared at me.

“I… my friends and me, we fought her,” I replied slowly. “One of my other teammates, he hit her hard, stunned her long enough for me to… to kill her.”

Karees slumped hard then. At first I thought that he was falling over, and quickly moved to catch him. But he straightened after that immediate slump. And when he stood that time, it was like a weight had been lifted from the man. “The Nemesis is dead,” he spoke in an awed, hushed voice that cracked. There were what looked like tears in his eyes. Then he raised his voice louder, calling, “The Nemesis is dead!”

Someone else further back repeated the shout. Then another, and more. Soon, they were all saying it, all repeating the same thing. The Nemesis was dead. The Nemesis was dead. They said it over and over. There were tears everywhere.

As I stared around in confusion, they came forward. Karees was first. He stepped over to me, his gnarled, wooden hands taking my shoulders before squeezing. I blinked up at his eyes, seeing the tears there as he announced. “My girl-child, my girl-child resisted. The Nemesis killed her, killed her man-mate, their boy-children and girl-child, my next-children. When my woman-mate cried and begged for her to spare our next-children, our child’s children, she was killed. The Nemesis killed my all. You–you have killed her. You are–”

By that point, he was too choked up to speak, his mouth simply opening and shutting repeatedly for a few more seconds before he released me. Which was when more of the Alters came forward. They were all talking, all trying to thank me. All talking about what Charmiene had taken from them, who she had killed. The old Seosten hadn’t personally hurt everyone there, but she had hurt enough of them. Dozens kept trying to get closer, kept trying to tell me how grateful they were either for themselves or for people that they knew.

“Guys, guys, wait, wait, we need to go,” I kept trying to insist. “Thank you, I–I can’t–I’m glad that–guys, really, we need to–”

“Seosten!” The shout came from atop the outcropping. As everyone jerked that way, we saw a figure leaning over the edge, pointing off into the distance. Every head snapped that way, and I heard the sound of the hoverbike/vicar engines.

“Go!” I blurted, turning to the others. “Get up there, go, get everyone to the spells. Now, go!”

There was a shout from the other side of the group, before Roxa raised her voice to yell for everyone to get up to the portals. Gidget, bouncing from foot to foot beside her, made a loud growling sound of agreement. Then the rush began. It was actually better than I expected. The former slaves didn’t trample each other, didn’t shove one another out of the way. But they were definitely in a hurry.

Making sure the rest of my group was with me, I watched the sky while trailing after the escaped prisoners. We made it up to the top of the outcropping and found four large portals sitting there. They were vaguely violet in color, and I could see some kind of room on the other side of them. Beside each of the portals were several Alters pointing their hands at it. From the strain on their faces, it was obvious that it was taxing to maintain them. Still, they were trying their best, keeping the portals active while their fellow escaped prisoners started streaming through.

“Go!” I blurted, giving Roxa a shove. “We don’t know what’s on the other side, if we send them through and they get wiped out by all the guards there, we won’t–”

I was interrupted by the sound of those engines growing deafening, and whipped around just as a dozen vicars come into view. Each was carrying two riders, and they did not look happy.

The shooting started almost immediately, as some kind of weird, high-velocity metal shot from from both the front of the vicars and from the weapons held by about half of the riders themselves. It wasn’t the same thing as bullets. It was more like a rail gun or something. Tiny bits of metal accelerated so much that they punched straight through anything they hit. The other half weren’t using guns. Instead, they sent things like fireballs, scalding water, and more. The air was filled with incoming death.

Roxa was running, for a few steps anyway before Gidget finished transforming into her hoverboard form to carry the girl up to the portals.

One of the Alters that was passing by me took one of those metal projectiles right in his arm, sheering the limb right off. But he never broke pace. The lure of freedom was too strong, and he kept right on running. As my head snapped that way, taking in the sight of his severed arm, Sands shouted my name from somewhere off in the mob of running figures.

Shots were coming everywhere. I saw Alters going down, bodies piling up even as the rest struggled to make it to the portals. Three shots took down one of the people who were holding the portals open, and the rest failed to maintain it. That portal flickered out of existence, leaving only three left.

Screaming, flying metal, fire, deafening engines, sobbing, smoke, all of it and more filled the air. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t see, I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t do anything but stand there as chaos and destruction reigned. Roxa, who had been right beside me, had been carried off somehow by the mob. Wherever Sands was, I couldn’t see her. All around me, there was nothing but running figures, and the death that chased them from the sky. In just those few seconds, over a dozen of the prisoners that we had saved went down, falling to the ground, never to rise again. They were cut down literally inches from freedom. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I could hear Tabbris crying.

Light suddenly filled the side of my vision, and I snapped my head that way in time to see a truly massive ball of ice coming straight for me. The freezing orb had to be at least five feet around. The ground beneath it as well as everything that got within a few feet of the thing ended up completely frozen. I saw a running figure pass too close to the frozen ball, only for half of their body to end up turning to ice. That only lasted for a moment before their frozen half shattered, like an icicle that had been dropped.  For a half-second, an instant, I was caught flat footed.

Abruptly, another figure shoved his way right into my path, knocking me to the ground. I looked up, and saw Gordon. The dark-skinned boy had pushed me down, and now stood over me. He was turning, dropping down into a kneeling position as he wrapped both arms around me. I found myself pulled up against the boy and held there just as the frozen orb collided squarely with him. Things got cold… really cold. But I didn’t freeze.

Then it was gone. Gordon was standing, pushing himself up with a slight grunt. As I stared up at the boy, he looked down at me, extending a hand. His voice was as calm as ever. “We need to go.”

I let him help me up, turning. Most of the Alters were through by then. The ones who were still alive, anyway. But there were also only two portals still active. And as I watched, another went down. One portal left. Beside it, Jazz and Sands were there, waving for us to hurry.

We ran. Gordon and I sprinted that way, even as more rail-shots from the flying bikes kept blowing apart the ground all around our feet. I felt the heat of the shots, as they kept getting closer. We weren’t going to make it.

Except fuck that. My arm snapped out to wrap around Gordon, even as I pointed my staff behind us and toward the ground. Triggering the charge that had built up, I sent us flying far ahead, leaving the shots behind just as they would have converged with where we had been.

The portal was there. We landed, and I saw Sands take a quick step forward. As the vicars that had been flying right on our heels came screaming closer, she held up both hands. A spray of sticky webbing shot from them, and I snapped my head back that way in time to see the drivers of each of the two hovercycles that had been closest take a glob to the face.

An instant later, the webbing burst into flames, and the drivers screamed while veering off. They crashed into one another, leaving a massive explosion there in midair. All four of them, drivers and passengers alike, were killed instantly.

Sands collapsed, a cry of pleasure escaping her as the pink aura flared up. Instead of waiting for her to recover, I grabbed the girl by the arm and yanked her up, giving her a shove toward Jazz. “Go!” I shouted. “Take her through!”

She did, taking Sands around the waist to pull her through the portal. As Gordon followed, it left me and the three Alters who were holding the portal open. One went through, dropping its size by about half. The remaining two struggled to keep it open. Looking to one another, some unspoken communication passed between them, and one hopped backward through the portal.

One left, and the portal was down to about the size of a normal doorway. Ahead of us, the remaining vicars were on their way, coming in for another strafing run. We only had a handful of seconds, if that much.

The last Alter looked to me, shouting something that I didn’t need Tabbris to translate as an order to go through and leave him.

“Yeah,” I replied flatly, “that’s not happening.”

Reaching out, I caught him by the arm, while holding my staff straight ahead in the direction of the incoming Seosten troops. “Get–” I started while triggering the boost. It sent me flying backward through the portal, yanking the last Alter with me. As he was torn off his feet, the portal itself started to wink out.

We passed through at the last instant, leaving the planet and Seosten troops behind with my last word.

“–fucked!”

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Uprising 29-07

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Please note that there was a mini-interlude focusing on Vanessa and Tristan (with a bit of a surprise at the end) posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

So, taking stock. I was in the middle of the Seosten slave camp. Something like a hundred troops were scouring the whole place looking for me, including flying overhead. The few Seosten themselves who were there would clearly stop at nothing to have me either killed or captured after I had shown that I could do to them what they did to everyone else. And I had no way of getting out of the camp without revealing myself to the dozens and dozens of beings that would dogpile me the instant I appeared, before I could actually do anything useful like escape.  

But on the bright side, at least I was pretty much acing that whole ‘distract all of the Seosten troops so they let the slaves escape instead of chasing them’ thing. With any luck at all, they would all be long gone by the time this situation resolved itself. I just had make sure that ‘resolving itself’ part didn’t end up involving me either dead or a Seosten slave. Somehow.

Some of the guards were walking around with strange-looking flashlight devices that gave off a pale red beam. They were shining them everywhere as they scoured the camp, and I could see more of the same crimson lights coming off the hoverbikes gliding slowly by overhead.

Any idea what those red light things are?  I asked my partner after watching them for a moment. Because I’m kind of getting the sneaky suspicion that they detect stealth powers somehow.

I–um, I’m not sure, the response came slowly. Mama didn’t mention them exactly. But she did talk about stuff that could make invisible things not invisible. Maybe that’s what they are?

Maybe, I agreed. Either way, they don’t seem to be affecting us right now. The lights already hit us a few times and none of them reacted or anything. So we’re safe as long as we don’t move.

The other girl’s response was a pointed, But they’ll call for Radueriel as soon as they fix that thing, and he’ll probably have a way to find you. Plus, you can’t just stay here forever, anyway.

You, I noticed. She kept saying ‘you’ instead of ‘we’ or ‘us’. Tabbris was still so accustomed to keeping herself out of the situation and being a completely unseen presence that she kept instinctively not counting herself in things like that. Which was… yeah, we were gonna have to talk about that. We were going to have to talk about a lot of things, whenever there was time.

You’re right, I replied, we can’t just stay here forever. But we’ll have to time and plan it right. We don’t get a do-over. Once we pop out of here, they’ll be right on us. We won’t even be able to hide in another bit of wood, because they’ll see it happen that time and we’ll be sitting ducks.  

Wait, the response came a second later, I think you can do something else besides sit here.

She told me what her idea was, and I felt myself smile a little bit (despite the fact that I didn’t really seem to have a physical body at that particular moment). Yeah, you know what? I’m pretty sure that the Seosten are gonna get really sick of me using their own tactics against them.

Good. The response from Tabbris was unusually firm, even a little vindictive. They deserve it.

Again, we were going to have to talk about a lot of things. But for the time being, I watched as the troops continued to search for us, waiting for the right moment. I needed one of them to come closer at a time that others weren’t actively looking in the same direction. Which was tricky, especially with the ones that were flying overhead. The timing for it had to be just right.  

So we waited, and waited. Nearby, there were several guards working on fixing the machine that I had shot up so that they could call for help. But from the sound of things, it was gonna take them awhile. Which the nearest Seosten wasn’t happy about. Even without Tabbris translating, I could tell from his tone that he was chewing them out pretty thoroughly. If I hadn’t known any better, I might have said that he actually sounded nervous. Funny how that worked.

Still, no one seemed to be in any hurry to come close enough to the fence post that we were occupying. This was taking entirely too long. Even if they couldn’t get the intergalactic telephone working again, I had no doubt that one of the Seosten would know a spell they could use. Once they got over the initial search and effort to fix the machine, they’d go for the magic solution. So for every minute that passed, we kept getting inexorably closer to Radueriel showing up.

Finally, however, we got a little bit of a break. Unfortunately, it was two guards that approached and stopped near the fence that I was occupying, rather than one. Still, I braced myself and watch both of them with bated breath, ready for the first possible opening.

There! The guard who was nearest to the fence was looking at the building where the communications equipment was being restored, while his partner had his head turned around the other way to stare up at one of the nearby guard towers. They were still right next to each other, but they weren’t actually looking at each other. And there were no hover bikes overhead. That was going to have to be good enough. In that moment, I really wished that I had Shiori’s power that told her when she was being observed. Actually, I just really wished that she was here. I missed her. I missed both of them, Shiori and Avalon.

No, had to focus. Without waiting another second, I started to extend myself out of the fence. As I emerged, I quickly grabbed the nearest guard by the wrist while using the possession power, and felt Tabbris helping at the same time.

I was in, seeing through the guards I even as his gaze finished snapping down to where my hand had been on his wrist. I felt him in the back of my mind, struggling against my control. But it was even less than the Seosten’s resistance, barely a spray of water from a hose against a brick wall.

Beside us, his companion was turning away from his study of the tower while asking something. Tabbris immediately translated in near-real-time.

