Gidget

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, shearing 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 29-04

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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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Uprising 29-01

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“A rebellion.” Isaac was staring at me as if I’d grown two additional heads and started yodeling as I finished telling them the truth about all that. “Like, an actual rebellion, and your mother was Princess Leia. Or Luke Skywalker. Wait, are either of those sexist? I can never keep track.”

There was a brief pause, where I was pretty sure that he was waiting for Jazz to tell him to shut up. But she didn’t. The other girl was too busy staring at me open-mouthed. She didn’t actually say anything at all. She just kept staring. Every once in awhile, her lips moved as if she was trying to find something to say, but she always stopped herself and just went back to staring.

While telling the story about the rebellion and my mother’s role in it, I’d finished up the spell that Tabbris had been walking me through. Now the cave was safe from any scans from the ships that occasionally passed by overhead. I didn’t really understand much of what I’d done for the spell, but I figured that Tabbris could talk me through the specifics later. In this case, I’d just been essentially letting her move my hands to draw everything. So it was safe enough, for the moment, for the others to focus solely on what I had told them. And focus they did.   

Roxa was the first to find her voice. “You… you know, that makes a lot of other things make a lot more sense. Your mom was the leader of some anti-establishment rebellion, it…” She shook her head slowly, clearly in awe. “That’s… awesome. I mean, not the rest of it, not what ended up happening or what they did to her. But your mom’s a hero. She’s like… a legend. Or she would be, if they hadn’t used magic to erase everyone’s memory. Your mom sounds fucking amazing.”

Despite myself, I smiled a little at that thought. “She is. Even after they erased her memory and made her a ‘normal’ human. She was the town sheriff. I… I guess even Seosten magic couldn’t completely erase everything that made mom want to protect people and stop bad guys.”

Roxa was grinning, showing her teeth a little bit. “Like I said, a lot of stuff makes a lot more sense now. Gotta admit, I was pretty confused before. Now I get it. No wonder you’re always getting in trouble. I mean, you’re the daughter of the woman who almost destroyed Crossroads, and your roommate slash one of your girlfriends is the descendant of the man who created it.”

The words made me flush, shaking my head while muttering, “When you put it that way…” I swallowed hard. “Seriously though, Mom is amazing. That’s why Fossor took her. It’s…” Biting my lip, I trailed off, looking away for a moment. I really didn’t want to dwell on that at the moment. We had enough problems to deal with, without me getting distracted by all that.

Gordon took a step forward then. As my eyes moved to him, the boy stood there, staring at me. There was something in his expression. I almost had the really weird feeling that he wanted to hug me. Which would have been odd coming from anyone. But coming from Gordon, it was utterly absurd to the point that I figured I absolutely had to be misreading his expression.

Nope, Tabbris quickly put in, he really looks like he wants to hug you. Sorta. For him.

By that point, the moment had passed, and Gordon turned to look at Jazz. His voice was as even and flat as it ever was. “It makes sense that they would do that.”

“Makes sense?” That was Sands, her voice raised almost to the point of hysteria as she demanded pointedly, “How exactly does erasing everyone’s memory of literally decades worth of time and a whole war, rewriting their entire history, actually make sense? You can’t possibly-”

“I don’t agree with it,” Gordon interrupted. “I never said I did. And I didn’t say it was the right thing to do. I said that it makes sense that they would do it. They were facing the end of their control. From what you guys said, the rebellion wasn’t ending. More and more Heretics were changing sides. And the establishment was in a race against time to begin with. The more that Heretics who were on the fence saw Alters working alongside rebel Heretics, the easier it would be to convince them that it was possible for Alters to not be evil. They had to do something very drastic to not just end the war, but also to stop people who witnessed all of that from starting it up again. So yes, their actions are evil and wrong. But they also make logical sense.”

I saw Jazz watching Roxa. It looked like the girl wanted to step closer. She had a longing look on her face, as if she… well, as if she wanted to talk to her old roommate, as if she wanted things to go back to the way they were. But her own doubts and fears were stopping her from taking that leap. In the end, she just swallowed hard before turning a bit to reply to Gordon, her tone more curious than accusatory. “You really think that kind of rebellion would’ve succeeded?”

“Without the kind of memory magic they used,” he replied easily, “and in the long run? Yes. That kind of truth would be an avalanche. Like I said, the more people who were on the fence witnessed Heretics and Alters fighting side by side, the more likely they were to slide off that fence to the right side. And the more of them that went, the more of their friends and family they would pull with them. Again, it’s an avalanche. Even if the Establishment succeeded at stamping out the current rebellion, it would stick in people’s memories. Brushfires would come up now and then, and before they knew it, there would be a whole rebellion all over again. In other words, erasing the entire event from everyone’s memory, while utterly repugnant, is logically sound.

“Before we keep arguing about this,” Roxa announced from near the cave entrance, “we should really check to make sure the coast is clear and then go get some food and water. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m starving.” She paused briefly then before pointedly adding, “And no, before you say anything, I’m not about to eat any of you. I’m a werewolf, not a cannibal.”

“Werewolves do eat people though,” Jazz pointed out before flushing. “I mean–” She sighed. “I’m not saying you are, just that werewolves have eaten people. You know they have.”

“Yeah,” Roxa replied flatly, “and so have people. There are bad werewolves, yes. No one’s saying there’s not. But there’s also good-you know what? Food. We all need to get food.”

Quickly, before anyone else could start in, I nodded. “Right, food and water. Hang on.” Pausing, I focused on Marian once more, sending her cautiously out into the ditch. Slowly, I made the little fox look around, clambering up the incline once more before eventually searching the sky from the tree. It took about ten minutes to assure myself that the coast was clear. Finally, however, I was fairly confident that it was as safe as it was going to be. There were no ships in immediate sight, and I was pretty sure we could get back to cover before any got near enough to find us. “Okay,” I announced, “Let’s get out there. But uh, be careful. We don’t know what kind of things might be dangerous here besides the Seosten. So let’s go slow and stay together.”

We did just that. Slowly, carefully, the six of us (plus Gidget) crept out of the cave. I looked to the sky, seeing it with my own eyes since I had closed my fox’s to make things less distracting and confusing. By mutual, silent agreement, no one said anything as we moved to half-climb and half-crawl up the embankment until we reached the top. Then I led the others to the river that I had seen. We remained quiet right up until we reached the river itself. Then, once we had cupped our hands in the water and slaked our thirst enough, the talking finally started again.

