Gidget

Interlude 32A – Team Stranded

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Please note that there was a commissioned interlude focusing on Klassin Roe posted a couple days ago. If you have not seen that yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

“Where is she?!”

“Open the portal! Damn it, Haiden, open it again!”

“She pushed me… She pushed me…”

“What the hell happened back there? What was that?”

“What? She’s not here? What do you mean, she’s not here?! She was right behind us!”

The voices of Sands, Larissa, Jazz, Haiden, and Roxa filled the cargo bay of the ship as they all spoke over one another, their words blending into one large cacophony of noise that was almost impossible to actually pick a single coherent statement out of. It became a salmagundi of words that sounded something like, ‘Where portal hell not here right pushed was open it behind us!’

“Mom!” Sands managed to get out over the din, grabbing her mother’s arm. “Mom, where is she?! Where is Flick? We have to go back for her! We have to go back!” Her voice was hysterical, the realization that her friend had been left behind hitting the girl like a freight train.

“Okay.” With that single word, Haiden snapped his fingers, creating a zone of silence for everyone except himself. “Stop. Everyone stop. We have to-” In mid-sentence, the ship was suddenly rocked heavily, throwing Jazz and Gordon to the floor while the rest fought to keep their balance, Sands stumbling into her mother and Roxa catching hold of Gidget. The lights briefly flickered and dimmed, and the ship gave a second shudder under obviously heavy fire.

Cursing, Haiden turned to the nearby wall, putting a hand against one of the buttons there. “Jokai, Dries, what’s going on up there?!”

It was the old Heretic who answered, appearing in the hatchway to the cargo bay a moment later. “We are under heavy attack,” the thin, scraggly haired man with his thoroughly unkempt beard announced while taking a step into the room. “We must–” He paused then, his eyes widening a little as he looked past the group, to the rest of the cargo bay.

It was almost entirely full of the humanoid ant-people, the Kenkeans. Thousands of the people stood or sat in every available space. There were so many of them that had rather abruptly been thrust into this situation with little to no actual explanation beyond the fact that they had to leave before the Seosten arrived that they should, by all rights, have been making so much noise simply through whispering that the Heretics would have been drowned out.

Instead, each and every one of the Kenkeans were utterly silent. They sat or stood in place, eyes watching the proceedings while barely breathing. They were so utterly petrified of the Seosten in general that seeing what many still believed to be their ‘warsuits’ made them all but incapable of making a sound. They just watched, their collective silence so complete that, had the Heretics not been talking, one could have heard a pin dropping onto a bit of carpet.

For most people, seeing thousands of silent onlookers would have been plenty of reason for a bit of stage fright or uncertainty.  For someone like Dries, who suffered a host of psychological issues (with fears of crowds, open or new places, and of being watched or confronted being right at the top of the extensive list), it derailed his entire thought process and made the man reflexively try to retreat back the way he had come, stumbling a little as his heart rate skyrocketed, his throat closed up, and he felt the shudders start to come on.

It wasn’t real. It wasn’t real. He knew that. He knew that. Half of his issues were simply the result of being trapped alone for such an extended time. And the other half… well, the Seosten hadn’t exactly been reluctant when it came to experimentation. They had wanted to ensure as much as they could that he wouldn’t escape their prison, so they had artificially instilled a plethora of fears and psychological dependencies in him. Over the centuries, he had learned to control a good number of them, but not all. Not the strongest. And every fear that he ignored or controlled took more effort, more willpower. Knowing they were artificial, knowing that the phobias and addictions had been forced upon him didn’t really help. They were still there.

“Dries.” Haiden was there, his hand on the man’s arm. “It’s okay. What–” The ship shuddered once more, as even more firepower was brought against it.

Forcing himself to focus, Dries made his eyes center on the center of Haiden’s shirt. Couldn’t look in his eyes, couldn’t look any of them in the eyes. That was too hard, too much. “We have to leave,” he mumbled, unable to raise his voice. “Jokai is… is trying to evade and outrun, but it is impossible. We are surrounded and blocked. We have to use a teleportation spell. I can do it. I have it. But I don’t have enough power. I need to take power. Your power. To trigger it. To go.” As he spoke, the man’s sentences kept getting shorter. It was too hard to make the words come when he felt so… somehow simultaneously closed off and yet also exposed.

“We can’t go!” That was Sands. She blurted that out with wide eyes. “Flick’s back there! Open the portal back to her! We have to grab her!”

Larissa’s head shook. “We can’t. Whatever Radueriel is doing, it’s blocking our portals. We could try to break through, but the ship won’t last that long.” Her voice cracked, face ashen. “We… we have to go.” From her voice, each word put another crack into her soul.  

“No!” Roxa, looking back and forth at them, shook her head. “We can’t just leave! Flick is there! And–”

“I know.” Larissa interrupted before the girl could give away Tabbris’ existence. “I know. But–”

Haiden abruptly spoke. “No time. Kids, we will go back for Flick, I promise! We will, but we can’t go back for her if we’re killed or captured too. Now come on.” To Dries, he nodded. “Do it. Use our power to trigger the spell.”

“W-wait!” Jazz’s head shook violently, her eyes wild and horrified as she took a step that way quickly. “She–she threw me out of the way! She threw me through the portal! That’s why she—she– you can’t leave her! You can’t leave her there! You-”

Her words were cut off as Gordon, who had remained silent the entire time, caught hold of the girl. He pulled her back while giving the others a silent nod, even as Jazz herself struggled against his grip. Despite his outward calmness, however, there was frustration, fear, and anger in his eyes, emotions that were barely being constrained through sheer force of will and habit. 

Without wasting another second, Dries produced a small wooden figurine that he had carved over the course of his long imprisonment. It was shaped like an elephant, and he had etched symbols into it. As he held the small figure up in his palm, the man spoke a single word.

Instantly, every Heretic in the room other than himself slumped. The teenagers collapsed completely, and would have fallen to the floor if  Larissa and Haiden (clearly woozy and unsteady themselves) hadn’t caught them. All still slowly slumped down, as the two adults couldn’t remain standing.

Meanwhile, Dries took the energy he had captured, pouring it into the teleportration spell that he had already set up. With another single word, he triggered the effect, and the ship was instantly shunted far away from the Kenkean planet.

Far away from Felicity Chambers.

*****

The next day

“We left her there.”

Jazz Rhodes spoke the words flatly, her voice soft as she sat alone in one of the many side-rooms of the ship. Her gaze was directed to the screen on the wall, which was currently filling the facade of a window, overlooking a sea of stars. “We just… we just left her.”

Letting the door whoosh shut behind him, Haiden took another step in while shaking his head. “Not for long. We’re going back for her, I promise. We are going to find her.”

Remaining silent for several long seconds, when Jazz finally spoke, her voice was barely audible. “She saved my life. She threw me through the portal, knocked me through it with her staff. If she hadn’t done that, if she had just jumped through herself, or… or…” She trailed off, her wide gaze continuing to stare at the expanse of space depicted on the screen.

Slowly, the man moved up to stand beside her, his own eyes on the stars as well. “And you feel guilty about that.”

Flushing, the dark-skinned girl looked down as her arms folded themselves tightly against her stomach. “Wouldn’t you?” she demanded in a somewhat cracked voice. “If I’d been a little bit faster, if I’d gotten there just a little sooner, another… another step or two even, maybe… maybe…”

Before she could continue, Haiden put a hand out to rest on her shoulder. “Stop,” he urged quietly. “Blaming yourself for not being perfect, throwing yourself under the bus like that, it doesn’t help anything.”

“A real Torchbearer would’ve been faster,” Jazz informed him flatly, pulling her shoulder away from his hand as she lowered her gaze to the floor. “Any of the others, any of the real candidates would’ve made it without needing help. I should’ve used one of my gravity balls to push us both forward or… or something. I should’ve thought of that. They would have. I shouldn’t be at Crossroads. I shouldn’t–it should’ve been someone who could actually help.”