“Did you see something?” the other guard asked. From his voice, he sounded a bit nervous. I wasn’t sure how much of that was fear of me, and how much was fear of what his masters would do if they didn’t find me. To be honest, it was probably weighted about ninety to ninety-five percent in the latter direction. I knew for a fact that I wouldn’t want to be in his position.

Trusting Tabbris to translate my words way she had before, I started to respond. I told the man that there was nothing there, and then asked him if he thought ‘they’ were really still in the camp.

In response, the other guard grunted something about how bad it would be for all of them if I had escaped. Lifting his red flashlight device, he gave it a slow pan around the area. Despite myself, I braced a little bit as it passed over me. But nothing happened. Which, I supposed made sense. As much as the Seosten depended on being able to possess their troops, I really doubted they would hand out a bunch of ways to identify them.

Uh huh, Tabbris agreed. Mama said that the Seosten have been unified and working together for so long that most of them can’t even conceive of the idea that they might actually have to defend against their own abilities. She hesitated a bit then, before adding, That’s what the regular Seosten think anyway. Mama said that she thought that the ones who did show any kind of, you know, resistance to the way things were got taken away somewhere so they wouldn’t ‘infect’ anyone else.

There was a lot that I wanted to say to that, but we had to focus. So I looked down at the flashlight thing in my hands and access the guards memories briefly to see how to activate it. Turning it on, I swept the beam around before pausing as it hit a corner of the nearest tower down near the base. “Hey,” I spoke while nudging the guard next to me. Again, my partner translated my voice. “Did you see that?”

The man’s head snapped that way, and he stared intently for a moment before shaking his head. His hand was already reaching for something on his belt as he replied, “Better call it in anyway.”

Quickly, I made my host shake his head while hissing, “Are you crazy?” When he stopped to look at me, I continued. “What if there’s nothing there? Do you want to be the one who calls them over with the mood they’re in? You think they’ll just laugh it off if they think we distracted them for nothing?” With that, I started to walk that way, gesturing with the pistol that the man had been carrying in his other hand. “Come on, watch my back. We’ll check it out, then call it in.”

Walking that way, I led the other guard over to the tower. No one was paying attention to us, since they were all so intently focused on searching for… well, me. The tension in the air was obvious, and I was pretty sure that it wasn’t because these guys were afraid of what I might do.

Leading my guy over to the base of the tower, I stepped under it and into the shadows. There was a bush there, and I took a knee while making a big show of peering under the bush. The whole time, the other guard kept asking increasingly nervous questions about whether anything was there. He also mentioned more than once how close we were to the edge of the camp.

“Wait,” I muttered, then leaned in to pantomime grabbing something. Keeping my hand closed into a fist, I turned while staying on one knee to hold the hand up toward the other guy. “Think they dropped this?” Then I opened the guy’s hand only a little bit, deliberately keeping a couple fingers in the way so that he couldn’t see that my hand was actually empty.

With an annoyed grunt, the other guard reached out to push my fingers away, telling me to let him see. As my host’s open and empty palm was revealed, I made him smile (though it was hidden behind the mask). “Oops. Guess it escaped.” Then I abruptly grabbed his wrist while telling Tabbris, Now!

Two things happened simultaneously then. First, the Seosten girl knocked out our current host after wiping out his memory of the past few minutes. At the same time, I shot upward out of the body, my actual hand replacing his on the other guard’s wrist. Then I was inside of him, looking down at the first body as it fell collapsed right back into the bush that I had positioned him near. Since he was already kneeling, it barely made a sound.

And just like that, I was in one guard’s body while the other had been knocked out and hidden away. Sure, it wouldn’t be long before the body was found (I had the sneaky suspicion that this whole thing had started because someone had found the last body I left in some bushes). But it didn’t need to. The cat was out of the bag now. We just had to get out of here. And honestly, them finding an unconscious body with no idea how it got there might work in my favor.

Right, under the tower so I was hidden from its sight, and no one was looking directly at me. Time to just slip away into the forest and disappear. Unfortunately, turning to step that way, I heard a steady humming. At first, I thought it was just a bit of ringing in my ears. But Tabbris quickly told me to stop.

I think it’s a forcefield, she whispered. They probably put it up to make sure you couldn’t get out.

Slowly, I turned back to look at the camp. Raising my gaze up a bit, I replied, Those hoverbikes are going in and out of it. So the field must not extend all the way up. Maybe I could drop this guy and staff-boost myself over it.

But we don’t know exactly how high it is, the other girl pointed out. And all those guys will be right on you the second you do that. Those um, those hoverbikes’ll run you down really quick.

She had a point. I might be able to boost myself over the forcefield, but even if I did, we’d have a dozen different hoverbikes right on our tails within a couple of seconds. It just wasn’t feasible.

Instead, I kept looking around the camp. Everything still looked the same. There were guards searching everywhere, hoverbikes overhead, Seosten barking orders as they strode back and forth, some technicians trying to fix the communications computers…

I’ve got another plan, I announced with a slow smile. But it might be a little crazy.

A little? Tabbris’s voice came back. I can, um, you know…  read your mind, remember? It’s not a little crazy, it’s a lot crazy. Like, um, the Mount Vesuvius of crazy.

Hey, I replied, remember when we did that report on that in eighth grade and made that working replica with all the little Roman houses? Dad stayed up all night with us like three days in a row to get it done in time.

There was a brief hesitation, and I felt the Seosten girl’s conflicting emotions at my words. Your… your dad really wanted you to do well on that project. He loves you a lot.

He loves his family, Tabbris, I reminded her. And as soon as he knows you exist, you’ll be his family too. You already are. You’re my sister. So you’re family. Got it? We’re in this together.

Again, I felt a rush of tumultuous emotions from the girl before she answered with a soft, Got it. So, um… If she had been physically present, I was pretty sure she would’ve been crying right then. Or at least sniffling. Time for the Vesuvius idea?

Time for the Vesuvius idea, I confirmed. Without wasting another second, I made our current host start walking back the way that we had come before.

We reached the middle of the camp, where two of the Seosten were standing. One was the guy from earlier, the one Tabbris had tricked into not checking out the tower when we had been sneaking our way in. To put it mildly, he seemed to be in a bad mood. Not that his companion was any happier. They were both shouting orders, demands that I be found or the entire camp would pay for it. As the single guard that we were possessing approached, both of their attention turned to us, and one of them asked if we’d found anything.

Wow, I started, you were right, they are not good at defending against their own tactics, are they?

Nuh uh, came the answer. Like Mama said, most of them can’t even consider the idea that they might have someone use their own powers against them.

Well, they were going to learn the error of that kind of assumption pretty damn quick, if I had anything to say about it. With that in mind, I made our host start nodding to the men as they blurted their demands. Raising the hand with the red flashlight, I used it to point back the other way. For just a second, the two Seosten glanced that way, instinctively looking the way I was pointing.

And then I used the guard’s gun to shoot the nearest one five times right in the middle of his chest. It turned out that this thing was a laser gun, firing out tiny orange balls of light that tore into and through him before he even knew anything was wrong.

He fell, collapsing to the ground with a look of shock. At the same time, a rush of pleasure flooded into me and I saw my aura flare up around our host. It wasn’t anything like when I had killed Charmiene. But still, I only kept moving because I had been bracing myself for it. Even then, I still staggered a bit.

His partner, the Seosten we’d seen earlier, was already snatching some kind of weapon from his belt. But it was too late. Tabbris sent us out of our current host, and I threw myself that way while he was still trying to get the thing up.

My staff was in one hand, but I didn’t swing it. Instead, after hitting the button to make it start charging up, I actually released the staff while throwing myself bodily into the Seosten.

Again, just like before, it worked. I was possessing him. This guy was even stronger than the last one. I felt his rage, even heard him making threats. Given enough time and focus, he might’ve been able to wrest control away from me for short bursts. But we weren’t going to give him that kind of time. Nor would we let the other remaining Seosten (whose locations I could sense through that connection they had) get to us.

Instead, I made his hand snap out to catch my abandoned staff before it could finish falling. Then I looked around quickly.

Yeah, we had an audience. Shooting the first Seosten had attracted everyone’s attention. There were more guns pointed at me than I could count. Yet they didn’t fire. They didn’t dare fire. Their entire society was built around constantly serving the Seosten. Entire generations stretching back as far as they could remember had been serving the Seosten. The very thought of actually shooting one of them was probably close to impossible for them to even consider, after how much had been put into making them practically worship their masters.

So they hesitated, and I took advantage of that. Using the man’s fingers, I hit the button on my staff. The charge that had been building up released itself in a burst that sent us flying straight up, right at the nearest hoverbike. Its rider, who had been aiming down at me, was already jerking back. But it was too late. Just as we collided with him, Tabbris activated not my possession, but the Seosten’s.

And then we were there on the bike, possessing the man who had been riding it. Or to be more specific, Tabbris was possessing me, I was possessing the Seosten, and the Seosten was possessing the rider. How many more levels of this could we find a way to add?

Maybe I’d find out someday. For the moment, I simply let Tabbris take over, because she was better and faster at the next part. She instantly scanned the memory of our most recent host (the biggest pig in the Jekern pile, so to speak), checking for the controls. Then she grabbed the hoverbike’s handlebars, hit something with the man’s foot, and we were suddenly gone. The bike took off so fast it made those Formula One racecars look like they were standing still. She punched the gas (or whatever this thing used), and the bike shot straight out into the forest, engines screaming.

The other hoverbikes would be right on our tail. But we had the advantage, since we’d caught them by surprise. And since we were on the same kind of vehicle instead of on foot, they didn’t have that advantage. For the moment, we were out of sight.

In my head, the Seosten we were possessing growled a deep, You will burn for this. You cannot comprehend the force that will be brought down on you. We are the Seosten. Our rule is unchallenged and our vengeance unimaginable.

Yeah? I replied simply, Well as a great smuggler once said, I can imagine quite a lot. And for the record, things are changing. You might wanna buckle up. As Tabbris moved the man’s hand to snap something off the controls, I added, No, seriously, buckle up.

And with that, I threw myself backwards out of both the driver of the hoverbike and the Seosten himself. The speed that we were going at when I jumped off would’ve made me pretty much splatter into a fine paste, but I had timed it so that my body went straight for the nearest tree. A second later, I merged with it, even as the sound of the hoverbike disappeared off in the distance. Barely a handful of seconds later, a dozen more bikes went tearing off after it, having no idea that they were passing us by.

That thing you broke, I asked once the crowd of pursuers was gone, you sure it’ll stop him from turning that thing around any time soon?

Uh huh! Tabbris chirped. D-definitely! I promise, I made sure. And um, it’s bit. The last part came very quietly, like she was embarrassed to say anything.

Bit? I echoed, confused.

Han Solo, she quickly put in. He said he could imagine quite a bit, not quite a lot. I’m sorry, I just–it was… umm, I… really like Han Solo. He’s… he’s my favorite.

Aww, I replied, Now I know what movies were gonna watch with Dad as soon as we get back.

The bikes were gone by that point, so it was time to leave. Sending myself to the bottom of the tree that I had thrown us into, I stepped out of it while announcing out loud, “And I think I’ll call that whole possessing someone who possesses someone else the Choo Maneuver.”

“Good name.” The words came from my left, and I jerked that way to find a figure standing there. One of the remaining Seosten. He was too far back for me to grab, and from the expression on his face as he held his gun leveled straight in my direction, I was pretty sure that if I moved, he’d just shoot me and be done with it.

It took me a second to recognize that he had spoken in English, without Tabbris’s translation. And he’d understood my words. His smile was thin. “You have given us quite the scare. I would kill you now, but the rest must see you die. They must see it for themselves and know that your threat is ended as soon as it began. You are–”

And then his head basically exploded. It burst like a melon, as a familiar spiked metal ball appeared where it had been. A second later, an equally familiar pink aura flared up, and I heard a loud gasp of pleasure.

“Really?” Sands demanded once she had recovered. “You thought I’d just abandon you on your say-so? Do you have any idea what Avalon would do to me if I did that? Sorry, Chambers, but she’s scarier than you are.

“Now let’s get the fuck out of here.”

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Uprising 29-06

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Confusion still reigned in the camp, as the guards tried to work out what had just happened and why all the prisoners had disappeared. That wouldn’t last much longer, but for the next few seconds, I could use it. Especially since we already knew that there was no one in the towers to point out where I was. Running down the end of the suddenly brightly lit path toward the nearest slave cabin, I darted behind it an instant before running footsteps announced the approach of troops. I had just barely gotten out of sight before a trio of guards ran past, weapons raised.