“I hate to be that guy,” Isaac started, “but what are we gonna do about food? Water’s great and all, but we’ve gotta eat too if we’re gonna survive. And I don’t think there’s a BK anywhere nearby.”

“Fish,” I replied while pointing into the water where several were swimming around. “I mean, it’s a whole different world, but fish is fish, I… think?” Frowning then, I muttered, “Unless they’re poisonous somehow. Hey, does anyone have a poison detecting power?”

“Gidget can handle it,” Roxa assured me. “Anything we want to eat, we stick it in her mouth and she can tell us if there’s anything in it that we shouldn’t have. Actually, Vulcan should be able to do the same thing, so I’m surprised Sean hasn’t mentioned that. It’s kind of one of their main features for Heretics that are… not at home.”

“Man, Gidget,” I remarked with a glance to the metal cougar, “you’re getting more useful by the second. Pretty soon, you’re gonna be more important to this whole situation than I am.”

While Gidget preened, Gordon looked at the water while pointing out, “Now we just need to actually catch the fish.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” I replied while moving down the river a little ways from the wide area where most of the visible fish were swimming. “You guys stay here. And be ready, okay?”

While they asked what they were supposed to be ready for, I moved down to find a narrow spot with some rocks that I could easily hop across without getting too wet. Then I made my way back, while tugging my staff from the container on my hip.

“Ready?” I asked, hitting the charge button. “You might wanna move out of the way.”

Realizing what I was about to do, the others all scattered to either side, then watched as I stuck the end of my staff down into the water. Waiting for a moment until the largest group of fish had gathered nearby, I finally hit the trigger. The kinetic blast sent water spraying up like a geyser. And it also sent a handful of decent sized fish rocketing up onto the other side of the river.

The others moved quickly, grabbing the fish before they could flip themselves back into the water. Two more times like that, and we had plenty, much faster than regular fishing would have taken (if we’d even had a fishing pole).

“Right, fish.” Jazz was nodding at the pile of dead fish that we had a couple minutes later. “Fish and water. Too bad we can’t carry the water down with us. But I didn’t bring any bottles or anything.”

Roxa was shaking her head, kneeling next to Gidget as she muttered, “You see, guys? This is why you need a wildlife survival course at Crossroads or something. Open up, girl.” As Gidget obligingly opened her mouth, the girl reached deep inside, feeling around a little bit. It looked kinda funny, seeing Roxa shoulder-deep in her cougar’s mouth. Finally, she came out with a canteen, holding it up. “We can share it, and take turns coming back out to fill it up again.”

She started to turn, only to stop and look over at Jazz, who was staring at her. As I watched, Roxa paused before asking flatly, “What?”

Noticeably flinching, Jazz took a step back before stopping herself. “I–” she started before shaking her head. “Nothing. I just–I was just going to–” She stopped again, and I saw tears flood her eyes for a brief moment before the girl blinked rapidly. “I was just gonna make a joke, and–and then I thought about what you might’ve said if you weren’t a–I mean–”

Roxa sighed, looking at the girl intently. “Jazz, I told you, I’m still me. Same personality. Same sense of humor. It’s me.”

“I wanna believe you,” Jazz all-but whimpered, staring at her old roommate and friend before slumping a little bit. “I do. I just…” She sighed, turning to pick up the fish that she had gathered. Without another word, the girl started back toward the cave.

In the silence that followed, I announced, “We need wood too, guys. We have no idea how cold it gets down here. Plus, we’ve gotta cook our dinner, unless you’re super-into strange sushi or something. So let’s get the stuff we need to make a fire.

“And start hoping that we don’t run into a Fish and Game Warden out here, because I don’t think any of us have a license for this stuff.”

******

“Are you sure it’s safe to be out of the cave right now?” Jazz whispered cautiously. She was crouching just inside entrance, peering through the bush at me as I knelt a few feet outside.

It was late, and the night sky was full of stars. The others were asleep, or at least lying down. We’d had a short discussion about posting people to keep watch. Isaac had suggested that we each take a turn and have one person up in case anything happened. Which was a decent idea, but I vetoed the whole ‘one person’ thing. It was too easy for one person to fall asleep, or get taken by surprise somehow. So we’d ended up agreeing to work in pairs. To make it all fair, we had drawn names for our partners. I had gotten Jazz as mine. In about four hours (which Jaq and Gus were helpfully timing for me), we would wake up Roxa and Isaac so that we could sleep. Four hours after that, they would wake up Gordon and Sands for the final shift.

I nodded to Jazz’s question. “There’s no ships overhead, and they just went by for a scan about ten minutes ago. We should be good for now. It’s enough time to head down to get some more water.” I held up the canteen that Roxa had pulled out of Gidget and gave it a little wave. “Getting kinda low.”  Pausing then, I added with a little gesture, “You wanna come with?”

What do you think, partner? I asked inwardly. Is she the one most freaked by what I told them?

There was no answer for a moment, before Tabbris gave a sudden start of realization. Oh, me! Oh, um, sorry. I guess I’m still not used to you talking to me. Or anyone talking to me. She paused, then agreed. Uh huh. I don’t think Gordon was surprised at all. And Isaac is weird.

In the meantime, Jazz had said something that I missed. Uh, oops. I really needed to get better at dividing my attention. Or just stop trying to talk to Tabbris when I was already talking to someone else. Uh, I don’t suppose you caught what she said? And they’re both pretty weird.

Thankfully, Tabbris answered immediately. She asked if you really wanted her to come.

It must have looked like I had to stop and think about it, because Jazz was already starting to say that she’d just stay in the cave, and was pulling back out of the little entrance area.

Hurriedly, I shook my head, whispering, “No, come on, it’s okay. I should probably have someone watching my back. Here.” Reaching into my pocket, I carefully took out Jaq. The little metal mouse blinked at me as I set him near the bush. “Hey, little guy. I know you and your brother are connected. So if you see anything up here, let him know so he can get my attention.”

Both mice gave little squeaks of acknowledgment. Jaq straightened up and started to move from one side of the cave entrance to the other, occasionally making a soft squeak sound. After a moment, I realized that he was marching. The sound he was making was the military ‘hup’.