“Hey.” That time, Haiden took hold of the girl and turned her to face him. His voice was firm. “Look at me.”

As Jazz slowly lifted her gaze a bit reluctantly, he continued. “You need to stop worrying about what other Torchbearers would do. Because the truth is, all this garbage about what the ‘real candidates would have done’ is just that: garbage. You are the real candidate, the real student. You are the real Heretic, Jasmine. So stop worrying about what anyone else would do. Because the only thing that matters is what you do. What you do, not what you could have done and not what anyone else might have done. The only thing, the only fucking thing you can control is what you do in the moment. If it’s not enough and you get thrown into the dirt, then you pick yourself up, you brush yourself off, and you get back on that goddamn horse. That’s what you control, that’s all you control. Sitting around moping about it or trying again, that’s your choice, that’s your decision.”

The girl swallowed hard, flinching a little as her soft, quiet voice replied, “I’m scared that I’m not good enough.”

“Then use that fear,” Haiden urged, squeezing both of her shoulders. “Instead of letting it make you freeze up, use it to make yourself better, to push yourself to keep training, to keep trying. You think you’re not good enough? Good. Make yourself good enough. Keep trying. Keep working. Keep training and keep fighting. The only thing you could do to make yourself not good enough is to stop trying to be better than you are.”

Biting her lip, Jazz peeked up at the man. “Vanessa and Tristan are lucky they get to have you as a dad.”

Haiden blinked rapidly, chasing the moisture away from his eyes as his voice cracked a little bit. “I’m lucky to have them as my kids. Now I’ve just gotta get back to them.”

“And your wife.” Jazz met his gaze. “You’ve been apart from them for so long, but you haven’t stopped trying. You never stopped trying, working, moving that way.”

“Like I said,” he replied, “something knocks you off the horse, you get back on it, and you keep fucking going.”

Straightening a little bit, the young woman took in a heavy breath before letting it out slowly. “We get Flick. We get your wife. And we go home.”

“That’s the spirit.” Smiling, Haiden nudged his fist against the girl’s chin.

“But then, when we make it back,” Jazz continued, “there’s something else you have to do.”

“Oh?” Raising an eyebrow, the man asked, “and what’s that?”

“You have to teach me how to ride a horse.”

********

Later that evening

“You know, I’m really sad that I never worked on my Anthony Hopkins impression right now.”

The observation came from Isaac, as the boy stood in the middle of the room that had been specially prepared for him. The room itself was thirty feet wide by twenty feet long, but the boy was confined to a much smaller space than that. The red line painted on the floor created a square about eight feet by ten feet. That was the space that he couldn’t leave, which the spellforms drawn on the other side of the square, filling the rest of the space of the room, ensured. Within the small area, there was a bed as well as a toilet with a privacy screen.

On the other side of that square, facing the imprisoned boy, stood Larissa, Haiden, Dries, Roxa, Jazz, Sands, and Gordon. The students stood slightly to one side of the adults, both small groups watching him intently.

“Don’t fucking flatter yourself.” Roxa was the first to find her voice. “You’re not Hopkins-tier. You’re not even John Travolta’s villain character in Battlefield Earth. You’re bottom-feeding scum.”

“That’s enough.” Larissa’s voice was quiet, yet definitive as she took a step forward. “We’re here for one thing and one thing only. You guys are here because we promised you could be included, but now isn’t the time to make ourselves feel better through insults. Or anything else. It’s time to get information.”

“Oh, you want information?” Brightening, Isaac replied, “I’ve got a few ideas about what we could trade. But the thing is, you’re a little old for me. How about you leave Sandy in here for a little bit instead. I figure, ehhh, twenty minutes alone oughta be worth whatever you want me to tell you?”

Ignoring the brief, outraged sound that came from her daughter while her friends held her back, Larissa simply shook her head at the boy. “Sloppy. You want me to lose control, get angry, do something stupid? You’re going to have to try harder than that.” Calmly, she moved closer, walking straight up to the line. “Because quite frankly, put on even ground, I’m sure that my daughter would hurt you a lot more than you could hurt her.”

“Mom,” Sands managed, “be careful.”  

“It’s okay,” Larissa assured her daughter. “The spells cut off his power, not mine. He’s not a threat.” With that, she stepped over the line and into the containment square.

“What,” Isaac retorted while taking a reflexive step back, “no negotiation? Doesn’t have to be your daughter. I’d settle for the Little Orphan Wolfie. She’s more my type anyway. Seems pretty wi–”

His words were cut off as Larissa’s hand abruptly snapped out to catch him by the throat, though he managed a heavily strained, “Thought you said I wasn’t getting to you.”

“You’re not,” the woman replied, still holding the boy by the throat. “But you’re also an evil son-of-a-bitch, so I don’t feel the need to be gentle. Now, Felicity isn’t here right now, so you’ll just have to deal with me possessing you. So it looks like you don’t have much to–” She stopped.

“Hmm?” Grinning, Isaac tilted his head. “I’m sorry, are you having performance anxiety? Should I close my eyes? Would that make it easier? Maybe there’s a pill that–”

Again, his voice was choked off into silence as Larissa tightened her grip while looking over her shoulder. “He’s protected. I can’t possess him.”

“What?” Haiden started that way quickly, giving Dries a brief look before the other man followed suit. While the teenagers muttered amongst themselves, the adults moved in together, examining the boy.

“It’s the same effect,” Larissa finally announced as they stepped back. “He’s using the dibs spell.”

“Shit, did I forget to mention that?” Isaac’s broad smile was even more utterly incorrigible, his amusement written plainly across his face. “I feel like I probably should’ve mentioned that.”

“What the fuck?!” Sands blurted, moving right up to the edge of the line. She would have gone further, but her mother snapped a hand down to stop her. “How?! How could he possibly know how to cast that? That doesn’t even make sense. That’s bullshit! We learned the spell after he left! After he–” She choked herself off, looking like the thing she really wanted to do the most was put her fist through the boy’s chest a few dozen times.

Brightening, Isaac snapped his fingers. “Oh, right, I did mean to thank you guys for having those lessons in the same room where we were learning everything else. When I put in those spy cameras, I really wasn’t sure how useful they’d be, but I think you have to agree that they paid off.”

“Haiden,” Larissa snapped.

“I’m on it,” the man replied, already pivoting on his heel to go and deal with those and whatever the boy had left behind. They had been so distracted and broken up after that massacre, after the death of Ulysses and all those other people, that they hadn’t searched the ship as thoroughly as they should have. And now they were paying for it.

“It’s your spell,” Gordon observed from where he and the other students were standing. “Can’t you just undo it? Or bypass it?”

Larissa’s head shook quickly. “If we could just undo it, then the Seosten could have just undone it. The entire point was to make it so that it couldn’t just be dispelled. Plus, we don’t know how much messing with it that way we could do without unraveling the entire thing. Remember, we still don’t know what exactly Sariel did to create the initial effect that we’re piggybacking off of. The last thing we want to do is disable that part of it. We’d never get it up again. We mess around with this too much trying to turn his protection off, and we might turn off all our protection.”

“Hey,” Isaac put in then, in his infuriatingly smug way, “I’ve got an idea. You could torture me for it. You know, set me on fire, pull my fingernails, make me listen to Jazz whine for an hour or so. That might–oh, shit.” Snapping his fingers as though he had just remembered something, the boy pretended to lament, “I just had to go and throw a suicide pill into the spell, didn’t I? So, you know, if I’m under too much pain or fear or anything else–” He drew a finger across his throat demonstrably. “Then I suppose you won’t get any of the answers that you want.” .

From where he was standing, Gordon flatly remarked, “I’m not sure that making everyone as angry and upset as possible and then telling them exactly how to easily kill you is going to have quite the effect that you want. But then, I’m not the tactical genius that you are.”