One of them abruptly pivoted to look back, apparently having caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of his eye. But I’d already thrown myself into the wood of the cabin, so he saw nothing. His eyes scanned the spot where I had been for a moment before he turned to go on.

They would be getting organized any second. The Seosten would all be up and around. And as soon as they were, the escaped prisoners and all my people would have an entire army after them. It wouldn’t take long. A couple minutes headstart at best wasn’t enough. I needed to buy them more time. And I was going to do it by using the Seosten’s own tactics against them.

To that end, I waited there for a few more seconds while other troops ran around trying to figure out what was going on. Inside the cabin whose wood I was occupying, two guards kicked the door in and rushed through. They kicked over several cots, upended small of personal belongings, and dumped a bookshelf over looking for anyone behind it. Finally satisfied, they started to leave. But one lagged behind the other, taking just one last look around. Perfect.

As the guard scanned the room, I was already sliding down through the wall of the cabin to the wooden floor before rapidly sending myself toward him. His eyes passed over me as I ‘swam’ right to where he was standing without the guard having the slightest idea that I was there.

I had no idea which one of us started it, but Tabbris and I were both humming the Jaws theme.

The man turned to the doorway, and the instant he did, I popped up out of the wooden floor. My hand grabbed his ankle, and I focused on what Tabbris had done every time she made me possess someone. An instant later, I was looking through the man’s eyes to the chaos outside. Feeling the weight of his rifle in his hands, I glanced down at the weapon before stepping out of the cabin. Around us, more guards were coming out of other cabins and starting to converge in a group in front of two other figures. Seosten. One of them was the one that we’d seen earlier.

We had to be really quick about this. Any minute now, the alert would reach Radueriel. I didn’t know if he actually had his cyborg shit installed in any of these troops since they weren’t the ones on his station. But either way, I was sure he could be here pretty much immediately. And once he was, all he had to do was bring one troop with him and the rest of his entire army could come with. If a hundred troops and five rookie Seosten were too much for us to take on, trying to deal with Radueriel and his people would be like using a squirt gun against an aircraft carrier.

On the other hand, if he didn’t find out right away… Tabbris, those Seosten are rookies. I really, really doubt that Radueriel would connect himself to them. A three thousand plus year old legend like that letting a handful of complete newbies on another planet know every move he made? Yeah, no way. And if they’re not connected that way, maybe we can actually– Before I could get any further, the relevant thoughts were already popping into my host’s mind as Tabbris helped pull them up without even being asked. And just like that, I knew exactly where to go.

Pivoting, I sprinted. Luckily, me running around didn’t look out of place since everyone was doing it. As long as I acted like I knew where I was going, nobody questioned it. With the shit that was going on, I was pretty sure that no one wanted to be the person who stopped someone who might be moving on orders from the Seosten. Or worse, might be possessed by them.

I left the slave quarters area, passing by a couple troops who were gesturing up at the towers while talking animatedly at each other. In the tower itself, another one of the soldiers was clearly examining one of the dead bodies that we had left. Yeah, things were definitely hitting the fan.

There was a small shed-like building just next to one of the troop barracks. Glancing both ways to make sure I wasn’t being followed or watched too closely by anyone, I quickly moved that way and shoved my way in through the door. Doing so, I found myself in a simple room with a bunch of floor to ceiling computers along three of the walls, a couple chairs where two people were sitting in front of what looked like control panels, while one figure stood behind them.

That figure turned even as I stepped into the room. Seosten. He was one of the other Seosten. As he caught sight of me, the man snapped something sharply in their language. He’d only gotten through a couple words before I heard Tabbris in my head, translating almost in real time.

“What are you doing?” he was demanding. “Is there any sign of the workers, or the missing humans?” The next bit came with a brief glance over his shoulder toward the console. “The communications array is about to connect to our lord. If you have good news, share it now.”

Well, that was exactly what I’d been waiting to find out. They hadn’t finished calling Radueriel yet. Their communications array was still coming online, which meant that there was time to stop that message from going out. Hey, Tabbris, I started, you thinking what I’m thinking?

Yup! Her voice chirped almost brightly in my head. Give ‘em a t-taste of their own medicine.

Right. I figured there was no sense in being subtle about this considering everything that was going on. Hoisting the gun in both hands, I blurted loudly and in English, “Think fast!” Then I threw the gun at the Seosten’s head, following up by throwing myself (or at least the host that I was currently riding in) at him as well while simultaneously telling Tabbris, Pop us out low!

Rookie or not, the Seosten was no slouch by any stretch of the imagination. His hand snatched the incoming rifle out of the air in mid-flight, flipped it around, and shot the guy I was controlling three times in the chest by the time I’d crossed just over half the distance between us.

Unfortunately for him, that meant that all of his attention was focused solely on the figure who had just rushed him. As he put the third shot into the man’s chest, Tabbris was already propelling us out of him. As requested, she sent us out low, down by his legs and in full dive-forward motion. The Seosten tried to react, but it was too late. I’d already reached his legs.

And just like that, I was staggering backward, holding the rifle while watching the body of the soldier who had just been my host fall to the floor. I felt a rush of emotions, most of them various levels of confusion and denial, coming from the man I had just possessed. No, coming from the Seosten I’d just possessed. Tabbris was right, we were giving him a taste of his own medicine.

Yaqum. That was his name. It floated up in his thoughts immediately, the second I thought about his identity. I felt him trying to get rid of me, trying to fight back and take control of himself. The fact that he could resist at all meant he was a lot stronger than the troops that I’d possessed up to that point.

But when it came down to it, he was still only roughly fifty years old. Meanwhile, Charmiene had been over three thousand. Even if I had only gotten a portion of her possession ability when I killed her, that still meant that this guy didn’t stand much of a chance. So I felt his resistance, but it wasn’t too hard to shut it out. He probably could’ve made the body twitch a little bit here or there, or taken control of a limb briefly if he tried hard enough. Overall, it just wasn’t enough.

I don’t think he’s very happy about this, I noted to Tabbris as I forced the Seosten, Yaqum, to turn around.

The two regular soldiers who had been frantically working the consoles had stopped. Both had stood, half-turning to see what the hell was going on behind them. When they saw the dead soldier that I had been possessing, and the Seosten standing there with his rifle, they froze in obvious paralyzing confusion. That lasted for about a second before they each simultaneously jerked back around to face their controls. If anything, their hands danced across it even faster.

I was pretty sure they didn’t know what had just happened or that I was possessing the Seosten. They were simply completely petrified of him and figured if he’d just executed one of their people like that, they might end up being next if they didn’t finish the job that he’d given them.

Before either of them could do anything else, however, I pointed the rifle at their consoles and started pulling the trigger. As the two jerked back and blurted out obviously confused questions, I kept shooting. Half a dozen more shots went into the consoles before I turned my focus to the rest of the computers all along the walls. Over and over again, I kept shooting every bit of technology that I could see, anything that could’ve been part of letting them call for help.

Through it all, the two grunt soldiers stood there completely frozen. They looked like they wanted to do something to stop me, but they were too afraid. Which, honestly, was kind of what the Seosten deserved for creating an environment where their soldiers were too terrified of what might happen to them if they raised a hand against one of the imperialistic assholes to actually do anything when one of them had clearly gone completely batshit crazy and was doing something patently dangerous and outrageous like destroying their communications system.

But hey, what did I know? Clearly this method of theirs was working out just fine and dandy.

Faster. I had to move faster. The one downside to all this was that the other Seosten obviously knew what was going on. Radueriel may not have been connected to them, but they would definitely be connected to each other. Which meant that they knew I was poss–wait a minute.

Tabbris, I thought at my partner quickly, if this guy is connected to the others, can we find out–

And just like that, I knew where the other Seosten were and what they were doing. Two were coming for the communications room where I was, while the other two were organizing the soldiers to track down the fleeing prisoners. They’d already worked out the direction the slaves had gone, and now some of them were just starting up several of what looked like hovercycles. It looked like the Seosten were organizing them into teams that included both Alters with some kind of tracking ability or power, those who could travel quickly, and those who could hit hard.

Yeah, even though these guards we were running into were mostly all dressed in the same featureless black armor, they were still all Alters, which meant they had their own powers. And the armor meant that it was impossible to know what they were until they actually did something.

Honestly, that bit I could really understand. If their biggest enemies were the Fomorians, who specialized in biology and all that horror freakshow stuff, then not letting them easily see what they were actually fighting could be at least some vague form of advantage. If, for example, they didn’t know that the armored, masked soldiers running at them were the wooden Relukun people, they were less likely to send creatures specifically meant to eat wood. It made sense.

So yeah, I understood the featureless armor thing. Plus it made them all into one organization, stripped away individuality in favor of the group, yadda yadda yadda. The point was, they were organizing to go after the slaves and my people. And two of the Seosten were coming for me.

Alright, I started then, guess it’s time to abandon our ride since those other guys will know exactly where he is all the time. 

Um. Tabbris’s voice was hesitant. You’re not… um, I mean, I know that you wouldn’t just–

We’re not going to just kill him while we’re possessing him, I confirmed. That just felt… wrong. Yes, I’d killed helpless people before. But that was in combat, it was… different. Taking control of this guy and forcing him to commit suicide was a step too far. Just knock him out.

I felt the other girl’s slight relief as she did just that. The view went dark for a second as the man collapsed before I was back out on my own two feet. Behind me, there was a confused gasp from the two figures. As I turned, they both stared at me. Neither made a move for their weapons or to do anything other than just stand there. They had the helmets on, but I was pretty sure both were openly gaping. For a second, we all just stood there, staring at each other.

Flick! Tabbris’s voice prompted hurriedly. We’ve gotta go, there’s more coming, remember?

The words made me snap out of it, and I turned to run. The men were just standing there, not bothering to pursue or anything. As I flung myself out of the small cabin, they stayed in place, silently staring at the unconscious Seosten lying there on the ground.

They’ve never seen a Seosten be possessed before, Tabbris whispered to me. It’s, umm, it’s kinda supposed to be impossible. The ones they call Lies, they can do it, but they can’t get back out again unless the… the host dies. And they don’t exactly advertise that. That’s probably the first time those guys have… have ever seen a real Seosten get possessed and controlled.

She… she was probably right. Obviously right. I’d known all that, but the idea of how the other species seeing something like that happening hadn’t really sunk in until I’d seen it. Regardless, however, I couldn’t focus on that right now. We had to move on. The other two Seosten were on their way, and they wouldn’t be taken by surprise as easily as the first guy had been. And in the meantime, the remaining pair were about to lead that army out after everyone who had just escaped. We’d stopped them from calling for reinforcements (for now), but we weren’t safe yet.

With that in mind, as I leapt through the doorway and back into the brightly lit camp, my eyes immediately looked around. To my right was the way that the Seosten would be coming, from what I had seen in the other man’s mind. So I darted to the left, throwing myself into a roll that took me under the cabin itself even as the sound of running footsteps approached. From the sound, it was far more than two. The Seosten had brought reinforcements along with them.

Right, I had to get away from these guys, and do something that would stop the rest of the soldiers from pursuing the others. And I had to do it pretty much right now. But as I rolled my way out from under the shed on the other side, I was drawing a blank about how to do that second part. How the hell was I going to stop them from chasing the escaped slaves long enough for everyone to get away? They were already suited up and on their way. What could I possibly do that would make them come back this way and leave their former prisoners alone? What–

F-Flick! Tabbris’s voice cut into my thoughts, and I felt her take control of my body for a moment. It was just long enough to throw me up and backward, activating the wood-melding power to send us into a nearby wooden fence post a brief instant before a snarling figure with a massive axe of some kind came rushing around the corner. I’d been so distracted that I hadn’t noticed either the sound or the feeling from my item-sense power. But Tabbris had, and she’d taken over in that moment.

Immediately, I sensed a crushing wave of guilt from the girl. I’m sorry, she hurriedly blurted. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to take over. I m-mean, I did, but I didn’t–I wasn’t going to–I’d never–

Tabbris, Tabbris, it’s okay! I interrupted once it was possible to get a word in edgewise. Trust me, I’d rather you take over my body than let us get caught like that. I was distracted. You did good.

Despite my words, I still felt waves of guilt coming from the other girl. She felt awful about controlling me. Hell, she felt awful every time she had, even when I’d specifically told her to an extent. That… that was definitely something we needed to talk about, when there was a chance.

But it didn’t look like that was going to be any time soon. Especially since Mr. Axe-man wasn’t the only guy in that alley between the buildings anymore. No, he had been joined by several others. One of them was one of the Seosten. Except it wasn’t one of the Seosten who had initially come to find me. No, this guy had been back with the others, organizing the slave pursuit.