“Okay,” Jazz announced with a raised eyebrow, “I’m just gonna say it, that’s pretty adorable.”

I smiled just a little, watching the mouse for a moment. “Yeah, I can’t figure out how these guys ended up with Doxer of all people. He wasn’t…” I paused, considering for a moment. “… He wasn’t the first guy you’d think of who would have cute little things like them, let’s just say.”

Glancing back over her shoulder at the others deeper in the cave briefly, Jazz finally crawled out into the ravine with me. Her voice was low. “Doxer, that’s the Eden’s Garden guy that you, uh-”

“Killed,” I finished for her. “Yeah, it was him or me. They were trying to kill Avalon again, and um, well, I couldn’t let that happen.” As I spoke, I was already moving to the spot where we had all climbed up earlier.

After a momentary hesitation, Jazz trailed after me. Her voice was quiet. “So, um… you’ve had a busy year.”

Pausing, I lowered my head, chuckling a little bit despite myself. “Yeah,” I replied, “I guess you could say that. And it hasn’t even been a year yet. I’m kinda terrified to think of where I’ll be when it has been a year.”

“Hopefully not still out here in the middle of this… Seosten space,” the other girl put in.

Wincing at the thought, I nodded. “Yeah, hopefully.” Shaking my head then, I reached back for her while tugging my staff out. “Come on, it’s faster this way.”

She did so, and I held onto her while using the staff to boost us out of the ravine. From there, it was a short jog to reach the river so we could drink and fill up the canteen.

Afterward, Jazz straightened from the water and wiped her mouth off with her arm before looking to me. The moon and starlight cast shadows over her face. “This rebellion you were talking about, if there was a war like that, I… I wonder where the Torchbearers would have landed on the whole thing.”

“Torchbearers?” I asked, tilting my head.

So she told me about the group that she had come from, about how six Heretic families during the American revolution (and the big war between Crossroads and Eden’s Garden) had told both sides to go fuck themselves while they set up their own little group. Over the years, they generally bolstered their ranks by turning people into Natural Heretics. But once every roughly half a decade, they also sent representatives to Crossroads and Eden’s Garden to become students.

Jazz was the latest Torchbearer representative for Crossroads. Not that she’d meant to be one. She’d only become the default choice once the other ones, the ones who had actually trained for the job, had all been wiped out by a group of evil Alters who managed to ambush their training facility.

“Oh God, Jazz,” I managed, choking a little bit as I stared at her. “No wonder you don’t want to believe what–I… I mean, I’m sorry. I’m sorry about what happened.”

“Yeah.” She was clearly speaking through a lump in her throat, turning away for a moment to look at the nearby river before muttering, “Like I said, I wonder where they fell in the whole rebellion thing. I wonder what my parents thought about it. If they… did anything.”

If they had fought, I knew was what she was wondering. And what side they had been on. Or if they had even both been on the same side.

For a moment, we just looked at each other, both knowing what we were thinking. Finally, Jazz muttered, “When this gets out, it’s gonna tear Crossroads apart.”

“When?” I echoed, raising an eyebrow. That was interesting. She hadn’t said ‘if’, she said when.

She nodded. “Well yeah. I mean, sure it sucks. But they erased people’s memory. They erased people’s choices. I don’t know how I feel about everything else yet, but that was wrong. That was fucking evil. And if you take people’s choices away, if you just erase their memories until they’re the people you want them to be, then they’re just… slaves.”

As I nodded in agreement, she went on. “What I really wanna know is, when did those things take Paul? When did they–” Choking on her words a little bit, Jazz blanched and looked away with a grimace. “When did they… replace him?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I wish I did. I’m sorry. I’m sorry about… about how all of this went down.”

Her head shook violently at that. “It’s not your fault. I mean, this whole crisis of faith thing that’s going around, yeah that part kind of is. But–no, just…” She sighed. “Never mind. It’s not your fault. I just…” Trailing off, Jazz looked down to the ground, mumbling, “This was so much easier when we thought you were an Eden’s Garden spy.”

We each took another drink from the river, made sure the canteen was full, and then decided to get back to the cave. As we turned that way, I muttered, “I still can’t believe you people thought I was the bad guy.”

Beside me, Jazz blanched a little before considering. “Err, in our defense, as far as Crossroads is concerned…

“You kind of are.”

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Field Trip 28-07

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Please note, there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Davis posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen it yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

“So, let me get this straight,” Isaac spoke about an hour later. “You’re seeing us through your eyes and through that thing’s eyes?” With one hand, he was pointing at me. And with the other, he was pointing at my newly-created fox as she perched on a rock in the corner of the cave.

From where she was standing, Jazz shook her head and muttered, “I can’t believe you know how to cast the theriangelos spell. Do you have any idea how long I’ve wanted to use that? I never really wanted to be a Heretic, but one thing I did want was magic. Especially that spell.”

Sands was nodding (which, considering she was a little bit behind me, I could see through the eyes of my fox, but not my own eyes). “Tell me about it. Scout and me, we used to talk about what kind of animal we thought we could get once we learned the spell. She um.” Sands swallowed hard. “When we were little, Scout really wanted to get a penguin.” A slightly choked laugh escaped the girl then, and my fox could see the dampness in her eyes. “I tried to tell her that wouldn’t be a cool animal for spying or fighting, but she didn’t care. She just likes penguins.”

“I’ll teach it to you guys,” I promised. “It’ll just take a few days. But yeah, you should learn it.” Biting my lip then, I turned to look over my shoulder at the other girl. “And you’ll see her again, Sands. We’re going to survive this long enough for Gaia and the others to find a way to pull us back.”

She didn’t respond for a moment. Instead, the girl just looked back at me in silence that dragged on almost uncomfortably before glancing away with a muttered, “Yeah. So let’s survive.”

I don’t think she believes you, Tabbris whispered in my head, confirming what I already knew.

Yeah, I thought back to her, so we’ll just have to prove her wrong. Aloud, I cleared my throat while looking to Isaac. “Anyway, yeah, it’s a little weird, seeing through two different sets of eyes at once. It, uh, takes some getting used to. And it can give you a nasty headache if you do it for too long. I made myself throw up once. So, mostly I like to close my eyes and just see through hers when I’m using her.” To demonstrate, I did just that, letting my eyes close and focusing on the fox. At a thought, she hopped down from the rock and moved to sniff a bit at Isaac’s shoes.