“So, what,” Sands started while giving a heavy shrug as she ignored Isaac to focus on her mother, “we just wait for it to wear off?”

“You wanna tell her?” Isaac asked with a smirk, “or should I?”

Letting out a long, low sigh, Larissa looked to Dries first, then the others. “We made sure that the spell would last for a long time to begin with. There’s no point of having it if it’s just going to wear off a day after one of us was captured. It’s a long spell, and… and as far as we can tell, Isaac boosted it the last time that he cast it. Probably using that same blood ritual that he had connecting him to the Kenkeans. He used their life forces to supercharge the duration, which was already long to begin with.”

“So how long will it take to wear off then?” Jazz demanded.

“Honestly,” the woman replied slowly, “I have no idea. Weeks, at least. Maybe months.” Even saying the words made her want to incinerate the boy almost more than she could control. Flick and Tabbris were out there, they were… She stopped herself from that line of thought. If she didn’t keep herself under control, the kids wouldn’t either. And if they all lost it… then Isaac would get what he clearly wanted. As much as she wanted to express her anger and frustration, the kids needed a better example. 

Meanwhile, rather than devolve into cursing, Sands lifted her chin. “Or we go right to the source. We find Sariel, have her disable it long enough to get all the answers we need out of him. So nothing’s changed. We find Flick, we find Sariel, and we get everything we need out of this psycho piece of shit.” To the boy himself, she added, “And if I was you, I’d wipe that stupid fucking smirk off my face. You’re still a loser who was captured, and we’re going to find out everything you know. It’ll just take a little longer.”

“Indeed,” Larissa murmured, giving her daughter a brief smile despite herself. The girl had grown so much. Keeping herself calm enough to think straight even in this situation, even against Isaac’s taunting, she had definitely matured. It made Larissa… it made her proud. “Which means that we’re back to our number one goal.

“Finding Felicity.”

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A Different Kind Of Hunt 31-06

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Okay, so this shouldn’t be too hard. All we had to do was hold off an entire army of Alters with a handful of partially trained Heretic students (one of whom was a werewolf), a mechanical cougar, and two mechanical mice. Yes sir, this was going to be a walk in the park.

As we ran down the corridor together, Jazz spoke up. “You guys know what we’re doing right? I mean, you know what this is? We are basically going out there to stop an army that two adult Heretics, badass ones, I might add, decided was too much for them to deal with.”

Roxa shook her head. “We don’t have to deal with them. We just have to slow them down long enough for Haiden and Sands’ mom to get everyone out of there. We set up, and we make them fight for every inch they get. They can only send so many troops at us at once in these tunnels. So we set up and keep falling back whenever we need to. But make them earn it.”

Nodding, I looked over to Sands as we kept moving. “I know you don’t like being relegated to support, but-“

“Like I give a shit about that right now,” she interrupted. “Walls. You need walls, right?”

“Yep,” I confirmed. “Like the girl said, we gotta make them fight for every inch they get. That means you and I set up walls and mines all the way down the tunnel. We wall and mine the hell out of it. Make them take it slow. Plus, that way I can cover you from any strays that slip around. So you can focus on walling everything up.”

“Which puts the four of us on the front lines,” Roxa announced, coming to a stop as she looked toward Gidget and her two former teammates. Though could they really be called former right now?

Stopping as well, I looked toward Jazz. “Your gravity balls. They have a range and target limit, right?”

“Fifteen feet,” she confirmed, shifting from foot to foot anxiously.. “And anytime I try to target more than one person inside that fifteen feet, they fizzle pretty quickly. I can probably affect to three or four, but only for a short burst. Three orbs at once, ten minute duration, unless, like I said, I try to affect more than one person at a time. Seems like for every extra person I try to affect at the same time, the duration goes down about fifty percent.”

“Still useful,” I informed her with a little smile. “Just pick your moments. Don’t wear yourself out too quick. I know what happened back there with Isaac was pretty bad. And I know that this didn’t have to be our fight.”

“You’re right,” the black girl replied. “This wasn’t our fight. We didn’t choose it. Isaac chose it. And those Seosten bastards chose it. Not us. But you know who also didn’t choose it? The Kenkeans. They didn’t choose it, but they’re still going to get wiped out if we don’t do something. I may have been my people’s last choice to be their Heretic, but I can still choose what kind of Heretic I am. And I choose not to be the kind that could walk away from that.”

I was spared from having to try to respond to that, by Roxa gesturing to Jazz and Gordon. “Come on, guys. We need to get up there. They’re getting closer.”

Tilting my head a little, and focusing, I could hear them. It sounded like they were on fire. A lot of fire. Good, I thought a little maliciously. The more it hurt, the more it would slow them down.

Gordon had shifted his sword and shield back into their tommy gun form. He stood there, gazing down the corridor. “Good luck with those defenses,”  he noted, in a voice that sounded like he was asking us to pick up some chips. “We’ll hold them as long as possible.”

Nodding, I added, “We’ll start the walls back here and work our way to you. Be careful, you guys. Just… please be careful.”

“Actually, speaking of being careful.” Roxa extended a hand to both me and Sands. “Do you mind? It’s probably best to have as many friends as we can get.”

Realizing what she wanted, we both nodded. Roxa immediately put her hands on each of us, and created a pair of stone duplicates. She could only make one duplicate per person, so the more people she had to work with, the more rock soldiers she could make.

By then, there was no more time to say any of the million things I wanted to say. We had to do this. To that end, the other four ran off, moving to head off the incoming troops. Meanwhile, I turned on my heel to look at Sands. “Let’s wall it up.”

Sands promptly reached out with her mace to smack it against the nearby wall and store that material as what it would make the walls from. “Ready.”

The two of us worked quickly. Sands made a wall from one side of the tunnel to the other, leaving a small opening for the others to slip through that could be sealed off as soon as they were through. Meanwhile, I carefully set mines all along it, on both sides. Anyone who tried to smash their way through, or slip through another way, was going to run into a surprise.

It was hard to focus, especially when I heard Gordon‘s gun and Gidget’s lasers start up off in the distance. All I wanted to do was run out there and help. It basically killed me not to be there on the front line. But no, we had our own job to do. Hard as it was, we had to make sure that the walls were up. We had to make this work. If Roxa and the others didn’t have any defenses to fall back behind so they could catch their breaths, this was all going to go very bad, very quickly.

Sands hesitated too, glancing toward me for a second before both of us pointedly turned back to focus on our work. “Funnel?” The other girl asked while moving forward a bit.

Realizing what she meant, I nodded and the two of us got to work. That time, rather than make a straight wall across, Sands created two walls, each taking up about half the width of the tunnel. They were angled inward to create a sort of triangle shape without a bottom. Or, as Sands had said, a funnel. The two diagonal walls didn’t quite meet. We left a small opening, again, for the others to get through. This way, the enemies would be pushed forward through the tunnel, straight to where Gordon could stand in that small opening and fire at them like they were in a shooting gallery. They would just keep getting packed closer together, so that he would barely have to aim. And any that tried to cheat by going through our walls, well, they run into my mines. It was simple, but effective. And to top things off, Sands added rows of spikes all along the angled walls. If too many of the troops tried to push forward, they’d end up impaling their companions. And if Gordon was shooting them from the spot we had set up, they were going to try to push forward to get at him. That, or they’d retreat. Either was good for me.

Glancing over my shoulder as Sands was finishing up with the last bit of wall, I caught a glimpse of the fighting going on. The others were barely visible at the far end of the tunnel, and I couldn’t really make out anything specific. But from the look of things, it was intense, to say the least. Gordon’s gun was shooting continually, and I could see what looked like Roxa’s rock statues essentially running straight into the line of fire coming from the intruders. In some cases, that ‘fire’ was literal. There was clearly at least one soldier there with some kind of flame control, who kept lobbing in fireballs. Thankfully, however, it looked like Jazz’s sword allowed her to control that fire as well. The burning orbs kept reversing course, flying back the way they had come.