Wait a minute… come to think of it, there were a lot of guys milling around here, taking orders about where to search. And above, there were those hovercycle things. The were flying around, riders carefully keeping an eye on everything happening below them.

All four Seosten were together by that point, barking orders at their subordinates. Orders about spreading out to find… me.

Oh. I… I guess finding someone who can possess one of them, someone who can use their own tricks against them… that’s kind of higher priority than some escaped slaves, huh?

Tabbris’s voice came back a second later. Uh huh. They’ve got trillions of slaves. Bu-but you personally hurt one of them. You sh-showed that they’re not invincible. They won’t stand for that. They… they won’t accept it. Slaves are just slaves, but you… y-you made it personal for them. And you possessed one of them. You possessed them. You controlled them. That’s what they do to other people. Doing it to them… it’s… it’s… no wonder they’re freaking out. If everyone finds out that you can do to them what they do to other people… it… it… could blow up their whole society.

Weakly, while the army of guards continued to tear apart every hiding spot, scouring every inch of the camp looking for me, I replied, At least they’re not looking for the others anymore? And um… I did say that I was going to piss someone off. Job done?

S-sure, okay, the other girl agreed, but how do we get out of here now?

That, I informed her, is a very good question.

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Uprising 29-05

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There were six towers spread throughout this prison valley, and we had to deal with each of them one at a time. Which meant that there was absolutely no time to waste. We had to get this right, and do it as quickly as possible. Not to mention silently, since if even one distress signal got out before we were gone, Radueriel would be right on top of us almost instantly. We had to do this perfectly, not just once, but all six times.  

We started with the nearest tower, crouching at the base of it as the spotlight moved over the prison camp itself. I touched the base of it testingly before nodding to Roxa and Isaac. It was wood, which meant that our first plan would work.

Roxa, in turn, tilted her head to the side and listened for a few long seconds. Then she held up two fingers and wiggled them. Two guys up there in the tower. Great. It could’ve been worse of course, but I had kind of been hoping that these guys were alone in these towers. No such luck.

Still, we had our plan, and two would work just fine. So I nodded to Isaac, who put his hand on Roxa’s arm and nodded back. Then I reached out and touched the base of the wooden tower, focusing on transporting myself up through the wood to the stand at the top.

Roxa and Isaac beat me to the top. The latter’s teleportation ability allowed him to transport instantly anywhere within his line of sight, but he could only take one other person with him at a time. Fortunately since the towers were made of wood, that meant that we could get all three of us to the top almost at the exact same time.

The  two black-armored and masked guards were still reacting to the sudden appearance of the other two when I popped out behind them. Without wasting an incident, I swung my staff up and to the left. Gus was already attached to the end of it in his grapple form, and the blades of the grapple went straight into the nearest guard’s throat. With my strength, I tore right through his armor. There was a brief play of blood, and a gurgle as the man’s cry of surprise was cut off.

Roxa, meanwhile, was already lashing out at the other one. Her fingernails had turned into long, black, wicked looking claws, and she used them to literally rip the second guard’s throat out.

As our two victims were choking on their own blood and dying, Roxa and I quickly grabbed them and dragged the pair to the floor of the guard tower to get them out of sight. A second later, the pleasure from the kill washed up over me as both of our auras filled the area. I was, yet again, really glad that only Heretics could actually see those auras.

They were dead, and as I peeked up over the edge of the tower to look around, I saw nothing amiss. We had done it, that was one tower down. Which meant that we still had five more to go. Still, it was a good start.

Oh, Tabbris interrupted. Oh, hey, you got something from that guy. It’s um, kinda weird. If you’re touching an object when you hear any sound, even your own voice or someone else’s, you can sort of embed that sound into that object as long as it’s only a few seconds long. From that point on, until you embed sound in a different object, anytime you think about it, you can make the object generate that sound. So if you were touching a rock and heard someone say, ‘Howdy doody’, you could embed that into the rock, and then make the rock say those words anytime you wanted to. Even after you stop touching it.

Wow, I replied, sounds like that might end up being pretty useful at some point. Distractions, in putting voice recognition codes, all kinds of stuff. Thanks for the heads up.

I felt her beaming inside me while Roxa reached out to touch my arm, whispering, “You okay?”

I nodded, figuring that I could tell her about the new power later, once we weren’t around Isaac. There was no way that I was going to try to explain to him how I instantly knew what my new power was. Sure he was helping out with this, but I just wasn’t ready to trust him with something that important. It wasn’t going to happen.

The boy himself was grinning. “One down,” he whispered. “So do I get to actually help with the next one, or what?”

Roxa gave him a look. “We need to be fast and quiet,” she pointed out, “not get into a long, drawn out fight. These guys need to go down immediately. And call me crazy, but I think your little drones flying around shooting lasers everywhere might attract some of the attention that we’re trying to avoid.”

“Don’t worry Isaac,” I assured him. “You’ll get your chance. But we can’t screw this up right now. There’s too much riding on it.”

It didn’t really seem like the boy was that satisfied by the answer. But he didn’t say anything else about it. Instead, he raised his head to look out toward the next tower in the distance. “Guess we do the next one then?”

I nodded, and told the others what I had in mind. They seemed to like it, and Isaac once again touched Roxa before focusing on the other tower. Meanwhile, I straightened up and took aim with my staff.

The other two vanished from beside me, reappearing immediately on the other tower. They appeared directly between the two guards whose figures I could barely make out through the darkness.

As soon as she appeared there, Roxa grabbed the first guard by the throat with both hands. At the same time, she lashed out with her foot to hit the second man, knocking him backward.

Meanwhile, I had already launched the grapple from my staff. It whistled slightly through the air, before the blades tore into the back of the guard’s throat as he stumbled from the kick. He was yanked backwards off the tower, the grapple through his throat ensuring that he couldn’t cry out.  He swung through the air toward the tower that I was in before I let him drop to the forest floor below, into some bushes.

Again, I waited until the pleasure had washed over me before letting myself believe that he was actually dead.

Minor regeneration boost, Tabbris whispered. Nothing big, but hey, every little bit helps, right? She sounded hopeful.

Yup, I agreed easily. Especially right now, out here. We need every single advantage we can get.

The other two were waving at me as I picked up over the edge of the tower. Looked like everything was good there. Two down, four to go. I just hoped that Jazz, Sands, Gordon, and Jokai were having as much luck as we were.

I gave a quick wave back, and Isaac almost immediately appear next to me. He was holding his hand out. “All aboard the Isaac express,” he announced with a sly wink. “That is, if you’re sure your girlfriends won’t get jealous.”

“Oh Isaac,” I replied as sweetly as possible. “Trust me, there is absolutely nothing for them to get jealous about.”

His face flushed slightly before the boy reached out to take my shoulder. A second later we were back over on the tower with Roxa.

As we appeared, the other girl looked to me and whispered, “You see anything wrong?”

Before answering, I pointed down at the figure slammed in the corner of the tower. He was still breathing, just unconscious. Raising an eyebrow I turned to look at the other girl questioningly.

“He might be useful,” she pointed out simply.

She had a point, and I nodded before taking a minute to scan the dark camp below, and the other towers. Most of them were simply indistinct, vague shapes from this point (at least wherever the roaming spotlight wasn’t currently shining), but it didn’t seem like anything unusual was going on.

“No,” I finally answered with a shake of my head. “It looks good. What about you, Miss Werewolf?”

She returned my head shake. “I think we’re okay for now. But we’ve still got four more of these things.” After a brief pause, she added a little more quietly, “I wish we knew how the others were doing.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “we really need to deal with this lack of radios thing pretty soon. The mice are good for emergency contact.” My hand wandered down to Gus in his grapple form on my staff so I could scratch him a little bit tenderly. “But for details, we need to be able talk to each other.“

“If you girls are done stating the obvious and patting each other on the back over how well we’re doing,” Isaac muttered under his breath, “we kinda need to finish this before the whole camp wakes up. Because I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want to be anywhere within twenty miles of this place when that-“

Abruptly, Roxa’s hand snapped out to cover the boy’s mouth. At the same time, she raised her other hand to put a finger in front of her mouth as she looked to me. Her head was tilted slightly to the side, as though listening. She had heard something.

Isaac made a brief muffled noise before going to silent as he realized what was going on. Together, the three of us sat there and listened.

Nothing, there was nothing. After about a minute of that, Roxa slowly leaned up and peeked over the edge of the tower. Her body stiffened briefly, but not enough for me to think that we were in immediate danger. For a moment, she just knelt there and watched, before turning back and gesturing for us to see for ourselves.

So I did. Slowly, I leaned up and looked that way. Far below, maybe a hundred feet from the base of the tower, there three figures standing there, illuminated by small lights attached to their belts. Two were the same black armored guard that we had been dealing with. But the third one, was on unmasked figure who what like a human, if a rather attractive one, with his close-cropped black hair and aristocratic features. He was clearly giving orders to the two that he was talking with. Every so often he would gesture with a hand, as of telling them something about the camp.

The fact that he didn’t set off the Stranger sense at all only confirmed what I already knew. “Seosten,” I whispered under my breath, barely audibly.

“We can’t do anything to him,” Roxa quietly reminded us. “Not until we know where the other four are, and if they’re awake.”

She was right, as we had already discussed this whole thing with the others while planning this out. The five would be connected, the same way that Charmiene and her team had been. Any of the bastards who were awake would be able to know what happened to each other. So we had to avoid them completely. Unless, as she had said, we happened to know where they all were, and hit them all at once. But that seemed a bit unlikely. Mostly we just had to avoid them. Which, to be honest, seems like the smart idea anyway. Even if they were rookies, they were still Seosten.

Luckily, it didn’t seem like this guy or his companions were actively looking for us. From what I could tell in my position at the top of the tower, it seemed more like this guy had gotten a bug up his ass about how a certain patrol was supposed to go, and was micromanaging. Inconvenient for us, but not the end of the world. At least, as long as he didn’t decide that the people up in these towers were doing something wrong. If he did, things might get a bit complicated.

Unfortunately, just if I had that thought, the figure turned to look toward our spot. The three of us quickly dropped back down, and I swore I could hear our hearts beating.

Any wish that I had had that the man would simply walk away was erased as I heard a voice call up toward the tower. It was a short string of words that I didn’t understand.

He’s asking if everything is clear up here, Tabbris informed me.

Just as I was starting to react to that, I felt Roxa’s hand on my leg. When I turn that way, she was pointing at the guard in the corner of the tower. The one that she had knocked unconscious.

Instantly, I knew what she wanted. Rolling over, I reached out to put my hand against the guard’s arm. Tabbris also knew what to do, and I found myself in darkness once more as I possessed the slumbering figure.

Giving him a bunch of adrenaline, Tabbris informed me quickly. It should wake him up.

Sure enough, the man’s eyes opened, just as I heard the Seosten below call up a second time. His voice was agitated.

Quickly, I forced my temporary host to stand up. Moving to the edge of the tower, I looked down at the figure below while hurriedly asking, Quick, how do I respond? And what’s the right salute for this guy?

I felt Tabbris scanning the guy’s relevant memories quickly. Then she took over, making the man’s left arm raise. She held three fingers (index, middle, and ring) flat against his left eye, palm inward. After a few seconds of that, she turned the hand so that the index finger was against his eye, with the ring finger facing out. Then she snapped his hand out and down, like a regular salute.

At the same time, the man’s mouth opened, and he let out a string of Latin.

Once she had stopped, Tabbris quietly informed me, I um, I just made him say that everything is fine and that he and his partner are j-just trying to fix the light because it’s stiff. he reported something about it earlier, so the guy should um, he should know about it. And I um, I asked if he wanted to come up and look at it.

Quickly, before I could ask why she done that, the girl explained, H-he’s a Seosten. I figured he wouldn’t lower himself to simple maintenance like that. And I thought if I made the guy act like he wanted him to come up, he wouldn’t think anything was wrong. Did I… did I do something wr-

No, I interrupted. You did just great. Now let’s see if he buys it.

The man below had been squinting up at us for the past few seconds. He seem to be considering. Finally, he just called up a single word, while giving a dismissive wave of his hand. Then he turned and started walking off with the two normal guards that he had been talking to.

Once he was gone, I let Tabbris knock our host unconscious again, before stepping out of him. In front of me, Roxa and Isaac both let out audible breaths. They had clearly been holding them.

“That was close,” Roxa muttered. She looked at me then, voice softening. “Are we still good?”

I nodded. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure. But we need to get this done, like right now. Because I really don’t want to have to do that again.”