The boy looked a little uncomfortable for some reason as he took a step back while clearing his throat. “Uh, so you use that fox to scout out the area around here, huh? What are we supposed to do in the meantime? You know, besides become world champion thumb twiddlers?”

“There’s a lot more we need to know,” Jazz pointed out, looking at the fox. “You want us to believe all the stuff you’re talking about with these Seosten and all that, we need more details.”

I nodded once without opening my eyes. The fox’s head did the same, and I saw the others give a brief double-take between both of us. “You’ll get them. Trust me. But right now, we need to know what’s around us. We’re gonna need water and food. And we need to know if this area’s safe enough, because Radueriel and his people are definitely going to be searching for us.”

“Come on,” Sands gestured for the others to go with her to the other side of the cave. “Roxa and me can tell you about most of it while Flick scouts things out. Then she can fill in the blanks.”

Gordon straightened a little, giving my fox a brief glance. I saw the boy open his mouth before hesitating. It looked like he was about to say something, but stopped himself. It was one of the first times I could ever remember him actually looking hesitant or unsure. Whatever he had been about to say, it seemed like it was something important. In the end, however, he just followed the others to the other side of the cave while giving me a brief glance on his way.

Um. Do you think he’s okay? Tabbris sounded worried, and I wondered how much of my noticing Gordon’s look was myself and how much was the Seosten girl. He, um, he looked like-

Like he wanted to say something, I agreed. I dunno. He’s been taking in a lot. They all have, but the others seem more… shaken by it? Isaac’s just making jokes like he usually does, but I can tell there’s something off about him too. And Jazz is really freaking out. But Gordon… it’s almost like this isn’t that much of a surprise to him. But I can’t tell how much of that is just Gordon being Gordon, and how much of it is him knowing more than we thought he knew. He’s hard to read.

Either way, I was gonna have to worry about it later. For the moment, everything I’d already said was true. We really did need to have food and water, and we did need to find if there were any Seosten search teams anywhere nearby. Everything else was going to have to wait for, for now.

So I focused on my fox. Seeing through her eyes, I sent the little magically conjured animal out of the cave. She easily slipped through the bush covering the opening, back out into the narrow, foliage-covered canyon. There, I made her sit and simply listen for a few long seconds. Animals. I could hear what I thought were animals, and smell them. But other than that, there was silence. If there was a Seosten search team nearby, they weren’t making a lot of noise.

I had to get out of the canyon, to where I could actually see better and get the lay of the land. To that end, I made the fox start looking around, hunting for a quick way to climb up. Meanwhile, I silently asked, I’ve gotta ask you something, Tabbris. You said you’ve been getting rid of any spells that Fossor has been trying to put on me. You did the same thing with the Seosten, right? They weren’t just trying to figure out why I was immune to possession, they also wanted to know why none of their spells were working. That was you. It was all you, the whole time.

I felt her embarrassment, and uncertainty. Um. Uh… uh huh. I was trying to be subtle about it at first, like… make it look like they just messed up the spell or something. But they kept trying, so I thought if I just undid all the spells, they might think someone like Gaia or Mr. Prosser was doing it. Except, uh, I guess Charmiene figured out that there weren’t any Heretics going near you before the spells were broken. So she must’ve decided you were doing it somehow.

Or that it was happening automatically, I agreed, smiling a little to myself. That must’ve confused the hell out of them. But, I added pointedly, how did you do it? You’re… well, you’re awesome. That’s for sure. But how could you possibly just erase the spells that a three thousand year old Seosten and an ancient necromancer put on me like that? It seems really impressive.

Now I really felt her embarrassment. Oh. Um. It’s.. uh, easier to break things than to make them. It’s like how… how it can take a long time and a lot of skill to make a vase, but you can break it really easily? It’s a little tricky to do it to a spell without setting it off, but um, it’s easier to break them than to make them. Mama showed me some tricks, cuz she knew they’d come after you.

Still smiling, I replied, Downplay it all you want, I still get the feeling that you and Wyatt would be an amazing team. You’ve been working with magic and spell-countering since you were tiny. If you two worked together, you could probably figure out a spell to do anything.

There was silence from the other girl for a few long seconds before she tentatively asked, You really think we’ll get back to Earth? The banishment orbs are really powerful. Remember the problems the Meregan had with Tristan? And they’re not even behind the same magic wall that S-Seosten space is. Remember, Uncle Haiden and Aunt Larissa have been out here for years.

We’ll make it back, I promised her. Just like we’re gonna find your mom, and the others. The biggest advantage the Seosten have is people not knowing about them, Tabbris. That’s something else you have in common with your people. Secrecy, that’s their biggest thing. It’s how they’ve gotten away with so much. We’ve got Gaia, Wyatt, Gabriel, and probably a lot more working to get us out of here. Trust them. All we have to do is stay alive and free long enough.

By that point, my fox had found a narrow path against the wall of the canyon to climb up and out. As she clambered onto solid ground, I made her look around slowly, taking everything in.

The forest didn’t look that different than one that we could’ve found back on Earth. The trees were a bit bigger (but not as big as the ones at Eden’s Garden), and the leaves were more of a blueish-purple color while the bark itself was closer to red. And I saw a bunch of roughly waist-high bushes with a mixture of orange, yellow, and red leaves. But overall, it looked like a normal forest. In the distance, I saw an animal standing between two trees, munching on a few of those leaves. It looked kind of like a zebra, except it had a really long neck like a giraffe and it was red and a dull orange instead of black and white, to better blend into the trees and bushes.

There were also a couple birds flying overhead. As I turned the fox’s head to look up, I saw them passing by. They looked like oversized parrots. Seriously, the brightly colored birds were as big as vultures. As I watched, one dove to grab something out of a tree. I couldn’t see what it was, but the thing struggled for a few seconds before going still in the giant parrot’s talons as it was crushed to death. Apparently these things ate a lot more than just nuts, fruit, and insects.

Right, focus, Flick. Pausing then, I thought, Hey, was that me thinking that, or you telling me?

You, Tabbris quickly answered. It was you. Um, and maybe just a little me. I mean, you thought it too. I was mostly thinking about how I hope Marian doesn’t have to fight one of those things.

Marian? I echoed before realizing what she was talking about. Oh, the fox. Why Marian?

Again, I felt her embarrassment. You know, like Maid Marian. In the Disney cartoon Robin Hood.