Whatever was going on, the details were hard to make out. But it looked like they were slowly, yet steadily being pushed back. Which made sense. Better that they keep pulling backward than end up getting cut off from us. They were doing as much damage as they could while retreating. Twice, I saw Roxa’s aura flare up, and then caught a brief glimpse of Jazz and Gordon’s as well.

Sands and I moved on then, getting closer to the others. For the next fifty feet or so, the other girl made alternating diagonal walls going back and forth, with small openings between each that were only wide enough for someone barely Gordon’s size to slip through. Someone coming from the other direction would have to head diagonally through one tiny, tight space, get to the end, turn around completely and head back the other way. That, or they’d have to take their time smashing through wall after wall after wall. And once we fell back here and I set up some mines to cover our retreat, that in itself would still be dangerous.

Sands even set up a few spiked poles at various spots and at different heights. That way, anyone trying to run through who didn’t know where they were would risk, again, impaling themselves. Whatever it took to force them to go slow and take their time.

A flash of movement caught my eye then. Snapping my head that way, I saw something on the ceiling, rushing past Roxa and the others. One of the Seosten troops. The thing looked like a man-sized gecko with purple skin and bright red compound eyes. It crawled as fast along the ceiling as most people could run on the ground, crossing half the distance between us by the time I even had a chance to realize what was going on.

Somehow, I had my staff switched into its bow form before consciously noticing what I was doing. Reflex born of hours and hours of practice. With a blurted warning to Sands, I snapped the bow up into position, drawing back the energy arrow before launching it with barely a second to aim. Shooting, just like shifting the staff to the bow in the first place, was totally automatic.

And yet, even then, the gecko-Alter avoided the arrow completely. He dropped to the floor an instant before it struck the spot where he had been. The concussive force from the arrow’s impact was enough to knock him forward a step, but nothing more than that. And even as I quickly drew back another arrow, he was already raising his hands.

I threw myself to the side, but there was no incoming attack. No, it was worse. As the gecko spread his hands apart, a portal began to appear. Through it, I could see hordes of troops on the other side. This guy wasn’t attacking us, he was just getting past the others to send another part of their not-so-little army into the open space. If he managed it, Roxa, Gordon, Jazz, and Gidget would be cut off from us entirely. Plus, Sands and I would have a hell of a lot of company.

I couldn’t let that happen. A burst from my staff sent me flying that way while the portal was still growing. The gecko-man stood there as I landed within a few feet of him, but before I could get any closer, a hail of lasers erupted from the portal itself as several of the soldiers on the other side opened fire, forcing me to dive out of the way. As I hit the floor, however, the grapple line from my staff was already launching to wrap around the man’s legs so that he was yanked over to land hard on his back.

The portal, almost as large as the man himself by that point, was still connected to the man’s hands. So it went horizontal rather than vertical, hovering there in the air just above him. One of the other soldiers suddenly appeared there, his upper half poking out of the portal as he leaned through with his rifle raised.

He aimed for me, but just before the man could actually shoot, I triggered the boost from my staff before releasing it so that the weapon went flying down the tunnel back toward Sands. The grapple was still connected to the gecko-man’s legs, so he was hauled along the floor, which threw the other man’s aim off as the portal he was leaning through was suddenly moving. Lasers ate up the wall beside and around me while I rolled back to my feet.

By the time the guard leaning through the portal had twisted back toward me and brought his gun into line, I was up. And as his finger tightened on the trigger, my hand lashed out, launching a small, metal object. Jaq. I had liberated him from the staff before launching it down the tunnel.

And now, I threw the little mouse-cyberform like a baseball. In mid-flight, he changed shape, going from animal to a sharp, deadly blade an instant before he was embedded deep in the gecko-man’s head. .

He died instantly. Which meant that his portal vanished with the other figure still halfway out, slicing him in half and sending my aura flaring up as I was filled with the pleasure from both soldiers’ deaths.

Sands, by that point, had finished with the next set of walls. She jogged up, snatching my staff off the ground from near the bodies before tossing it to me as I joined her.

“Thanks,” I muttered, extending the empty end of the staff down toward the blade that was stuck in the gecko-man’s head. Jaq shifted once more before returning to his spot on the weapon.

Sands opened her mouth before suddenly shoving me aside, just before some kind of electrified grappling hook thing with a manacle on the end shot through the space where I had just been. A quick glance over my shoulder showed some kind of bug-like Alter in silver armor flying above us. He started to retract the grapple back into his extended gauntlet.

Before it could disappear entirely, however, I grabbed on and let it carry me up toward the man. Halfway up, the bug-figure stopped retracting the grapple. But it was too late. I used a quick burst from my staff to propel myself the rest of the way, even as he recoiled.

Then I was inside him. Not in the ‘splatter him to pieces’ kind of way. I was possessing him. Pivoting in the air, I threw the electrified grapple gun down toward Sands. It could be useful. Then I blurted inwardly, Tabbris!

She knew. The bug man fell unconscious, and I sprang free of him, landing in a crouch next to the other girl.

By that point, as the two of us turned the other way, Roxa and the others were on their way. They’d been fighting a slow retreat the whole time, and now they were close enough for us to actually see what was going on. Roxa shouted something before Gidget flew up in her hoverboard form to fire a dazzling display of lasers at the incoming swarm of soldiers. Using that as cover, the others broke and turned to sprint back to us.

“You good?” I asked as they reached us, Roxa and Gidget landing an instant behind the other two.

“Peachy!” Jazz shouted back. She was bleeding heavily from one arm, and her face was bruised. But she looked more alive than I had seen her in quite some time. Maybe ever.

Together, we made our way back slowly through the defenses that Sands and I had erected. Between all of us, we must have taken out twenty or more of the damn guys. But it wasn’t enough. They just kept coming. Mine after mine, wall after wall, they were an inexorable tide. But we were slowing them down.

“It’s done!” The words finally came from Sands, as she held that red ball in one hand. “They’ve got them all through! We’ve gotta go!”

It was just in time, too. We were at our last layer of defenses, the first wall that Sands had made. And now it was our turn.

But as our hands collectively found each of our badges and we blurted, ‘Dorothy’ together, nothing happened. Nothing at all. Glancing to the others, I tried again. We all did. Still, nothing.

Then something did happen. But it was nothing good. The sound of a steady, violent droning, like an angry swarm of insects, filled the air. Together, we turned back the other way, just in time to see the wall completely disintegrate. And not just the wall, but my mines as well. They just… fizzled, absorbed by what appeared to be a massive swarm of tiny bits of buzzing metal. The same buzzing metal that had just devoured Sands’ wall.

“Hello, children,” Radueriel spoke calmly, standing there with his troops arrayed behind him. Dozens of rifles and other weapons were leveled at us, ready to put us down the second we so much as breathed wrong. “I’d like you to meet my own offspring. Or as close as I will ever get.” He raised a hand, as the swarm buzzed down and around him. “My nanites are glorious creatures. So very helpful. Particularly in matters such as… jamming those teleportation spells you happen to be wearing.”

He looked like he was going to say something else then, before pausing to consider. Then he just offered us a little shrug, speaking simply. “Take th–”

As the man was in mid-sentence, one of the soldiers, clearly overly eager, lunged for us. In his haste, however, the man slipped and hit the floor hard. That, in turn, tripped up a couple other soldiers, while more of them blinked back to see what was going on, thereby taking their weapons off of us. It was an opening. A brief one, but an opening nonetheless.

We took it. Spinning back, the six of us hauled ass toward the other room. The soldiers were already reacting, firing a few shots after us. But it was too late. Sands erected a quick wall to block the shots for those precious handful of seconds while we ran. Go. Go. We had to move.

“They’re holding the portal!” Sands called as we scrambled. “We can get out that way!”