Isaac was grinning at me. “Hey,” he replied, “at least you’ve got that super spiffy possession power. We would’ve been screwed without that. You’re just all kinds of useful to have around.”

Something about his words made me feel uncomfortable. But I shook it off, telling myself that it was just the situation, and Isaac’s general lack of understanding of boundaries. Clearing my throat, I nodded. “All right, four more to go.

“Let’s finish this.”

******

A relatively short time later, it was finished. All six towers had been dealt with, and the bit with that Seosten on the second one was the closest call that we’d had. We had dealt with the rest slowly, and patiently, picking our attacks at just the right time while keeping an eye out for more roaming Seosten. Most of them however, seemed to be sleeping, because that first one was the only one we actually saw.

Now, the three of us were crouched in the last tower. Below, a quiet, steady stream of prisoners were making their way past the tower and into the forest beyond. Sands was back in the slave quarters, ushering everyone out one at a time. Meanwhile, Gordon and Jazz were out in the forest itself with Jokai, directing the escapees on where to go.  Our job, while they were doing that, was to keep an eye on the rest of the camp and make sure that we weren’t followed too soon.

“That’s got to be almost all of them, right?” Isaac asked under his breath. “I mean, how many slaves could these assholes need, anyway? It’s not like they’re building a pyramid or something.”

Before I could respond, Sands emerged from the nearest little cabin. She raised her hand waving up at us before nodding toward the forest where the last of the slaves were disappearing.

“That answer your question?” I asked Isaac before waving back at the other girl. “Let’s get down there.”

Roxa simply hopped off the ledge and dropped, while I hitched a ride down with Isaac. As we arrived next to Sands, the brunette girl whispered, “We’re good. Things got a little hairy in there when they saw us and thought that we were, you know, bad guys. But that Jokai guy talked them around. There still pretty suspicious, but frankly, I think they’re too desperate to escape this place to worry about it too much. Especially once a few of them started to believe it. That kinda started a snowball effect thing.”

“Okay,” I replied simply, “then let’s get out of-“

That was as far as I managed to get before the relative silence of the night air was shattered by the sudden deafening scream of a siren. The alarm. Someone had pulled the alarm. And already, I could hear people shouting, there were guards rushing out into the darkness, weapons raised as they cite the source of the alert. Lights were coming on everywhere throughout the camp.

“What the fuck?” Roxa blurted. She snapped her head around to work off in the darkness where the slaves had gone. “They’re not far enough away yet. Those fuckers will find them in no time.”

“No, they won’t,” I retorted, turning to give the others a push that way. “Go, get them out of here. Keep moving. I’ll find you by letting Gus lead me to Jaq. But those prisoners out there need you guys to protect them, so move. I can catch up. They need you, so go, hurry, now!”

“What?” Sands’ eyes were wide. “What the hell are you going to do?”

“Me?” I turned to look back at the chaos in the camp as all the guards started to get the idea what was going on. “I’ll do what I’ve spent my whole life perfecting.

“I’m gonna go piss a bunch of people off.”

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Uprising 29-04

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Three days later, we were almost to our destination. According to the escaped prisoner who had become our companion these past few days, we would reach the slave camp by the next day. It was taking us four days to get here rather than the two it took Jokai to reach the spot where we had found him because we took things a bit slower. The man himself was so thoroughly exhausted that running him ragged had felt like a bad idea. Plus, we wanted to be in decent shape when we finally did arrive. This was already going to be hard enough as it was without running most of our group into exhaustion before we even got there. We had to be ready.

We’d even managed to bring most of the meat that we’d taken off the pantlers with us. On top of every other thing that had ended up making Gidget an invaluable resource for us out here, she also apparently acted as a refrigerator. Whatever food was stored inside her stayed fresh for quite awhile. So we just kept the meat in her and took it out each night. And with two of the things and only seven of us counting our new guide, it was going to last for quite awhile, relatively speaking. Which meant that we didn’t have to waste any time hunting or fishing and could just keep hiking.   

And now that we were within a day’s hike of the place, it was time to actually plan out what we were going to do when we got there. To that end, Jokai had used a stick to draw an outline of the camp in the dirt, with various sticks used to indicate buildings and a half dozen fist-sized rocks spread around the exterior of the thing. He was pointing at one of the rocks and explaining something in Latin.

Over the past few days, the chameleon-man had gradually become slightly more upbeat about this whole situation. He was still pretty nervous and jumpy whenever one of us moved too quickly or got too close to him, but the idea that we might actually be telling the truth about saving his people had made him noticeably more hopeful. It was clearly a somewhat pessimistic hope, but that was still progress.

The man was going on at length, gesturing here and there while he kept talking. Tabbris helpfully started translating right away. Oh, um, he says that the rocks are where the tall guard towers are. There’s six towers like that all around the camp, she informed me. The um, the mine where they make everyone work is right on the other side of the hill that he drew in there, then an open area for about… um, he says a hundred passus. I think that’s somewhere around five hundred feet. That’s where they gather everyone for announcements and training drills. Past that he says there’s a barracks for the guards and some offices and stuff like that. Then the building where they make food for the slaves and the troops, the mess hall. After that, it’s another set of guard barracks, and then an open area for the slaves to eat and interact with each other at night. And then that bit there is supposed to be the cabins that the slaves sleep in. Those ones are right up against the base of a really steep hill so they can’t sneak out without going past several of the towers.

Nodding slowly, I relayed all of that information to the others. Gordon had picked up on most of it as it was, and quietly asked our new Alter friend a question while the rest absorbed the news.

Isaac was shaking his head, muttering darkly under his breath before asking, “And how many guards did our lucky friend over here say we had to deal with if we’re gonna play heroes?”

Gordon was the one who answered. “One quin of Seosten and about twenty hands of grunts.”

Isaac just blinked at him then, head tilting with incomprehension. “Repeat that in English?”

Luckily, I remembered from Jokai explaining it over the past few days. “A quin is five, right?” When Gordon nodded (and Tabbris confirmed it as well), I went on. “Right, according to our new friend here, the basic grouping of actual Seosten troops is a dec.” I pronounced it like deck. “That’s ten. So the basic, general unit of Seosten soldiers is ten. Half of that is five, or a quin. Five decs, or fifty troops, form a quin-dec. Two quin-decs or a hundred troops is a century, like the old Roman grouping. Five of those centuries is called a cohort, for five hundred men. And ten cohorts is a legion. Five thousand. Five thousand full Seosten troops, still like the Romans.”  

Jazz slowly spoke. “But what’s that ‘hands of grunts’? Does that mean there’s twenty grunts, whatever those are? Come to think of it, what are grunts as opposed to Seosten soldiers?”

“Grunts are non-Seosten soldiers,” Gordon explained. He’d done some talking with Jokai over the past few days too. “They’re basically slave troops, above the actual slaves, but still beholden to their Seosten masters. It’s any non-Seosten person they trust enough to use as a soldier.”

I nodded at that. “And unfortunately, it doesn’t mean there’s twenty of them. They count each of those as a finger. So five of them is one hand. Which means twenty hands would actually be-”

“A hundred,” Roxa finished, biting her lip. “So there’s a hundred regular grunt soldiers in there.”

“And five Seosten,” Sands pointed out with a little sigh. “Which, if they’re anything like that Charmiene bitch, means they could take us all out all by themselves without any help anyway.”

I shook my head. “They’re nothing like that. Jokai says they’re younger Seosten. Charmiene was thousands of years old. It was like trying to fight Gaia or one of our professors. They don’t assign those kind of Seosten to help guard some out-of-the-way slave camp, they put them on the front lines. These Seosten are all within about fifty years or so. Young, by their standards.”

Isaac snorted while making a face. “They’ll still be a real pain in the ass to fight, rookies or not.”

Sands gave him a dark look briefly before muttering, “At least it’ll be possible to fight them.”

Holding up a hand to stop them from arguing, I whispered, “We’re not planning on fighting most of them outright anyway. Remember the plan. After we’ve scouted out the area and made sure most of them are asleep, Jazz helps Jokai sneak back in to tell his people what’s going on and get them ready to go. While they’re doing that, we quietly take out the guards that are still awake, just enough to clear a path. Then we get the slaves out and disappear before the rest wake up.”

Swallowing hard, Jazz made a nervous sound. “Uh, yeah… yeah, we just sneak right in there, past all those guards and everything. No big deal, huh?” She bit her lip, squinting slightly toward the nearby Alter. “Because there’s no way this is just a trap to lure us right into their camp.”

Before anyone else could say anything, I reached up to squeeze her arm. “It’s alright, Jazz. We’ll be right there in case anything happens to go wrong. You won’t be alone. And it’s not a trap.”

I could say the latter for certain, at least as far as Jokai was concerned. Not that I’d been able to explain it to the others, but I had taken the time to make sure he wasn’t tricking us somehow. The first night of our trip to this place, I’d waited until the others except for Jazz were asleep. Then, while the other girl wasn’t watching, Tabbris slipped out of me and briefly possessed the sleeping Jokai just long enough to check his memories and make sure he was telling the truth.

I trusted the man, of course. But it was still better to verify these things rather than just blindly blundering in. And with Tabbris checking through his memories, there was no way the guy could knowingly be leading us into any kind of trap. According to her, he was completely above board.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell the others (except for Roxa) about why I could be that certain. Sands… Sands I wanted to tell. I would tell her when the time was right. But the fact was, every person who found out about Tabbris was a potential way of that info getting to the Seosten. If they knew and ever got possessed, even for a brief time, then that information would be out there. Not just for the Seosten who possessed them, but for any that they were connected to.

It was just too dangerous to tell anyone else about my little partner at least until we managed to get someplace a little bit safer than where we were. Because it wasn’t about whether I trusted them or not. It was about protecting Tabbris. She’d spent her entire life (basically literally) protecting me. I wasn’t about to throw that away by letting her secret fall into the wrong hands.

But hey, at least I’d spent the past few days teaching the others the rune that would let them check for possession. Roxa and I had worked out a system of her pretending to use it on me while the others were practicing their own attempts. Jokai had, of course, been incredibly interested in the rune. I was pretty sure he was going to teach it to the rest of his people the very second that he had a chance.   

Jazz still looked pretty doubtful as she stared at the man. But her eyes flicked toward Roxa for a moment, and she finally gave a long, low sigh. “Yeah. Alright, well, how’re we gonna do it, then?”

“Very carefully,” Roxa replied, “and very quietly. Like Flick said, we need to make sure most of them are asleep, then… it’s the ones in the towers that are gonna be the biggest problem. There’s six of them, right? Towers, I mean. While Jazz and Jokai are sneaking in, the rest of us should take them out one at a time, quietly. We deal with each tower while those two get the slaves ready to go. Once all six are down, we send some kind of signal.”

I nodded, especially at the emphasis on doing it quietly. “Yeah. That sounds like a plan. Jazz and Jokai go in, the rest of us deal with the towers together. Once the slaves are ready and the towers are all dealt with, we clear the path and make sure they get out of there safely. Preferably without starting a massive war with the whole damn army in the process, please.”

To say that Jazz looked uncertain and unhappy about the situation was a pretty massive understatement. She swallowed hard, fidgeting. “S-so, you really want me to go in there by myself? This is… this is really gonna happen.” Her face was noticeably pale as she glanced to me.

I don’t think she should go by herself, Tabbris whispered in my head. I mean, just with Jokai.

You’re right, I replied with an inward wince, she’s too nervous about the whole thing. Someone twitches wrong and she’ll think it’s a trap and start going off on poor Jokai. She needs help.

Aloud, I announced, “You know, maybe we need to split up a little more. If anything happens to go wrong in there, Jazz and Jokai need some backup. Hell, Jokai doesn’t even have a weapon.”  

Sands immediately nodded as if she had already been thinking the same thing. “I’ll go with them.” Belatedly, she glanced to the girl in question. “If that’s okay with you, that is.”

Jazz couldn’t physically nod fast enough. “Y-yeah, that sounds great,” the girl blurted while her head bobbed up and down so fast I thought it might actually fall off. “I mean, two of us can–” She stopped then, biting her lip while wincing before finishing with a weak, “Yes, please.”

Jokai said something then, whispering urgently as he looked back and forth between all of us.  

“I think he wants to know what we’re talking about now,” Gordon translated. “He’s afraid we’re getting cold feet, or that we might change our minds about the whole thing or something.”

Sands shook her head fervently, her eyes on the tower. “Tell him we’re not changing our minds.”