I barely resisted a chuckle at that. I knew I loved that movie a little too much for just one person. Dad used to say I was almost obsessed with watching it. That was you too, wasn’t it?

That time, her embarrassment turned to what felt more like… almost shame. I’m sorry, she hurriedly apologized. I’m sorry, I was little and I was scared. I was… I w-was still new to everything after I woke up, and when you watched that movie, I felt… a little better. But I–

Tabbris, I interrupted, It’s okay. I get it, trust me. You were a kid, you’re still a kid. But back then, you were barely more than a toddler. You were scared and alone, and the movie made you feel better. You wanted to see it so much that it rubbed off and made me want to see it too.

There was silence for a few seconds then before she replied, Mostly it was after… after Aunt Larissa didn’t show up. Mama’s message said that she’d… she’d visit me once I woke up, that she’d help teach me some things so I wouldn’t… so I wouldn’t be alone all of the time. But…

I winced. But she never showed up. She never showed, and you didn’t know why until we found Scout and Sands. Did you know who they were, who their mother was, when we first met them?

Uh huh, Tabbris answered quickly. Some of the messages Mama left were about Aunt Larissa and her family. I… I didn’t know what happened to her until they told us. Until they told you.

Oh God. So she had been left for years without anyone to talk to, without anyone who even knew that she existed. With Larissa gone and no way to contact, or be contacted by, her mother, Tabbris had had absolutely no one. And she spent years like that, hiding inside me, trying not to control me to the point that she felt guilty because her desire to watch a kid’s movie might’ve influenced me to watch it. Where did we even start with making her feel better about any of it?

Well, first thing’s first. You didn’t do anything wrong, I insisted. It’s okay if you wanted to watch a silly movie. I’m pretty sure little sisters have done a lot more than you did when it comes to forcing people to watch the movie they want to watch, okay? I’m not mad, Tabbris. It’s okay.

I had to keep exploring. We still needed food and water, and everything else. Sending the fox–Marian to the nearest tree, I tilted her head to look up. As far as I knew, foxes didn’t generally climb trees. But this was a special case, and I was particularly motivated.

After judging where the branches were, I turned Marian around and had her run back a few yards before crouching like a runner at a starting gate. Hearing the imaginary pistol, I made her dart forward. I ran straight at the tree, leaping from a few feet out. Crashing against the tree partway up, I dug in with the fox’s hindlegs, scrambling to push off while using the claws in her forepaws to hold on and pull up toward the lowest branch that looked like it could hold her.

It probably looked really awkward for more than one reason, not the least of which was the fact that it was my brain directing the fox. But she made it up, then I had her jump from branch to branch in order to get higher. The whole time, I tried not to think about those big parrot things. If one of them came screeching down out of the sky to grab my fox-self, I might need new pants. And I was pretty sure there wasn’t a mall anywhere nearby to take care of that little problem.

Actually, I realized then, that reminds me of another question. When you popped out of me, you were wearing a blue… what was that, a bodysuit? Where’d that come from? I mean, I kinda doubt you just had it on when you, um, arrived back when you were that little.

To my surprise, Tabbris corrected, Actually, I did. It’s Seosten clothing. It um, it grows with you. It was really little when I was, and when I got bigger… it did too. It’s self-cleaning, and I think it’s supposed to be bulletproof, fireproof, and… some other things. At least, that’s what Mama said.

Oh. I paused then, considering that for a second. That’s really cool. I could use something like that. But I do think we need to get you some other clothes when we get a chance.

I felt the Seosten girl’s curiosity then. She hesitated before slowly asking, Other clothes?

Sure, I confirmed slyly before adding, After all, I’m pretty sure it’d be easy to find a couple of those Robin Hood shirts in the Disney store. And you’d look really snazzy in them.

I felt the girl’s delight at the thought, even as I made myself focus on what Marian was seeing now that the little fox had reached the top of the tree. Peering out, I took in the sight.

The forest stretched on for miles in every direction. I saw a river not too far away, with what looked like fish jumping in it. That solved our water and food problem, for the moment at least.  It was like this whole area, or maybe the planet itself, was some kind of nature preserve. Which might make sense. If it was meant to provide water, even air and other resources for space stations, they might deliberately keep it as undeveloped and natural as possible.

One thing that definitely wasn’t natural, however, was the thing flying over the top of the forest way off in the distance. It was far enough away that I could barely make it out, but it looked like a spaceship of some kind. The thing looked like it was about the size of a C-130 jet, and it was flying very slowly a few hundred feet above the treetops. As I watched through Marian’s eyes, it flew steadily along a straight path for awhile before moving out of sight. A minute or two later, it came back from the other direction and just a little bit closer.

They’re scanning, I realized. That’s why they didn’t send search teams to scour the woods. They’re using that ship to slowly scan the whole area for us. Actually, they’re probably using more than one of the things. They’ll find us that way.

No, they won’t, Tabbris corrected. I know a spell you can put on the cave to hide from their scanners. I can um, I can teach you, and you can just say that Gaia taught it to you?

I found myself nodding a little bit, both my own head and the fox’s. Good idea. Let me bring her in and we’ll get started before that thing gets any closer.

Bringing Marian back into the cave, I opened my eyes to find the others watching. Sands spoke up. “Did you find anything?”

“Food and water,” I replied. “And the ship that’s flying over the forest scanning for us.”

That definitely got everyone’s attention. Eyes widening, Jazz demanded, “A ship that’s scanning for us? What are we supposed to do, keep running? There’s probably more than one.”

I nodded. “That’s what–” I stopped myself from saying we at the last second. “–I thought. But don’t worry, Gaia taught me some other spells, like how to hide from scans like that. I need to put a spell on the cave, so we’ll have to stay inside while they’re going overhead. Once they move on, we’ll deal with the food situation.”

“It’s pretty lucky that Gaia taught you all this,” Gordon observed. “Is she the one who taught you the spell you used to get rid of that cyborg and all his troops?”

“Or was it Gabriel?” Roxa quickly put in with a brief glance toward me. Clearly, she was giving me an out so I didn’t have to reveal Tabbris.  

Her former teammates all looked at her then, Jazz blurted, “Gabriel?”

I nodded. “Gabriel Prosser. And let’s just say that thing we used against Radueriel won’t work a second time. It was a one-shot deal, for emergencies.”