Together, we sprinted back into that chamber with Radueriel, his soldiers, and his swarm of nanobots or whatever they were hot on our heels. My endurance was, as always, amazing. Yet I could feel the drain creeping up on me, after that fight with Isaac. And if I was starting to feel it a bit, the others had to be dying. But we couldn’t stop. We couldn’t even slow down. My lungs were screaming, my legs hurt, and I really wanted a drink of water. It was those seemingly little things that I didn’t really think about when imagining how something like this would go. The thirst from a long fight, the cramp in my side, the fact that I kinda needed to pee, it all seemed inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Yet it added up.

The glowing red portal was right there, leading up to the ship. I saw Haiden and Larissa on either side of it, waving us through. Sands hit it first, disappearing the second she passed through. Gordon, two steps behind her, was next, followed by Roxa and Gidget. Only Jazz and I were left.

The droning of the swarm had grown deafeningly loud by that point. The nanites were on top of us. But instead of attacking, they flew around and over the two of us, straight toward where Haiden and Larissa were.

Between the two of them, the adult Heretics killed what was likely millions of the tiny machines within a handful of seconds. Anything that got near them was incinerated. While our powers weren’t enough to take a decent number of the little bastards down, theirs were.

But the nanites weren’t actually attacking them. Not exactly. No, they went for the portal. Larissa and Haiden got rid of most of them, but I saw a few reach the portal. They didn’t go through it, as I feared they might. Instead, they started to explode around it. They looked like tiny fireworks. And as the nanites exploded, the portal suddenly expanded. It grew dramatically, doubling in size in an instant, as if the exploding nanites had suddenly filled it with energy.

Haiden and Larissa were both engulfed by the portal, disappearing. It was a move I didn’t understand, until the portal began to shrink just as suddenly as it had grown. The nanites had overloaded it and now, after briefly growing, the portal was collapsing. It would be gone in seconds. And we were too far away to get to it in time. Seeing that, I slowed.  

“Flick!” Jazz shouted from beside me, noticing the instant that I fell behind. She turned toward me, even as I snapped my staff up into position. “Wh–”

I triggered the kinetic charge on my staff. Not behind myself, but in front. The burst slammed into Jazz, picking the other girl up and hurling her forward. With a cry of surprise, she went flying through the portal an instant before it finished collapsing.

I’d done it without thinking. Without even considering any of my actions. My only impulse had been to get Jazz to safety. Now that she was, I spun back the other way as the sound of footsteps reached me. My fist swung wildly.

Radueriel caught it easily. His hand stopped mine, and there was a sudden blinding pain as he simply squeezed, snapping pretty much every bone in my fingers, and cracking a few more in my hand. I hit the floor with a cry, dropping to my knees while the ancient Olympian Seosten simply stood there with my fist caught in his grip.

Flick! Tabbris blurted inside my head, sounding panicked.

Whatever happens, I shot back to her, do not reveal yourself. You hear me, Tab? Do not reveal yourself, no matter what.

“Interesting,” Raduriel remarked calmly, the casualness of his tone at odds with the force with which he was gripping my hand. “I do hope that you weren’t expecting them to come back for you. I’m afraid that the shield against such intrusions is now fully in place. There will be no interruptions.

“Still,” he added thoughtfully, “I’m certain that we can find… appropriate accommodations for you, Miss–”

“Let the girl go.” The new voice came from beside me, and both Radueriel and I turned slightly. It was the soldier from before, the one who had tripped. He stood there, staring intently at the man who was holding my fist in his unrelentingly crushing grip.

“Let her go,” the soldier repeated flatly.

Raduriel stared at him for a brief second. His mouth opened. “You–”

That was as far as he got before the soldier abruptly lashed out. His fist was a blur that I could barely process before it slammed into Raduriel’s chest. The powerful Seosten was hurtled away from me, finally releasing my hand as he flew backward to crash into several of his soldiers.

The guard who had intervened, meanwhile, collapsed. He fell to the floor in a heap, while a second figure, the one who had been possessing him, stood there in his place.

She wasn’t tall, standing an inch shorter than I was. Her brown hair was cut in a short, layered crop that barely reached her neck. Her eyes were slate gray, and she had the same high cheekbone, aristocratic look that I had come to expect from the Seosten. For clothes, she wore a pair of black leggings with what looked like intricate golden flame patterns running down to her boots, which themselves were almost entirely gold. Sheathed at her waist was a sword, whose hilt was shaped like a dragon. Set where it was, the head of the dragon appeared to be the source of the decorative flames that were running down her legs.

She wore a chainmail-like top, that was black with a golden design etched into the chest. It was the outline of a bird in flight. An owl, I realized a bit belatedly.

Oh, my God, Tabbris suddenly blurted in my head. It’s–

“You.” Raduriel had picked himself up, his eyes narrowed. Surrounded by dozens of his men, he still looked a little off-balance, a little nervous. “Involving yourself personally in this situation? That seems odd for you, Auriel. Or do you prefer Athena now? Or does your preference lie in another identity entirely? Such as, for example…

“Nimue.”

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A Different Kind Of Hunt 31-05

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Please note, there was a commissioned interlude focusing on the origin of King Arthur posted Saturday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might wish to use the previous chapter button above. 

You did it! Tabbris enthused, sounding almost giddy. Yogu got that piece of–I mean, um… him.

Chuckling a little to myself at that, I tried to push myself up before stopping with a groan. It was just too hard to be upright just then. Given the situation, I sent back to her, I think calling him a piece of shit is allowed.

I sat there like that, breathing hard for a moment while Roxa and Jazz moved slowly over, both of them limping a little. The other two helped me up, just as Sands and Gordon joined us. They were panting just as hard as the rest of us, and looked pretty disheveled. Sands had a pretty nasty looking burn all along the side of her neck and left cheek that was very slowly healing. 

“Son of a bitch,” she spat. “When he upgraded those drones, he really upgraded them. How much tech help did the Seosten fucking give him? Those things are nasty.” At her words, the other girl waved a hand back over her shoulder toward the remains of one of the drones.  

“We’ll be sure to ask,” I informed her, grimacing in pain. Ow. “Or just have someone take the things apart to figure out exactly what he did to them. Maybe they’ll come in handy somehow.”

Gordon, standing nearby with his arms folded, quietly observed, “You have a thing for taking what you liberate from your enemies and turning it against them, don’t you?” To make his point further, the boy nodded toward Jaq and Gus, who were both in their mice forms as they sniffed around the nearby Gidget. From the look of things, the two of them were making sure that their big friend was okay after she had been thrown around by Isaac’s metal manipulation power.

“What can I say?” I shrugged. “Gotta use what’s available, and there’s no sense in letting good resources go to waste. There’s too many overpowered bad guys out there for that. Besides, look at those little guys. There’s no way they deserved to have an asshole like Doxer for a partner.”

At the sound of their former owner’s name, both mice abruptly twisted around toward me. They looked almost guilty, like they were afraid that the boy himself was somehow there and they were in trouble. Wincing at the sight of their faces, I shook my head. “It’s okay, go ahead.”

Jazz spoke up then, shifting a little uncomfortably. “What about these guys?” she asked quietly, gesturing toward the ant-like Alters who were still chained along all of the walls. None of them had actually called out for help or anything. Actually, they had done nothing to attract our attention. It was like they were as afraid of us as they had been of Isaac himself. Which, I supposed, made sense. They were probably accustomed to only seeing Heretics who were being possessed and puppeted by Seosten. Plus, after the display they had just seen through that nasty fight… yeah, it was no wonder they were trying not to attract attention to themselves.

“Sands?” I looked to her. “Could you send a message to your mom, let her know what we’re doing and that Isaac’s where he belongs? Oh, and see if she can confirm with the ship that he is there. Just to, you know, make sure.” I knew Larissa had given her daughter something that was supposed to allow them to communicate, though I wasn’t really sure how it worked. I just assumed it was similar to the communication pins that we had used back at Crossroads.