Quietly, Tabbris spoke through me to pass that on, letting me know along the way what she was saying. ‘I’ explained what we were going to do as reassuringly as possible, informing him that when the time came, we would take care of the guards in the watch towers while he went in with Jazz and Sands, and that he needed to make sure his people were ready to escape by the time we were done.

Once ‘I’ finished going over all of that, he asked one question, his voice tentative and confused.

Oh, Tabbris relayed, he wants to know how they’re supposed to know the towers are down, and how they’re supposed to tell you that they’re ready in there, because you don’t seem to have… I think he means communicators or anything. He noticed that you don’t have anything like that.

It was a good question, but I’d already thought of a solution, the same way we’d solved the issue before. Out loud, I explained what the man had asked, then added, “I think we should just split up Jaq and Gus again. Give them some signals to pass on for ‘clear’, ‘ready’, ‘wait’, that kind of thing. They’re always in contact with each other, so they can just pass the messages.”

Roxa rubbed the top of Gidget’s head while nodding. “Yeah, we really need to get some radios or something. But that sounds like the best way to handle it until we can get that sorted out.”

“Okay.” Looking to Jazz then, I hesitated before asking, “Are you going to be okay in there? It’s a lot of not-human people, and they’ll probably be scared. Can you deal with that and not…”

As I trailed off, the other girl finished for me. “Not freak out and start attacking them because they’re Strangers?” She bit her lip, staring at me. “I told you, I’m in for this. I might not know if I believe all this ‘not evil, lovely, lovely people’ stuff you keep talking about, but I’m also not a liar. I said I’d do it, so I’ll do it. I won’t–” She hesitated then before finishing quietly, “I won’t ruin it. You have my word, okay? I will do absolutely everything in my power to rescue those m–” Catching herself briefly, Jazz coughed once before finishing with a soft, “–people. I swear.”  

From behind the other girl, Sands gave me a private little nod. If nothing else, she would make sure Jazz stayed focused and didn’t freak out too much when they got around all those Alters. Which was why it was a good idea to send her in there too. Hopefully, that would be enough.

Abruptly, I slapped my forehead quietly. “Damn it,” I whispered. “Gordon, one of us has to go with those guys. You understand enough Latin to get by. If something happens and Jokai has to tell them something, they won’t understand.”

The boy paused before giving a slight nod. “I’ll go with them, then.”

“Be careful, all three of you,” Roxa cautioned. “They probably told them to be on guard for us. But, you know, hopefully they think we’re smart enough not to walk right into the Alter prison camp.”

“Yeah,” Isaac muttered darkly, “Too bad for them, we’re way dumber than they think we are.”

******

It was dark, and late the next evening as we reached the prison camp. Ahead and above us stood a tall wooden guard tower, with a single spotlight that was slowly roving over the grounds of the camp itself that lay just on the other side of the small hill that we had clustered near.

“Time to split up,” Roxa whispered. “Just like we said.”

I nodded, reaching into my pocket to take out my two mouse buddies. “Jaq, you stayed with me last time, so you go with these guys now.” I gave him a stroke behind the ears and let the little guy nuzzle my palm briefly before handing him over to Sands. “Let’s go with some easy signals. Tap your nose against whoever you’re talking to once for yes, twice for no. For questions… raise both front paws up and hold them like that for ‘Ready’, and spin in a circle for danger, problem, help, that kind of thing. Oh, and roll over on your back for ‘wait’. You got all that? Yes, no, ready, help, and wait. That should cover most responses we need for this.”

“What about something for retreat or hide?” Isaac pointed out then, gesturing. “Something like that. Wait doesn’t really work if it’s something we need to, you know, actively keep away from.”

He had a point. Biting my lip, I nodded. “If we need to retreat, jump up and down. You got that?” When both mice nodded, I ran them through the signals once, checking each one. Then I made sure the others had it before I was finally satisfied. “Okay, guess we’re almost ready to go.”

“Ready and eager,” Jazz agreed, then amended, “Some of us are more eager than others.”

Roxa had been nodding, but paused before looking to her old roommate. I saw brief indecision cross her face, and then she reached out to put a hand on the girl’s arm. “Jazzy,” she started. “Be careful, okay? I know what you promised, but just… just be careful. Take care of yourself.”

Leaving them to have their moment, I looked to Jokai, who seemed pretty terrified to be back here. He kept looking around, head snapping in every direction at the slightest sound. If someone came up behind him and said boo, the poor guy probably would’ve had a heart attack.

Seeing that, I hesitated. There had to be something I could say that would make him feel better or calm him down. We really needed him to be calm if we were going to pull this off. Jazz was nervous enough about the whole thing. If Jokai freaked out, she was probably going to lose it.

Start to say what you want to say, Tabbris put in. I’ll just translate it before it leaves your mouth.

Wow, she could do that? Pausing to consider, I started to whisper to the man. Sure enough, the words that I sent to my mouth somehow came out differently. I was thinking the words in English, but they were coming out of my mouth in Latin. That was… pretty damn useful, actually.

“Jokai,” I started slowly, taking care not to talk too fast. Just because my words were being translated instantly didn’t mean that everyone had to know that. So I spoke gradually, pausing between every two or three words. “I know that you didn’t expect to come back here like this. And you definitely didn’t expect to be with people like us when you did. But I promise, we are going to do everything we can to get your people out of that evil place. I don’t know what we’ll do after that, because we’ll probably have a whole bunch of pissed off Seosten chasing us across the planet without anywhere to go, but–”

Abruptly, the man interrupted, launching into a long spiel that Tabbris started translating partway through. He says that if you can free his people, we can all escape on the long-haulers. They’re ships–spaceships, I mean. They use them to haul supplies and to mine the asteroids. No weapons except for some drilling lasers, but they’re super heavily shielded.

I blinked a couple times at that. Is he saying that there’s a way off this planet? He–oh. Turning, I relayed that message to the others.

“Why didn’t he tell us about these ships before?” Isaac asked. “And if they’re so useful, why didn’t he head for them himself?”

Surprisingly, of all people it was Jazz who responded. “Maybe he didn’t know if he could trust us before we actually came here. And maybe he didn’t go for the ships himself because it takes more than one person to get them running. Or, you know, to get past the guards they probably have on them. And who says he even knows how to pilot them? Maybe–maybe a lot of things, right?”

“Right.” Blinking at the girl, I gave a short, distracted nod. “The point is, we have a goal after this. Save the people, and we can get the hell off this planet. After that–uhh, after that we’ll see what happens. But in the meantime, if no one else has any objections or interruptions, I think it’s time to do this.”

No one else had anything, so I nodded to Sands, Jokai, Gordon, and Jazz. “Good luck, you guys. And like Roxa said, be careful.”

The four of them slowly made their way off. We’d already explained to Jokai that he had to keep touching Jazz in order for her invisibility to work on him. It was a toss-up as to which of the two were more nervous about that entire prospect. But, to her credit, Jazz restrained herself from visibly cringing when the Alter put his hand on her arm. The group faded from sight, and I caught a glimpse of some leaves and dirt moving to mark their progress as they moved.

Roxa turned to her own partner then. “Gidget,” she whispered, “you stay here, okay? Stay on the outside of the camp in case something goes wrong. You’re pretty much the best reinforcement ever. Follow us along the perimeter here.” She held up her fist, waiting until the cyberform cougar had bumped her paw against it. “Damn straight.”

“Well,” Isaac announced then as he looked back and forth between Roxa and me. “Guess that leaves just the three of us, huh?

“Let’s go be heroes.”

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Uprising 29-03

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“What do you mean, what are we gonna do about it?” Isaac demanded fifteen minutes later, once he and the others had caught up and we’d had a chance to explain the situation. Looking around at all of us, the boy added, “I mean, hey, don’t get me wrong. Sucks for them. But there aren’t enough words in the English language to describe how much this isn’t our problem.”

Sands gave him a thoroughly disgusted look at that. “Oh, right, real empathetic there, Isaac.”

“It’s not about being empathetic,” the boy shot back. “It’s about being realistic. Look, the only reason those Seosten freaks haven’t dropped an entire army on top of us already is that they don’t know we’re here, right? We’re alive and free because they have no idea where we are. We try to get involved in this and how do you think it’ll go? Cuz I can tell you. The skies will open up and they will drop a veritable shit-ton of troops down on our heads. And they won’t stop coming after us until we’re either dead, or their obedient little puppet-slaves. I told you, I feel for the guy. But if we get involved, we won’t be helping anyone. We’ll just be a bunch of meatsuit puppets.”

Sighing under my breath, I looked over to where the chameleon-guy was. He’d pushed his back up against the nearby tree, and his eyes were darting around fearfully as he watched our every move. So far, he hadn’t reacted to anything we said, so I was pretty sure he didn’t understand English. Which was just going to end up making this even more complicated than it already was.

Roxa spoke up, having moved away to transform back into her human self. “So we just, what, ignore the guy? Walk away from him and pretend we never saw him? Is that what you suggest?”  

“Well, we can’t exactly do that either, can we?” Isaac pointed out then. “He runs out of here, and you really think he won’t sell us out to the first Seosten guard he sees to save his own skin?”

Roxa’s retort was sharp as her eyes blazed at that. “So what, you wanna take him prisoner? Or did you want to do something else, Isaac, something a little more permanent than that, maybe?”

“Look, you can take him prisoner if you want,” the boy quickly replied while shaking his head. “I’m not some bloodthirsty monster, I’m being pragmatic. If we get involved, we are all going to die or be enslaved. If we let him go and he tells them where we’re hiding, we are all going to die or be enslaved. Do you want that to happen? Because I don’t. I like myself in charge of myself.”

Roxa gave him a dirty look. “But you’re fine with just leaving a bunch of innocent people out there to be enslaved and experimented on, as long as it’s not you? That’s just fucking swell?”

“I never said it was swell!” he retorted. “I said we couldn’t do anything about it. I told you, if we get involved, we’ll save maybe a few of them, and then the Seosten will drop down on us with the fury of a thousand suns. Everyone we saved will be dead or enslaved again, and so will we. You really wanna risk your life just to get these people a few fucking minutes of freedom?”

Taking a step that way, Roxa spoke in a low, yet powerful voice as she met the boy’s gaze. “Let me make one thing perfectly clear to you. I would risk my life to give one person one minute of freedom. And then I’d do it again for another minute. And again for another minute. I would put my life on the line every second, every minute, every hour of every single goddamn day if it gave one of these innocent people the freedom that they deserve for as long as I managed to survive. So, you wanna know if I’d really risk my life to save them right now? Fuck yes.”

Isaac started to say something then, but was interrupted as Jazz moved past him. She was stepping over by the terrified Alter. Seeing her moving that way, I almost moved to intercept her.

Wait, don’t. Tabbris’s voice in my head cut in. She sounded hesitant. I don’t think she’s um… y-you know, I don’t think she’s gonna do anything bad. We should give her a chance.

I wasn’t sure about that, but I listened to my partner. Still, I kept a close, wary eye on the girl. From the corner of my eye, I saw Roxa doing the same. She looked tense, squinting that way.

By that point, Jazz had taken a knee in front of the man. He was busy trying to push himself back even further into the tree. I was pretty sure he would’ve phased through it if he could have. As it was, he stared at the girl in front of him as if she was a snake that had coiled up and started hissing. The poor guy wasn’t just afraid of us, he was pretty much completely petrified.

“He could be lying.” Jazz’s voice was soft, hesitant. She sounded like she knew this wasn’t going to go over well at all, but still had to say it. “It could be a trap, you know? What if they sent a bunch of these… people out to all these different areas with some sob story to trick us into going where they can grab us, just because they know that you guys think they’re innocent?”

I could see Roxa gearing up again, but before she could launch into another tirade, I stepped that way to put a hand on her arm. “Wait,” I muttered before looking to Jazz. “Just go with me on this. For right now, pretend he’s telling the truth. Just pretend you believe him, hypothetically. If he was telling the truth, and this isn’t some kind of trap, then what do you think we should do?”

Jazz’s mouth opened and shut. I saw the conflict in her eyes before her head shook. “If it wasn’t a trap? I mean, if it’s not a trap? That’s not–I mean… I mean there isn’t any way to know if it’s–”

“Hypothetically, Jazz,” I cut in. “You can do that much, can’t you? If there was a way to be absolutely certain that this isn’t a trap, then what would you choose? Isaac says it’s too dangerous. Roxa says she wants to go in and try anyway. But I wanna know what you say.”

Jazz’s mouth opened and shut a couple times, and she made a noise in the back of her throat. Her eyes darted to the man, back to me, then to the man again while she swallowed. “I… I don’t… I don’t know,” she finally managed while shaking her head rapidly. “I’m sorry, I just–I just don’t know, okay? I…He’s not, he’s not what I…” Turning back to him, she stared openly while he cringed and whimpered, clearly having absolutely no idea what we were talking about. Hell, he probably thought we were discussing which one of us would get to kill him. Or worse.