There. I didn’t actually say that Gabriel had been the one to teach me the word. I just confirmed his name and then told the truth about the thing being one-time use. So it wasn’t… technically lying. But I also wasn’t going to tell them about Tabbris. There was way too much that could go wrong if they knew about her.

“Prosser.” Jazz’s voice was awed. “You’ve met Gabriel Prosser? How? Why?”

Biting my lip, I hesitated before moving over to the nearby cave wall while reaching for the field-engraver in my pocket. “Let me get this spell started so we’re safe,” I replied. “Then… we’re on another planet.”

“Uh, yeah? What’s your point?” Isaac asked.

“My point,” I replied easily, “is that we’re not within range of the Seosten’s memory spell. Which means I can tell you about my mother. And about the rebellion.”

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Field Trip 28-06

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For a few long, agonizingly slow seconds, no one said or did anything. Jazz, Isaac, and Gordon were all utterly motionless. They stood there, staring open-mouthed at Roxa while the other girl held the choker in one hand and stared right back at them. It wasn’t quite a threatening expression, but it was one that basically seemed to say, ‘yeah, this is me, you got a problem?’

Clearly, the months that Roxa had spent with her pack had basically erased any and all guilt she felt about what she had become. The other wolves had really done wonders for her confidence.

“Oh… oh my God.” That was Jazz, the black girl was the first to find her voice, strangled as it sounded. “You–you’re… you’re…” Standing there, she lifted a hand to point, shaky as it was. “How… what… you’re–Does that mean that you’re–you’re really a–” She stopped, cringing.

“Werewolf?” Roxa finished for her. “Yeah, turns out some of them get a kick out of turning Heretics. That’s what really happened over Thanksgiving, when I disappeared.” Spreading her arms out, she gestured before turning in a circle. “This is me. Roxa the Heretic Werewolf.”

I actually saw tears in Jazz’s eyes. She was acting like Roxa had suddenly revealed a terminal disease or something. Which, I supposed actually made sense considering what the other girl had been raised to believe. Her hand rose as if she was trying to reach out toward Roxa before catching herself. “Roxa,” she lamented. “Roxa, but that means, but that means… that you’re–”

“Evil?” Roxa finished for her, folding her arms with a raised eyebrow. “You mean when I ‘evilly’ helped you guys deal with that Seosten bitch who took over Columbus, or when I ‘evilly’ helped get you out of that space station? Or do you mean when I ‘evilly’ revealed that I’m really a werewolf when I had absolutely no reason to do that other than to back up what Flick said?”

Biting my lip, I hesitated, glancing to the others before speaking up. “Roxa, you didn’t have to–”

“Yeah,” she interrupted without looking away from her former teammates, “I did. I’m not gonna spend this entire trip, or the rest of my damn life, hiding what I am from the people who should trust me. So yeah, I’m a werewolf. If that bothers you people, you’re welcome to go find a non-werewolf person to survive on this alien world with. Or,” she added while narrowing her eyes, “you could try to do something about it. But I’m telling you now, that won’t go well for you.”

I saw the way Jazz flinched. She looked torn up inside, with eyes that were still openly wet. “But… but R-Roxa,” she stammered, clearly grasping for anything, “I don’t… don’t understand.”

Finally, Sands had clearly had enough. “You wanna understand?” she blurted abruptly. “Here’s what you need to understand. Our entire civilization is a fucking lie, alright? Everything they teach us about how everything that isn’t human is evil, that’s straight up bullshit. Those Seosten like the bitch in the hotel and cyborg man, yeah, that whole race of evil cocksuckers created Crossroads and now they teach us to kill everything that’s not human so they can use us as their soldiers, or guard dogs, or whatever. That’s what you need to understand.” To finish, Sands spoke slowly and deliberately. “A lot of those Strangers we kill, they’re not the monsters.

“We are.”  

It was the most emotion I’d seen Sands express about finding out that Strangers weren’t all evil since she’d accepted it. Clearly, she wasn’t happy about the ‘Crossroads entire reason for existing was to act as boogeymen for anyone the Seosten didn’t like’ thing. Hell, from the look on the other girl’s face, there was a lot more that she wanted to say about it. But she cut herself off and settled on simply scowling at the floor with her arms folded tightly, trembling with anger.

Gordon was the one who spoke next, his tone almost as calm as ever, though I could detect a little bit of emotion underlying it. “You… the choker.” His eyes had centered on the thing, which had turned visible once Roxa took it off. “That’s the choker that we heard Flick talking about.”

Jazz gave a start then, as if she’d completely forgotten it until that moment. “The choker,” she echoed, looking at the thing, then looking to me. “You knew–you’ve been helping her… but…”

“It’s like they said,” I confirmed, moving my gaze from her to Isaac and then to Gordon, “Strangers aren’t all evil. No more than all humans are evil. And if we’re gonna have a chance at surviving out here, that’s something you’re all going to have to try to accept. Because we need Roxa. I’m sticking with her. I trust her more than I trust any of you. Sorry, that’s just the way it is.”

Sands gave a little nod at that. “She’s right. I’m sticking with Roxa and Flick. You guys have a problem with that…” She shrugged. “Like the girl said, just go find another cave to hide out in.”

Isaac was the next to speak, raising his hands placatingly. “Hey now, let’s not all get drastic or anything. Let’s just talk about this. You’re right, Roxa, you’ve been doing a lot of not-evil stuff, stuff you didn’t have to do. But some of it could’ve been self-preservation. I mean, getting out of the space station would’ve been harder if you were alone. And you could’ve shown up to fight that, uh, Seosten back there at the hotel even if we weren’t there. It could’ve been personal.”