She nodded, taking a small red ball from her pocket before stepping out of the way. Meanwhile, I gestured to the imprisoned Alters. “Come on, let’s free these guys. But uh, let’s try to make sure that they know we don’t mean them any harm first. It could get bad if they all panic.”

The others nodded, and together we moved over to the nearest ant-figure. He, and the others, were all watching us fearfully. They were each chained about three feet apart, with fifty on both walls. From the look of things, some of them had been beaten badly before being chained up. It was a sight that made me wish I’d hit Isaac more than I had before sending him up to the ship.

“Um.” Glancing to the others briefly as I stopped in front of the chained figure, I held a hand up to stop them before looking back to the figure in question. Clearing my throat a little, I hesitantly continued. “Excuse me, do you speak Engl–I mean, the Trade language? Do you understand?”

For a few seconds, neither the one I was talking to or any of the nearby figures actually responded at all. I was about to ask Tabbris to translate into Latin, when the figure to the right of the one I was standing in front of actually spoke up. “We’k in understanding the’k Master.”

Weak in understanding? I was confused for a moment about what that could possibly mean.

Fortunately, Tabbris quickly settled my confusion by putting in, I think he said ‘we in understanding the Master’. I don’t think the k sound is intentional. Or it’s just a… um, an accent or something.

“Right.” Biting my lip, I looked to the one who had spoken. “You understand. And you think–” Inwardly, I flinched at the realization before shaking my head. “No, listen. We’re not Seosten. We’re not possessed, and neither was… neither was that guy. We’re not the Masters.”

God, how confused must these guys be? They had been abducted by what they thought was one of their Seosten masters, dragged down here into the tunnels and used to fuel a shield spell against what appeared to be more of their Seosten masters. No wonder they were freaked out.

They were all staring at us, clearly even more confused and frightened. I could hear some of them whispering down the line as the uncertainty about what we were doing or what we intended grew. By that point, I was pretty sure most of them were resigned to death.

“We’re not here to hurt you!” That was Jazz, stepping up beside me. Starting to raise her hands before clearly thinking better of it, she reiterated slowly, but firmly.  “We’re not going to hurt you.”

I nodded. “She’s right. We are not going to hurt you. We’re going to unchain you, okay? We’re going to let you out. Just… don’t run away or anything. There are bad guys out there. The Seosten. They’re out there.” I pointed back the way we had come. “So don’t run off or whatever. We’re just going to let all of you out. I promise, we are not going to hurt you.” Yes, I was just repeating myself by that point. But I figured it bore emphasis, considering how scared they were.  

“We’k good for Masters,” one of the others tried to insist. “Never go’k running from Masters.”

Right. No wonder Isaac had been able to herd them down here so easily. They probably hadn’t even tried to resist, since they thought that he was one of the Seosten. They’d just obediently followed him down here. Hell, they probably even showed him where to go when he demanded a hiding place. The ones who had been hurt… Isaac had probably just been enjoying himself.

“No, I said we’re not–” Stopping myself, I let out a breath before giving up. Better to show rather than tell, in this case. Stepping closer slowly, I examined the chain for a second. It led from the wall to some kind of metal belt that was locked around the man’s waist. Eventually, I found the seam. It looked like Isaac had taken a bunch of scrap metal bars or something and bent them into circles around these guys with the same power that he’d used to throw Gidget around.

Carefully getting my fingers under the metal band on either side of where both ends met, I tried to give the ant-figure as reassuring of a look as I could before heaving at it. The band resisted stubbornly for a few seconds, before slowly prying apart with the groan of protesting metal.

Finally, I was able to pull the partially unbent metal bar away from the formerly trapped figure, tossing it aside to dangle by the chain. As promised, the Alter didn’t run. He stood there, openly trembling. If anything, he seemed even more afraid now than he had before. It was like he was convinced that he was now going to be made an example of because I had singled him out.

“Guys,” I looked back to others. “Could you help the rest of these guys get free?” I figured that between all the powers that they had, it wouldn’t be too hard to get everyone unchained.

They moved to do just that then, while I turned back to the one I had freed, trying to keep my voice as calm and reassuring as possible. “Can you tell me what your name is? And what your people are called, your species?” Maybe if I showed an interest in who they were as people, it might help a little bit. All I knew was that we really needed to calm these people down if we were going to get any information out of them about what was going on, and where the rest of the town was.

The ant-figure shifted back and forth, looking nervous as he made a weak noise before finally speaking. “We’k are the’k Kenkean, Master. This one is called Ruedu’k. It is ready for serve.”  

“Kenkeans.” I repeated the name of the race, which sounded like Ken-kay-un. It was good to have something to think of them as beyond ‘ant-people’. “And you’re Ruedu.” That one sounded basically like saying ‘rude you’, which was ironic considering how he had been acting so far. 

I was also starting to recognize when the k sound was intentional and when it was just their mandibles clicking together whenever they ended a word on a vowel.

When the Kenkean gave a quick nod, I extended a hand reflexively. “Good to meet you, Ruedu, I-” Belatedly, I realized my mistake as Ruedu recoiled, looking with wide, terrified eyes at my hand. Oops. Right, when people like me could have any power imaginable, extending a hand to someone who was already afraid of us was probably a bad idea. Jazz had realized that earlier.

“Sorry, I… I’m not going to hurt you. I promise. I swear. Um. Umm…” I thought quickly, trying to remember the word that Jokai had used back when we first met him and had promised to save his people. “Sacramentum. Sacramentum, we swear. We are not going to hurt you. We… You know the Seosten, the Masters. We are not Seosten. We are… They use us too. They enslave us. They possess us. But we’re not possessed. We are… human. We’re here to help you.”

Pointedly, I gestured to where the others were working on freeing the other Kenkeans. “The boy, the one who abducted you, he was… we came to stop him. I’m sorry that you were… that he hurt your people. He was bad. He’s gone now. He won’t hurt you anymore.”

Ruedu lifted his head a little, watching me carefully. “Not… Masters? Not Seosten?” He said the name very hesitantly, like he was afraid that just saying it outloud would make them appear.

“No. We’re not Seosten,” I assured him. “We fight the Seosten. Can you…” I swallowed, dreading the answer. “Can you tell me where the rest of your people are? Where are the rest of the Kenkeans?” Quickly, I added, “We just want to know that they’re okay. That’s all. The boy that brought you in here, did he… did he hurt anyone else? Did he–” The words choked their way out of my throat. “Did he kill anyone?”

“Three’k,” Ruedu answered, crushing my hopes. “Boy’k killed three’k for making sure he’k was obeyed.”

“No,” I replied flatly. “He did it because he wanted to.” Swallowing hard, I shuddered a littled before looking back to him. “I’m sorry, Ruedu. I’m really, really sorry.”

For a few long seconds, he stared as if seeing me for the first time. His mandibles clicked together a couple times, but produced almost no sound. Then he lowered himself slightly, in something that kind of almost looked like a bow. “Other Kenkean below’k.” One of his hands pointed at the floor. “Deep tunnels. When boy’k ship crash, most flee’k to’k bottom. Only’k we’k remain above to’k aid Masters. Boy’k…. Master?”

My head shook again. “No, he’s just an asshole.” Belatedly, I amended, “He’s just a bad person. Evil.”  

Okay, so there were a lot more Kenkean below, apparently. Good. For just a second, I had been terrified that Isaac had killed a lot more than three. Hell, even that many was tragic, but it could have been so much worse.  

Shaking off that horrible thought, I focused on Ruedu. “My name is Flick. Like I said, we’re human.” My mouth almost formed the word Heretic, but I stopped it at the last second. Human. Human sounded better, somehow.

“Flick?” Ruedu repeated my name, overly stressing the kuh sound at the end. “Flick.”

By that point, most of the others had been freed, and were gathering in a group. As the Kenkean looked back to his people, there was a brief flash from the corner of the room. My head snapped that way, hand darting to my weapon.