After staring at that whimpering, terrified figure for a few long seconds, Jazz finally spoke again.  Her soft, weak voice was barely audible, even as close as I was. “He’s not what I expected.”

Sands spoke before Roxa or I could. “You expected a monster.” Stepping over, she gave the Alter a brief look before focusing on the girl herself. “Because that’s what we’re supposed to do, right? We’re supposed to slay monsters and demons. That’s what we grew up learning about. That’s what they told us, that we were the last line of defense against some unrelenting horde of evil creatures, that we were going to save the innocents. We were supposed to be heroes.”

She took a step back, giving a slightly bitter smile as her head shook slowly. “Well, you know what? I’m pretty sure that being a hero is about doing the right thing.” Her eyes flicked toward Isaac. “No matter how dangerous it is.” Then she looked to Jazz. “No matter how hard it is.”

I nodded, biting my lip before the words came, almost of their own volition. “Maybe fuck Crossroads,” I announced, drawing everyone’s attention. “Maybe fuck our teachers. Maybe fuck everyone who ever said how this was supposed to go. Maybe right now, right here is where we decide what we’re going to do. Maybe right now is when we decide who we are. Maybe right now is when we decide what the right thing is for us. No teachers. No rules. No training wheels or safety lines. Nobody’s looking over our shoulders and nobody’s going to tell you what to do. I’m certainly not. It’s your choice. You decide. There’s a bunch of people out there who are being tortured, enslaved, worked to death or experimented on until they just wish they were dead.

“But Isaac’s right,” I continued slowly, purposefully. “If we let them know that we’re still around, things are gonna get bad. They will come after us and it will not be fun. We might lose. We might die. We might end up in just as bad a situation as the people that we’re trying to help are in. Maybe even worse. So you guys tell me, what is the right thing to do in that situation? We can keep hiding, and let these people suffer. Or we can step out and do something about it.”    

Roxa was the first one to speak after I had finished, her voice firm. “Do something about it.”

Sands was already nodding, fists clenched tightly as she agreed, “Do something about it.”

Jazz let out a long, low sigh then. She was still looking at the ground, fists pressed against the dirt as she hung her head. “I don’t know,” she whispered. “I don’t know how I feel about… about any of this. I want to–I…” Her head shook, and she repeated, “I don’t know. But I…” Finally, she lifted her head to look at at Roxa. “I do know that I’m not going to let you go into something dangerous like that without me. I don’t know how I feel about it, but if you’re going, I’m going.”

“Well shit.” Isaac mumbled under his breath. He lifted his gaze to the sky while muttering something inaudible, then heaved a long, heavy sigh. “What the hell. You all wanna be suicidal, I guess I don’t really have much of a choice, do I? I’m screwed if I just stay out here on my own, and there’s no way dear old roomie’s gonna leave you all flapping in the breeze.” He was obviously trying to sound light, but I could see that the boy wasn’t happy about this whole thing.

Smiling faintly then, Roxa looked over at me. “I guess, aside from Gordon, that just leaves you, technically.” Her chin lifted a little as she gave me a significant look before slowly asking, “What do you say?”  

Except she wasn’t just talking to me, I realized. Roxa knew that there were technically two votes right here. That’s why she was making a point of the question. How about it, partner? I asked inwardly. This puts you in danger too. Maybe more than us. If they figure out that you’re here…

In Tabbris’s case, there was no hesitation at all. They’re all in trouble. We can help them.

“I guess that settles it then,” I announced out loud, trying to smile encouragingly even as my heart tried to beat its way out of my chest at the very idea of what we were about to attempt.

“Unless Gordon has some really convincing argument, we’re doing this.”

“Yeah, you know what?” Isaac announced then. “Call me crazy, but something tells me that Captain Logical isn’t gonna be so logical when it comes to this. It’s just a feeling.”

I didn’t know if he was right or not. Gordon did tend to be logical about everything. But then again, he’d been acting a little differently now and then, whenever the subject of the Seosten conspiracy about Alters came up. Maybe he was like Sands, pissed off that he’d been lied to for so long. Or maybe it was something more than that. I just didn’t know.

But something told me, whatever his deal was, it would come up before this field trip was over.

******

It took some convincing to get our new chameleon-like friend to come with us. We had to convince him that we weren’t just marching him back to Radueriel. Or rather, Tabbris did. She used my voice, carefully telling the man that we weren’t possessed, and we weren’t part of Seosten military. She/I told him we were going to help, but he had to get back to our camp.

So we stopped by to grab the two pantlers that we’d managed to kill, and Roxa and I each dragged one while the others kept their eyes open for anything bad.

Gordon was already standing at the base of the tree when we arrived. Clearly he’d seen us coming and climbed down to meet us. As we approached, the dark-skinned boy stepped out, keeping his voice low and even as he looked straight at our companion. “Who’s this?”

“It’s–” I paused, squinting before looking toward the man. His eyes were darting around constantly, watching for any kind of attack. Any time one of us spoke, he flinched noticeably like he expected to be hit. Or worse. The poor guy was still completely pants-wettingly terrified of us.  

Could you ask him what his name is? I sent inwardly. Anything we’re supposed to call him.

My mouth moved then, as Tabbris spoke through me. Just like when we had been speaking in front of the others aside from Roxa, she spoke slowly and hesitantly, taking a few seconds now and then as if thinking about the right word. She didn’t have to, obviously. But it would be more convincing that it was actually me talking if I wasn’t rattling it off like it was my first language.

Still, after only about a sentence or so into it, Isaac interrupted. “Hey, how do you even know how to speak this gibberish anyway? That something you learned from that Prosser guy too?”

Before I could reply, Gordon actually spoke up. “It’s just Latin,” he announced flatly. “She’s better at it than me, but I can follow some of it, enough words here and there to get the basic gist.”

“Why do they speak La–” Jazz started, then stopped herself. “Never mind, I don’t wanna know.”

Biting my lip, I turned my attention back to the Alter, urging Tabbris to go on. She did, apparently asking the man what his name was as gently as possible, trying not to scare him even more.

His eyes darted back and forth between us. I could tell that he was trying to decide whether giving us that much information was a good idea or not. Finally, he either realized that we weren’t going to do anything bad with it, or figured that we’d hurt him more if he didn’t talk. He started to hesitantly speak, his voice so quiet that I had to lean in closer to hear him better. Which, of course, made him stutter more, head ducking as if I was about to literally eat him.

Jokai, Tabbris announced. He says his name is Jokai. But I think he’s afraid that we’re gonna… um, take his name and use it to find everyone he cares about and… you know, make an example out of them. I tried to tell him that it’s safe, but he’s–um. They’ve been tricked before. That’s kind of the whole Seosten thing. I could hear the disgust in her voice. That’s how they um, how they stop rebellions before they get off the ground. They possess people and infiltrate the slave camps, find out who’s talking about rebelling and… and make examples out of them.

Okay, I was wrong. Apparently I could feel worse about this whole situation. Biting my lip and trying not to sigh too much, I looked back to the others. “His name is Jokai.” For Gordon, I went on to tell him the rest of it, that Jokai came from a slave labor camp, that he had run away and we’d… found him. Then I told him about the conversation we’d had before coming back here.

“So uh, that’s what we’re up to,” I finally finished with a little shrug. “That leaves it up to you. I mean, I’m sure Isaac would stay with you if you guys wanna sit this out. He didn’t want to be by himself, but if you…” Biting my lip, I trailed off and just looked to him. “It’s up to you. In or out?”

Gordon wasn’t looking at me. His eyes were on the trembling Alter, something utterly unreadable on his face. He stayed like that for a few seconds before lifting his chin and exhaling. When he finally spoke, it was obviously through a thick lump in his throat. “In.”

“That’s all of us.” Taking a breath, I turned to look at the Alter, Jokai. Tell him we’re gonna help get his people out of the prison camp. Or try to, at least.

Once more, my lips moved as the Seosten girl took over briefly. There was a short back and forth between ‘me’ and Jokai, and the more ‘I’ said, the more confused he looked. He kept repeating a phrase that I took to essentially mean, ‘what the hell are you talking about?’

Finally, however, he reached out to clutch my arm, all four of his eyes widening as he blurted a single word: sacramentum. His voice was a shaky, desperate plea, as if he was both afraid and ashamed that he was actually starting to believe any of this, but couldn’t help himself.

He’s asking if you promise, Tabbris informed me quietly. Actually, it’s more like he’s asking if you swear that you’re telling the truth, that you’re going to try. It’s an oath.

I relayed that to the others. While Isaac rolled his eyes and Jazz looked uncertain, Gordon was already nodding. “Vero,” he announced after considering his words briefly. “Sacramentum.”

After watching the others briefly, I nodded to our new friend. “Sacramentum. We’ll help your people, Jokai.

“I swear.”  

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Uprising 29-02

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Harper Hayes posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

“Isaac, left, left, go left!” Jazz blurted loudly while throwing herself straight at Roxa. With a snarling cry, she swung that falchion of hers. The blade carried a wide, roaring wave of fire with it as it cut through the air. Metal and flame alike swept toward the blonde werewolf girl.

Meanwhile, Isaac was going for Roxa’s left side, swinging his three-headed flail at the space that the girl would have to dodge into in order to avoid the flames that were headed for her.

At the exact same time, Gordon was standing about half a dozen yards away. He had his weapon up in tommy gun form, taking aim carefully before he let loose with a barrage of shots.

Roxa was… not in even the slightest bit of trouble. She stepped forward, letting the flames engulf her to seemingly no effect. While Jazz was still realizing that, the other girl ripped the sword out of her hands by the blade before pivoting to kick her ex-roommate’s legs out from under her. As Jazz was dumped onto her backside, Roxa flipped the sword up and around. She used the blade to catch one of the chains of Isaac’s flail, and a quick yank tore it from his hands.

In the same motion, she kept turning on one foot, releasing the tangled sword and flail into a throw. They flew through the air, separating in time for the chains of the flail to wrap around Gordon’s legs, just before the hilt of the sword smacked him in the center of his forehead.

“And if you had really been attacking me,” Roxa announced, standing with one foot on Jazz’s chest and her hand against Isaac’s throat, “you would’ve been hit by the blade, not the hilt.”

Stepping forward then, I bobbed my head up and down quickly. “There, see, guys? You’re totally getting better. You lasted four whole seconds that time.” Moving to where Gordon had fallen, I held a hand out to help him up. “That’s twice as long as you lasted the first time we did this.”

It had been almost a week since we ended up on this planet. And yeah, we were training. I figured that even if we were stuck out here literally in the middle of nowhere on this alien world until someone rescued us, we could at least keep training. Partly because we all desperately needed it if we were going to survive anything the Seosten managed to throw at us. And partly because if Avalon found out that I’d been shirking training, I was pretty sure she’d kill me.

At least with Roxa around I had a really good opponent to spar with. After killing Lemuel and whatever else she’d done while with her pack, the werewolf girl probably could’ve given Valley herself a run for her money. It meant that both of us could help each other actually get better.

Gordon lay there, watching my hand for a moment like I was trying to offer him a snake. Just as I was about to step away so that he wouldn’t feel forced into anything, the boy reached up to take my hand. It was tentative, and he released me as soon as I’d pulled him to his feet. For good measure, he took a couple steps away. If it was anyone else, I might’ve felt insulted. But I knew by that point that that was just how Gordon was. He really did not like to be touched.

Jazz was shaking her head as Roxa helped her up as well. “Four seconds? That means she could still murder us fifteen times inside of a minute if she wanted to.” Pausing, she glanced to the other girl, hesitating just a little before adding, “Are werewolves really that badass?”  

Roxa lifted her chin, squinting briefly. “Werewolves can rip you apart, yes. But it’s not just that. Like I said before, I killed the leader of that evil pack. That… that gave me a big boost. Plus there’s everything else. I’m a werewolf, but I’m also a Heretic. So everything I kill keeps making me stronger. Hell, when I was still at Crossroads and we killed those Jekern, I ended up with the redundant organ powers. So between werewolf regeneration, the regen we all got from those peridles at the start of the year, and the redundant organs, I’m a gigantic pain in the ass to kill.”  

“That’s good, right?” Isaac put in while dusting himself off. He gave Roxa an easy smile. “I mean, good because you’re on our side. We wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to you.”