“Yeah,” Jazz agreed, her voice shaking as she spoke. “He… he’s right, you’ve helped a lot, but… but it still could’ve been just for show. I mean–except… except showing yourself now, unless you were trying to trick us, or…” Her head shook, and the girl closed her eyes tightly like she just wanted the whole thing to go away. “Damn it,” she muttered before repeating it several times, each one a little louder as she tightened her fists. “Damn it, damn it, damn it!” Turning, Jazz put her fist against the wall of the cave, then repeated the action twice before whirling back to us. “You guys are crazy! You’re talking complete nonsense! Crossroads was made by evil Strangers so that we’d go kill all the people they didn’t like? What the fuck?! You’re just–just-”

“Lying?” Roxa finished for her. “Trying to trick you? Crazy? Are we crazy? Or is killing every intelligent species on the planet just because they’re not completely human the crazy thing? I’m still me, Jazz. Still Roxa. Same girl, just with new abilities. It’s not that different from becoming a Heretic, is it? You start out as completely human, then something happens to change what-”

“Stop!” Jazz blurted then, head shaking violently. “Just stop, stop it! Stop trying to compare it. It’s not the same, okay? It’s not the same! Strangers are evil! We’re not the monsters, we help people, we have to save humanity. If we weren’t there, the Strangers would, they’d kill everyone. We’ve seen them! We’ve seen Strangers killing humans, torturing humans, eating humans!”

“You’re right,” I agreed, nodding as Jazz’s attention whipped over to me. “There are evil Alt–Strangers, just like there are evil humans. But not all of them. Look at all the monsters in human history. You think having a Hitler or a Jeffrey Dahmer means all other humans are irredeemably evil? I, for one, wouldn’t wanna be judged by the worst examples of humanity.”

“But… but…” Jazz looked like she wanted to flail. Her eyes kept darting back and forth as her fists repeatedly tightened and loosened. She looked even more lost and confused at the idea than the fact that we were all stranded on the far end of space on an alien planet surrounded by monsters. The mere suggestion that being a werewolf didn’t automatically make Roxa evil was pretty much making the other girl lose her mind. “But that can’t… I mean, it’s not the same.”

Gordon, raising his chin curiously, announced, “Maybe we should take this one step at a time. We’re all stuck here together, whether we like it or not. None of us wants to be taken by those.. Seosten. If nothing else, Roxa’s proved that much. So for now, we’re on the same side.”

“It’s not that simple,” Jazz insisted. “You know it’s not that simple. You–” She took a breath, glancing toward Sands for a second as if desperate for someone to back her up. “You should understand. Maybe not Flick, but you know what…” Shuddering, she continued, speaking quickly. “Everything they tell us, everything they teach us, it’s that that,” her hand gestured to the girl in question, “isn’t Roxa anymore! It’s a monster that’s wearing her face, a monster that took her over and is… is… wearing her just like those Seosten you keep talking about. When a human being turns into a Stranger, the human part dies and the monster completely takes over.

“So you’re saying, ‘let’s just work with them for now’? What if you’re wrong. What if you’re all wrong, and that isn’t Roxa anymore?” Jazz was staring at the girl, hands tightened into fists once more. “What if Roxa’s dead and gone and we’re just working with the monster that killed her? What if, instead of getting justice for Roxa like we should be doing, we’re working with the thing that slithered into her body and destroyed her? What if it’s laughing at us because we’re falling for its lies?!” Her voice was rising with each word, until she sounded almost hysterical.

Slowly, Jazz took a step toward the other girl with her hands held low and out, apparently so that we wouldn’t think that she was attacking or something. Her voice cracked as she continued. “You… you think I don’t want you to be Roxa? You think I don’t want our entire society to be wrong so that you can still be Roxa? You were my friend, my–we were supposed to be partners. I’ve been trying to find you for months, months! I want you to be Roxa so, so fucking bad. I want these guys to be right. I never wanted this, I never wanted to even be a Heretic! I didn’t want it! I want you to be you. But… but what if you’re not? What if you’re really a monster, squatting in Roxa’s body and laughing at how naive and stupid we are? What if we’re letting this thing get away with killing Roxa, just because we want her to still be herself? What if it’s using us?”

By that point, Jazz was directly in front of Roxa, the two of them mere inches apart. For her part, the werewolf girl simply stood still, meeting Jazz’s gaze evenly as she listened to her words until the girl was finally finished. Then she slowly lifted her chin, considering for a couple long seconds before speaking as plainly as possible. “If you don’t use what someone does to determine if they’re good or evil…” Her shoulders rose in a shrug. “Then what do you use?”

While Jazz’s mouth opened and shut a couple times, Roxa continued flatly. “I’m not evil. I’m not a monster. I can’t say it any more plainly than that. And I’m not going to apologize for what– who I am. I’m done feeling embarrassed or ashamed of myself. I’m a werewolf, and I’m a Heretic. You can either judge me by what I do, or by what some evil, manipulative bastards tell you to judge me by. That’s your business. Either way, I’m not changing a goddamn thing about myself. You got a problem, deal with it.”

W-wow, Tabbris ‘whispered’ in my head, sounding like she was in awe. She’s really brave.

I think she’s also sick of being afraid of how people will react to her, I pointed out while watching to see what the others would do. I guess after spending a few months with other wolves, she’s done worrying about it. She’s sort of… ripping off the bandaid and then telling it to piss off.

Jazz, meanwhile, had closed her eyes. Her fists were held tightly against her side, and the black girl was openly shuddering. Her mouth moved a little, but I couldn’t tell what she was whispering at first. Then I got it, she was repeatedly muttering, “Damn it, damn it, damn it,” while tears feel freely down her face. Opening her eyes, she stared at Roxa. “I want it,” she blurted. “I want you to be you. I do. I swear I do, but… but… if we’re wrong, if they’re wrong, and you’re really a monster, then I’m letting you get away with killing my friend! Everyone who teaches us, all the adults, they all say you’re evil! How can we just ignore that? They all say you’re a monster.”

Roxa’s mouth opened, but it was Gordon who actually spoke. “Do they?” he asked simply, drawing everyone’s attention that way. The dark-skinned boy gave a little shrug. “I mean, I know what they say, but… what about what you overheard at Flick’s house, with the headmistress?”

Okay, that got my attention. I’d been trying to stay out of the conversation, but that one I had to jump in on. “I’m sorry, what?” I blurted, staring at the boy. “Who overheard what at my house?” Pausing, I added, “Actually, come to think of it, what the hell were you talking about when you said you heard me talking about the choker? I never talked about it without… safety measures.”

Gordon took a step my way, explaining simply, “We knew that you had something to do with Roxa disappearing, that you knew more about it than anyone else was saying. Douglas’s power, it… allows him to ask a question and get an answer, or directions to an answer, once per day. And every time he asked it anything about why Roxa disappeared, it always directed us to you.”