It was Larissa and Haiden. They walked quickly over, the former stopping to embrace her daughter while Haiden himself stepped over to us.

The Kenkeans, including Ruedu, had all collapsed to the floor, hands outstretched toward the arriving adults as they frantically supplicated themselves.

“No, no!” I quickly shook my head, catching their attention. “Guys, Kenkeans! It’s okay. It’s okay, they’re with us. They’re not Seosten. They’re humans. Not Seosten.”

“Having fun, I see,” Haiden announced as he stepped over. Roxa and the others moved to join us.

“Loads,” I replied flatly. “Isaac?”

“Secure,” he assured me. “Dries says he’s out like a light. Good job.”

Nodding once, I looked back the other way. “Ruedu, this is Haiden. Haiden. He’s a friend. Good. He is good. Haiden, this is Ruedu. He’s one of the Kenkeans. These guys.”

“Not true’k.” Ruedu raised a hand, looking a little terrified to be speaking up, like he was confident that I was about to rip his head off for speaking. “All close. Close to’k true’k. But not he’k Ruedu’k. She’k Ruedu’k.”

I blinked twice, then realized my mistake. “She Rued–oh! Oh. You’re a she, not a he. Female Kenkean.” When she nodded, I coughed. “Sorry. I’m sorry. This is Ruedu, she is one of the Kenkeans. Isaac was…”

As I trailed off, Haiden shook his head. “We know. Sands let us know what was going on.”

“Yes, she did.” That was Larissa, stepping over to join us. “And now it’s time for us to go. Haiden and I did enough damage and left enough traps to slow them down, but they’re still coming. We’ve got Isaac, it’s time to get out of here.”

My mouth opened and then shut, as the realization came. “We can’t go,” I announced slowly.

That made everyone’s heads whip around as they stared at me. Larissa was the first to speak. “What? Flick, listen to me, there is an army out there and they’ll be down here any minute.”

“Yeah.” I nodded before lifting my staff to indicate Ruedu and the rest of the Kenkeans. “And them, and the rest of their people below, what do you think the Seosten will do to them when they can’t find us? You think they’ll just say, ‘hey, oh well’ and go about their day? Cuz I’m pretty sure they’re not the type to care that these guys weren’t involved with us. Best case scenario, they’re all enslaved and thrown into a work camp just like the one we just saved Jokai and the others from. Worst case, they just kill them all to make a point.”

“She’s right.” That was Jazz. She rubbed her arm gingerly, panting. “They’ll kill them. Or enslave them. We can’t just walk away. We can’t abandon them just because we have what we wanted.”

Haiden and Larissa exchanged brief glances and a moment of silent communication passed between them. The man smiled before looking back to me. “You really are a lot like your mom.”

“Guys,” Larissa started, walking over to us. “I want to get them out of here too. But you don’t have the power to make the kind of portal that we’d need to get all these people up to the ship. None of us do. Not in time before Radueriel’s troops get past those traps and find us here.”

Sands looked to her mother pointedly. “Then we’ll hold them off. You just said, we can’t make the portal. But you guys can. You did it before to get us down here. You make the portal to get all these guys out of here, and we’ll hold off the Seosten goons long enough for you to do it.”

“What?” Larissa’s eyes widened at that, and she quickly took hold of her daughter’s shoulders. “No, Sandoval. You can’t fight them. I told you, there’s an army out there.”

“Yeah,” the other girl replied, “a whole army out there. But the tunnels are only so wide. They can’t send everything at us at once. We don’t have to fight all of them at the same time, just the ones that can reach us. We can use that to hold them off long enough for you guys to work.”

Still, Larissa looked distraught, head shaking. “Sweet girl, it would take us hours to put together enough energy to send a portal all the way to where the ship is. You can’t hold out for that long.”

Sands opened her mouth to say something, when Gordon abruptly spoke up. “What if the ship was closer?” As everyone looked to him, he asked, “Would that help make the portal faster?”  

Haiden slowly whistled at that. “Bring the ship closer, and we don’t have to portal out as far…”

“There is an armada up there!” Larissa blurted, pulling Sands close to her chest and hugging onto her as she looked at Haiden incredulously. “And you really think that the best idea right now is to bring that ship out where they can blow it out of the sky and strand us all here?”

“No,” I quickly put in. “It’s not the best idea. But it might be the only idea. Larissa,” I pressed then, meeting her gaze, “we can’t abandon these people. Sure, we could tell them to hide in their tunnels, to run away. But you know the Seosten would find them eventually. We can’t just leave them here. I’m not saying it’s not dangerous. I’m saying it’s worth it. Because those people are only in danger because of Isaac. And he’s our responsibility. We have to protect them.”

For a second, the woman just stared at me. Then she reached a hand out, touching my face briefly. “You are… a beautiful girl,” she murmured before straightening with a sigh. “Call them.” She was looking toward Haiden. “Call the ship. They’ll have to be really close and really fast. We’re gonna have to time this perfectly. We have to know exactly how close they can get and exactly when they’ll get there. They get the ship as close as they can, we open the portal the second they’re in position and send all these people through.” Her eyes snapped to the rest of us. “And you use those badges the second we get them through the portal. You understand?”

“They’re coming.” That was Roxa. She had stepped over nearer to the chamber entrance, her head cocked to the side as she listened. “It won’t take them much longer to get here. If we’re gonna keep them far enough away for you guys to focus on the portal, we need to go now.”

“Be careful.” Larissa reached out, taking my arm with one hand and Sands’ with the other. “Just… just don’t take risks that you don’t have to. The tunnels are narrow. Use that. Don’t let them lure you out. Hold them off, make them keep coming to you. Be…” She swallowed. “Be safe. Be smart.” Looking up to Roxa, Jazz, and Gordon, she added, “That goes for all of you.”

“We will,” I promised before looking to the others. “Come on, guys.

“Let’s go hold off an army.”

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A Different Kind Of Hunt 31-04

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Two steps into the chamber, and a sudden, dangerous thought struck me. A thought that made me abruptly grab onto Sands’ arm as the girl walked beside me. Gripping her tightly, I dove sideways while shouting a loud warning to the others of, “Drones!”

A second later, a handful of laser shots scorched the ground where all of us had just been. Sure enough, just as I’d realized, Isaac’s upgraded drones were hovering up in the front corners of the room, out of sight from the entrance. The boy hadn’t had his weapon in his hand while he had been talking to us, and he’d made no move to grab it even when he was pissed off at Jazz and lashing out. Given his other preparations, it only made sense that he’d have the drones ready to go, waiting just out of sight but in a position to cover him just in case someone actually made it into the room. It hadn’t even occurred to to wonder until right then. Luckily, I’d barely thought of it in time.

Together, Sands and I dove to the side, rolling only a little awkwardly as we hit the floor. But hey, I’d take an awkward roll over being shot by a laser any day of the week.

Roxa yanked Gordon the other way, and the sudden volley of lasers missed all of us, though it was an incredibly close thing. Even Gidget managed to avoid being hit by lunging forward, skidding a bit along the floor.

Great, we were being shot at from both the left and right corners. The very brief glimpse that I had managed to get while we were rolling out of the way showed two of the drones in the top right, opposite where Sands and I were. The third one, meanwhile, was in the top left, directly above us. And the damn thing  was already reorienting to fire down at us.

“Go!” Sands blurted, sweeping her mace up to create a solid rock wall that arced over our heads barely a second before the high pitched whine of the drone’s lasers filled the air to rebound off the hastily constructed stone shield. “I’ve got the drone,” she continued quickly while sliding the badge meant for Isaac that her mother had given her across the floor to me. “You get the fucking asshole it belongs to! Just go, Flick!”  