In the days since we had upended these guys’ entire belief system, they had gradually started to come to terms with it. Gordon had never really seemed that against it, and Isaac just kind of went with the flow. Part of that was his personality and part was obviously because he had grown up as a Bystander. Jazz had been the hardest hit by the whole thing, but she was coming around. Hell, sometimes she could even get through a whole conversation with Roxa without looking like someone had just kicked her puppy. She was adapting. And the more that Jazz interacted with the other girl without anything bad happening, the better she was becoming.

Even then, however, Jazz had made it clear that she wasn’t sure what she believed. Even if Roxa wasn’t evil, she wasn’t quite willing to believe that that extended to all Alters. The day before, the girl had extended the thought that because Roxa had been a Heretic first, it ‘saved’ her, that somehow being a Heretic had stopped the evil of the werewolf from taking over.

Yeah, Jazz still didn’t understand why the other girl had stormed off after that and refused to speak to her for the rest of the day. The point was, tensions were not quite all the way calm. We’d gotten it through their heads that Roxa wasn’t a threat. Now we just had to make them believe the rest of it. I just wasn’t sure how we were supposed to go about doing that.

“Hey, it’s someone else’s turn to come up here!” That was Sands, calling from her position up in the top of the nearby tree where she was playing lookout. “I wanna get some training in.”

The Seosten had basically stopped sending out ships out to scan for us after those first couple days (probably because they had no way of knowing where we were, or even if we were still on this planet), but we were still keeping an eye out for them just in case they were trying to lull us into some kind of  false sense of security. So we each took turns watching the sky for any ships whenever we were out of the cave. So far, everything had been pretty quiet. But I knew that couldn’t last forever. Radueriel wouldn’t have given up on finding us that easily after everything the Seosten went through to get us out here in the first place. It was just a matter of time.

The real question was, would Gaia manage to find a way to pull us back to Earth before the Seosten tracked us down? We were stuck here, waiting to see who won that particular race.

“I’ll go,” Gordon announced as he looked up to the tree. Which wasn’t really much of a surprise. The dark-skinned boy spent about half the time that he wasn’t training up there. He obviously liked the solitude, the chance to be by himself away from everyone else, just watching the sky.

Do you think he’s okay? I thought inwardly, biting my lip as I briefly wondered what could’ve happened in Gordon’s past to make him so withdrawn and against the idea of being touched.  

The answer from Tabbris was tentative. I… I dunno. Jazz, I know why she acts the way she does. But Gordon and Isaac are weird. Especially Isaac. Sometimes it seems like he’s trying really hard to seem sensitive and open, but um, other times, it’s like he says something just to… you know, just to get a reaction. It’s like he forgets to be nice, and has to remind himself.

Speaking of which, the boy himself was busy waving at Gordon. “Knock yourself out, dude. It’s so goddamn boring up there. Are you sure you weren’t a bird in a previous life or something?”

Sands had dropped down by that point, using the wooden stakes that we had fashioned and driven into the tree as a ladder. Hopping to the ground, she interrupted before Gordon had to respond to his roommate. “We need to get some food, guys. And I don’t mean fish or those berries. If I have another fish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I swear I’m gonna throw up.”

“What else are we supposed to do?” Isaac asked, shrugging his shoulders. “I mean, I’m with you, babe. But unless you know a pizza place with an incredible delivery range, we’re screwed.” Pausing then, he grumbled, “Shouldn’t’ve said that. Now I really want some pizza.”

While I shook my head and sighed, Roxa spoke up. “It’s not pizza, but I’ve seen some animals out on my runs. They look like a cross between deer and pigs.” She shrugged then. “Might taste pretty good, if we could take one down and get it back here. Mateo taught me how to get meat off an animal like that. And yes,” she added, “before any of you say anything, we did cook it.”

I hesitated a little. But honestly, I was sick of fish too. And it had been days since the last ship flew overhead. “Okay,” I finally agreed, asking, “do you think you can track them in wolf form?”

She gave me a sly smirk in response. “I’m seriously sick of fish too. Trust me, I can track them.”

Nodding, I reached into my pocket to take out Gus and Jaq. “Okay, let’s do this. Gordon, can you take one of my buddies here and hold onto him? If you see anything, he’ll send a warning to his brother.” I shrugged then. “It’s kinda the best we can do without any radios or anything.”

“Yeah,” Sands agreed. “Not like our phones are getting any signal out here. And I don’t know about you guys, but mine ran out of power days ago anyway.”

“I turned mine off as soon as we got here,” Gordon replied. “Conserving power. Just in case.”

I shrugged. “Charmeine kinda destroyed mine. Good idea about saving phone battery though.”

“So if we’re going hunting,” Isaac started, “does that mean we have to be vewwy vewwy quiet?”

Jazz gave an emphatic nod. “Yes, that’s exactly what it means. We all have to be vewwy quiet.

“Especially you.”

******

It wasn’t actually that hard to track down the pig-deer (they really needed a better name). About twenty minutes later, the five of us were crouched by some trees, watching a small herd of them nosing around in the clearing ahead of us. Just like Roxa had described, they looked like fuzzy warthogs that were about as tall as a small deer, with both long tusks as well as full antlers, and even long, bushy tails like a really big squirrel.

“Oh man,” Isaac whispered under his breath, just loud enough for us to hear, “I see bacon and a nice venison burger from the same damn animal. Maybe this planet isn’t so bad after all.”

Roxa, who was still in her wolf form, put a paw on his arm before shaking her head for him to be quiet. Then she looked over to me and nodded her head one way, toward the bushes on the other side of the clearing before pantomiming barking and howling. Finally, she nodded in the opposite direction, reaching up with a paw to bump against the staff in my hand.

I thought for a second, looking that way before realizing. Keeping my voice so low it was barely audible at all, I whispered, “You go that way, scare them into taking off in that direction, right where I’ll have planted some mines for them to run into. Then we pick off whatever we need to?”

When the wolf-girl gave a short nod, I smiled a little. “Sounds good to me. Hold on. I’ll be back.”

Carefully and slowly, I crawled back the way we’d come, looping around a ways until I came to the spot that Roxa had indicated. Then I paused to make sure the hog-deer… deer-pigs…

Digs? Tabbris offered helpfully. You know, like deer-pigs. Or sweer, for swine-deer. Or doar, for deer-boar.  Or pantlers, for pigs with antlers. There’s hantlers too, for hogs, but I like pantlers.  

Pantlers is kind of cute, I agreed while charging my staff. Carefully, I started to lay out concussive mines along the path that the animals would most likely run through once Roxa startled them. Maybe we can let everyone take a vote on which one they like best.

I’m pretty sure, she replied confidently, that what they really wanna call them is dinner.

Smiling at that, I started to crawl back to where the others were. You’re probably right.

When I got back there, only Sands and Jazz were waiting. Through gestures and whispers, they let me know that Roxa and gone around to the back of the clearing and was waiting to scare the pantlers (that was definitely my favorite one). Isaac, meanwhile, had gone down and around to the opposite side from where we were so that he could block them if they ended up retreating that way. Basically, between all of us we would herd them into the mines that I had laid down.

Biting my lip, I looked back out at where the animals were calmly eating. A few of them had started to look around cautiously, but mostly they were content to munch their food.

Then I had an even better idea. Whispering for the others to hang on, I reached out a hand to touch the tree in front of me. With a thought, I used the Relekun’s power to shove myself into the wood, ‘swimming’ up the tree to the nearest large branch. Emerging, I crouched there, basically directly over the antlered warthogs below. Still, the herd hadn’t really moved much.

Sands was looking up at me, and I gave her a thumbs up while transforming my staff into its bow form and charging up an arrow. Once she saw that I was ready, Sands turned to mouth something at Jazz. In turn, the other girl put a hand to her lips before pretty accurately imitating one of the birds that we had seen all around this place over the past week. I had no idea if that was some kind of mimicry power, or just a completely natural skill. Either way, it was really good.

The pantlers below were warily looking around at the sound of the bird call. That wariness exploded into full out panic, however, as Roxa abruptly leapt into the clearing with a loud snarl. She gave a violent series of barks while lunging toward the quite thoroughly startled animals.

And that was the point where the pantlers decided they’d had quite enough of this shit. The entire herd panicked, spinning around to scatter in various directions. Unfortunately for them, we were ready for that. The few that ran toward where Sands and Jazz waited were met with both girls lunging out to shout at them, weapons swinging. Jazz even brought up a brief wave of fire.

Meanwhile, the ones that went toward Isaac were sent back the way we wanted them to go by his three drones, which flew out of the bushes and sent several shots toward the poor animals.

All of that together meant that the creatures that were about to be our dinner were herded right where we wanted them to go. As I watched from my perch in the tree, the first couple reached the mines, and were instantly blown off their feet by the concussive explosion. One flew backwards into a full somersault (which looked weird coming from an animal like that), smacking against a tree. Another was caught just a little less, and went tumbling sideways into a bush.

The rest of the herd kept running, hit less by the mines. But that was more than alright. Two of the things would definitely be enough for awhile. We just had to make sure they didn’t get away.

To that end, I took aim at the furthest pantler, the one that had just been tossed into the bush. My energy-arrow shot that way, catching the thing just as it was getting up. That time, the thing stayed down. And I was just about to take aim at the second one when a wave of pleasure washed over me. It wasn’t anything close to the bigger rushes I’d gotten from deaths like Charmeine or the Amarok. In contrast, this was more like a brief pleasurable feeling. But it did take me a little by surprise, to the point that I had to quickly reach out and catch myself against the tree. I’d kind of forgotten that these things would actually trigger the whole Heretic-kill thing.

As I caught myself against the tree, however, something else caught my eye. Off on the other side of the clearing, half-hidden in bushes… was a humanoid figure. I couldn’t tell much about it from where I was, except that it looked pretty close to human save for yellow-red skin that made it blend into the surrounding bushes pretty well. It was watching the others, but a second later it looked up, clearly catching sight of me looking at it. Instantly, the thing pivoted to run.

“Roxa!” I shouted. As the wolf spun to look my way, I pointed off the way the thing was going. “Company!”

Then I leapt, transitioning my weapon back into its staff form before using a blast of energy to send myself flying that way. The brief flight before I came down cut into the spy’s lead, and I hit the ground running. I was fast, but Roxa was faster. She tore past me, all four legs turning her into a furry rocket that vanished into the bushes ahead.

A second later, my staff was charged enough to launch myself upward once more. I flew up and forward, landing on an outstretched branch to run along it for a few steps. Ahead, I caught the briefest glimpse of the figure running, with Roxa right behind him.

It was cutting to the right, so I did too, launching myself from the end of the branch with another burst from my staff. The propulsion sent me over the figure’s head, and I came down almost directly in front of it, spinning with my weapon up.

It was a male figure. I recognized that now. He pivoted at the sight of me, trying to escape back the way he’d come. But an instant later, Roxa came leaping out of the bushes. She collided with the man, knocking him to the ground with a loud, violent growl.

Now I had a better look at the guy. The most immediate feature I noticed was that he had four eyes. Two were in the normal locations, while the other two were set just a little above them. So two on each side of his face. He also wasn’t wearing much, just a sort of brown loincloth. And his skin wasn’t really reddish-orange anymore. In the few seconds since he had hit the ground, it had turned brownish to match the dirt. Whatever this guy was, he had some kind of chameleon power. He was still visible, but his skin changed colors to match his surroundings.

He was also crying. Sobbing, really. Rolling on his side, he babbled something in some language I didn’t understand.

Old Seosten, Tabbris quickly put in. Basically Latin. I understand him. He… he’s begging you to kill him.

Kill him? I blinked. Why would he ask us to kill him?

He keeps saying, please kill me, please don’t send me to the butcher… doctor… something like that.

I frowned for a second. Then I got it. Radueriel. He’s afraid we’re working for Radueriel. Ask him where he came from. I mean, use me to ask him.

There was a momentary hesitation, then my mouth moved, and my voice spat out some words quickly. The sobbing figure stopped, blinking tear-filled eyes up at me before stammering a hesitant, fearful response.

Um, it’s um, he came from a labor camp. He says he escaped and ran for two days before he got here. He was just hungry. He saw the pantlers too. But when he saw you–I mean us, he thought you were part of the search team sent to bring him back. Now he’s afraid you’re gonna send him to Radueriel.

Well, that was one thing we definitely wouldn’t be doing. But this did mean one very important thing. We weren’t exactly alone on this planet after all. No, apparently there was a slave labor camp a couple days run away from here, a place full of terrified, broken, hopeless people like this guy, working themselves to the bone until they either died or were sent to be experiments for that fucking psycho Seosten cyborg.

The question was, what were we going to do about it?

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