Well, that explained why they had been so obsessed with me. As I nodded slowly in realization, the boy continued. “We went looking for answers in your dorm room awhile back. You came in while we were there, but Jasmine used her power to turn us all invisible. While you were there, you mentioned the choker. You said that all you had to do was ‘get that choker on Roxa’ and then she could come back to the school. You were on the phone with someone named Asenath, and you said–” Pausing then, he looked like something suddenly made sense, nodding thoughtfully. “Oh. You asked her if werewolves and vampires really have some kind of rivalry.”

That… didn’t sound familiar at all. Especially the part about the choker. Why would I have phrased it like that? ‘Get the choker on Roxa?’ What the hell? But still, maybe–oh. Tabbris? I prompted, realizing that I didn’t have to rely on my own memory. Did that ever happen?

The answer came immediately and emphatically. No! No, you never had that conversation, and you never did… any of that. Not like that. I swear, they’re wrong. It never, ever happened.  

I nodded slowly before meeting Gordon’s gaze. “I hate to tell you guys this, but that never happened.” As all three of their mouths opened, I held a hand up. “Okay, let me rephrase. I didn’t say that. I wasn’t there, and I never had that conversation that you overheard. I’m not saying you didn’t overhear it, I’m saying it wasn’t me. Whoever you saw, it was someone else posing as me.”

And wasn’t that a massive punch in the gut? Someone, the Seosten obviously, had been posing as me just to manipulate these guys. It was probably an attempt to get them to report us to the Committee in a way that Gaia couldn’t cover up.

“Posing as you?” Jazz echoed, her eyes wide as she shook her head quickly at my words. “What the hell does that mean? Why would someone pose as you?”

“We do know that they have a way of posing as other people,” Gordon pointed out mildly. “The shapeshifter that took Paul’s place.”

Biting her lip, Jazz looked sick at the reminder before swallowing hard. “Y-yeah, but… but she did have someone named Asenath living at her house. I saw her. I saw her, and she’s a… a Stranger too.”

“You’re right,” I confirmed, seeing no need to try to lie about that much. “Asenath is a vampire. She’s also my friend. She saved my life, she saved my father’s life, and she’s done nothing but help me since I met her. So yes, she was living at my house. She’s been protecting my father. But we never had that conversation, and I never would’ve phrased it like that. We were trying to get the choker so that Roxa could come back. The choker hides Alters from the Heretic-Sense.”

“Alter,” Jazz repeated, squinting. “You said Alter again. What does that even mean?”

Sands answered for me. “It’s their word for what they are. Non-Humans, I mean. We call them Strangers. They call themselves Alters. As in ‘Alternative to human’.”

“But that’s not–” Jazz started to object before stopping herself. Taking a long, visible breath, the girl considered her words for a moment. Her eyes glanced briefly toward Roxa before she started once more. “They call themselves… Alters?”

As I nodded, Gordon spoke up again. “The point is, Jasmine said that all our teachers say that Strangers… Alters are evil. But she heard Headmistress Sinclaire talking to the vampire when we went to spy on your house.”

Spying on my house. They had been spying on my house. I felt indignant, even if part of me understood. Would I really have done anything different in their situation?

Isaac gave a quick nod. “Hey, yeah. So why would the headmistress be all for teaching about how evil Strangers are if she’s into this hippy ‘everyone just love one another’ shit?”

“It’s complicated,” I replied. “If she started changing what the school taught, the Committee would get rid of her.”

Making a noise that sounded like a cross between confusion and anger, Jazz put both hands over her face. “Just–just stop. Everyone just stop for a minute. Stop it.” She stood there like that, hands covering her face for a long moment. “Isaac,” she started finally, “You said your Edge vision was all about this Asenath chick killing your ancestor and all his people.”

“Uh, yeah.” The other boy gave a little shrug, looking self-conscious. “That’s what I saw.”

When Jazz looked back to me, I replied, “He’s probably missing context. That’s not the point. The point is, we’re all here. So you’ve got a choice, just like Roxa said. You can stay here and work with us so that we can keep everyone alive until we find a way home. Or you can go off on your own. But get this straight. If you can’t work with Roxa, then you might as well leave right now.”

“I didn’t say I–” Jazz stopped herself, biting her lip as she looked over to the girl in question. Her voice was timid. “I don’t want you to be evil. But I can’t just–I… you want us to believe that the headmistress of the school is letting them teach us all about evil Strangers, when it’s not true? You want us to believe that our entire society, that it’s all wrong? How do I–how do we–I…” She sighed. “Can you just give us some time? Let me… think about all this. I can’t just–I can’t just….”  She gave up on trying to explain it, lowering her head and heaving a long sigh.

It wasn’t surprising. Even in this situation, it was going to take time for Jazz, for any of them, to accept what we were saying. We were actually pretty lucky that the three of them had stood there and listened to us for as long as they had. Sure, this was kind of a… unique situation. But still. The fact that they were even entertaining the idea said a lot. I couldn’t help but wonder how much spending the past who knew how long wondering why Gaia had been talking to Asenath had actually helped. It had to have chipped away at their beliefs, at least enough for them to listen now.

I nodded. “Sure. We need to figure out where we are, how safe this place is, and everything else.”

“How are we gonna do that?” Isaac asked, gesturing back out of the cave. “I’m pretty sure we can’t just go blundering around out there without half the Seosten within a thousand miles figuring out where we are. We don’t know where anything is, and–oh yeah, we’re stuck on another fucking planet.”

“Can you tell us more about these Seosten?” Gordon asked. “How did we get here? How did they… as you said, ‘create Crossroads’? What do they want? Let’s say you’re right, just for now. What else can you tell us about everything, because we’re lost.”

Jazz abruptly lifted her head, nodding. “And Paul. Tell us what happened to Paul, what that thing was that took him over. What happened? How could he just–”

I held up my hands to hold off more questions. “We’ll get to all that, I promise. Right now, Isaac’s right. We need to figure out where we are, what’s around us, how far civilization is,  and all the rest of that stuff without blundering around. So I need a piece of wood. Shouldn’t be too hard to find one out there.”

“A piece of wood?” Gordon echoed, head tilting. “Why?”

I smiled a little bit. “It’s a spell. I… guess I could teach it to you. If you guys think you can work with me for long enough.”

Isaac spoke up then, his own smile wide and open. “Learning a spell sounds cool. And I guess we might as well try to get along, for now anyway.

“After all, we’re all friends here.”

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