Across the way, I could see Gordon and Roxa split up similarly, with the werewolf girl going for Isaac while the boy turned to face the two drones with his shield and sword raised. As both drones fired, he caught the incoming lasers on the shield before pursing his lips to whistle. There was some weird, near-invisible distortion in the air that flew to hit the nearest drone, and it suddenly spun wildly for a second as if it was completely disoriented. One of Gordon’s new powers, apparently.

Meanwhile, Isaac’s focus on us had allowed Jazz to break free of the forcefield he had trapped her in, and she was already lunging for him. Quickly, I snatched the badge off the floor and dropped it into my pocket for safe keeping while heaving myself back up. Trusting Sands to keep the drone occupied so that it didn’t just shoot me in the back, I went for the boy. All we had to do was get the badge on him. That was it. We just had to attach it to him and it would do the rest.

But that was going to be harder than it sounded, which became clear as Gidget lunged toward Isaac with a vicious snarl. As much as Roxa hated the boy for the psycho piece of shit that he’d turned out to be, I was pretty sure it had passed onto her cyberform partner. Unfortunately, the boy snapped his hand up, and the metal cougar was caught in mid-air. Apparently there had been some kind of metal-manipulation power included in all the upgrades that he’d managed to get. Which was just fucking fantastic. With a smirk, Isaac threw his already regrown hand back behind himself, sending Gidget that way to crash bodily into the incoming Jazz so that both were sent sprawling. Before either could get up, Isaac sent Gidget up and then down again, battering Jazz viciously.

Roxa, meanwhile, was caught from underneath by some kind of metal tentacle that rose from the ground and wrapped around her waist. The metal coil squeezed tight enough that Roxa gave a sudden gasp of pain, all while Isaac openly laughed, cackling like this was all some incredibly fun game. But before he could do any more damage, the blonde girl opened her hands. Some of that black oil-like stuff that she could create and manipulate now poured out of both palms before shooting back up her arm. It flowed between her trapped arms and the tight metal coil that was wrapped around her. A second later, the coil was forced apart as the stuff solidified and shoved it outward to create just enough space that Roxa was able to slip free and drop back to the floor.

By that point, I had finally managed to reach Isaac. With a grunt, I swung my staff for the asshole’s face. Sadly, he was entirely too quick for that, jerking his head backward out of the way as the staff whipped past his nose. His cackling continued unabated.  

I followed up by snapping the staff back against my chest while pivoting on one foot. The motion set me perpendicular to Isaac, with my right shoulder facing him. With my staff held against my chest, I continued my pivot to slam the extended end into the boy’s side as hard as I could.

Except the hit never landed. Isaac managed to stick the shaft of his flail (that was all that was left of it while the drones were elsewhere) into the path of my weapon, smacking it aside. As my staff was easily deflected, he met my gaze and waggled his eyebrows mockingly. Then his fist slammed into my face. He moved so quick I hadn’t even had a chance to register that it was coming, even with my enhanced reflexes.  

And fuck. It was like getting hit by a speeding car. Or maybe a dump truck. My vision went white with black spots for a second as I stumbled clumsily backward, tasting more than a little blood in my mouth. Honestly, in that moment, Isaac probably could have finished things for good if I had been by myself.

But, thankfully, I wasn’t. Before the boy could actually follow through with his attack while I was still recovering, Roxa was suddenly there. She caught his arm tightly, driving her leg up into his stomach hard enough to crack a tree in half. Isaac, however, barely seemed to notice. He gave an annoyed snarl, flicking that empty weapon shaft up between them.

Then the shaft wasn’t quite so empty. In mid-swing, a long, thin blade snapped up into place with a smooth click. Apparently, part of the upgrades that Isaac had been giving his weapon included adding that blade for times when his drones were out and about.

Even worse, as the blade cut into Roxa’s side, she actually cried out in genuine pain and stumbled. Silver. The blade was made of silver. Because of course it was. God damn Isaac.

While Roxa stumbled, the boy’s attention snapped back to me. He pursed his lips and blew at me, of all things. It was like Gordon’s whistle, except instead of making me feeling disoriented, an incredibly powerful gust of wind slammed into my chest hard enough to knock the air out of me. As I doubled over, the wind turned into a brief tornado that sent me flying upward out of control with a cry of surprise despite myself.

My back exploded in pain as I slammed up into the ceiling before dropping once more. Stunned as I was for that brief second, it was all I could do to get my staff down and trigger a brief burst from it to slow my fall before I hit the ground in what basically amounted to a half-sprawl, half-roll. As much as I hated it, I had to take just a second to catch my breath and try to recover as quickly as possible. It hurt. I hurt. This was not going well.  

Ahead of me, Isaac was swinging that extended blade of his at a (somewhat) recovered Roxa while Jazz ducked under one of the flailing tentacle-like metal arms that had risen from the floor. Gidget was down, unmoving for the moment.

Jazz turned to mist then, just as a second metal coil swung at her from behind. She reformed, throwing a hand out in the same direction that both coils had swung toward. One of her gravity-manipulation orbs appeared just past them, immediately yanking the coils that way and holding them there, even as they clearly struggled to swing back toward the black girl.

Meanwhile, Roxa stepped in to meet Isaac’s swing. Armored scales covered the girl’s body just in time for her to smack the blade aside while snapping her other hand up. A stream of that oil-like liquid shot from her palm and toward Isaac’s face. Rather than simply spraying him, however, the oil solidified into the shape of a large fist right before impact. His head was rocked backward slightly (which said something about how hard she had hit him with the stuff). Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to really stun the asshole. He recovered pretty much instantly, slicing through the solidified oil with a quick flick of that damn silver blade before pivoting around the falling pieces. Catching Roxa’s extended hand, he yanked her forward and off balance while spinning himself up and into a kick that took the girl in the side, sending her crashing to the floor. Going by the sound of impact, I was pretty sure only Roxa’s new armor had stopped him from literally putting his foot through her with that kick. It was clearly going to take the girl a second to recover from it.  

Thankfully, I was up and moving again by that point. In the background, I could hear (and kind of half-see from the corner of my eye) Sands and Gordon working together to deal with the three drones. But my attention had to be on Isaac. We needed to get the damn badge on him before this got worse. This would be over and done with as soon as I could actually get the badge on him. But I didn’t want to tip my hand by trying too openly. The second he actually knew what I was trying to do, this would probably go from hard to completely impossible. So I had to wait for the right opening. Patience, I had to have patience, as hard as it was.

The boy took a step after the fallen Roxa, clearly intent on finishing the job with that silver blade. Before he could follow up, however, the dazed blonde girl was suddenly hauled up off the floor and toward the gravity-manipulation orb that Jazz had just created about halfway to the ceiling. The other girl had clearly thought quickly and snatched Roxa out of the asshole’s reach for the moment.

And Isaac clearly wasn’t happy about that fact, because he spun back toward Jazz while throwing his hand back behind himself in a gesture that sent two more metal coils launching up out of the floor and toward the still-stunned blonde girl as she floated in the air. At the same time, some kind of large, sparkling blue fireball launched itself from the end of his blade, rocketing quickly toward Jazz.

Fuck, fuck, fuck! Changing course away from Isaac himself in mid-stride, I snapped my staff back and down while triggering the boost that I had been saving up. It threw me forward, straight into the path of the incoming fireball. At the same time, in mid-flight, I flipped the staff forward and launched Gus in his grapple form at the furthest of the two coils that were trying to grab Roxa.

The grapple caught the coil just before my momentum yanked it down to crash into its partner, thereby pulling both of them away from Roxa. Simultaneously, that blue fireball hit me just as I focused on the power that I had stolen from Doxer. I felt the energy flood into my body, along with the urge to get rid of it immediately. To that end, I flipped over in the air, facing Isaac from an upside down position while I went sailing past him. My fist lashed out, and I sent a smaller version of that same fireball right back at the boy before righting myself just in time to land in a crouch while retracting the grapple.

Roxa had recovered by then, flipping over in the air to send more of her oil around the metal coils, locking them against one another as she solidified it.  

Isaac caught the flame that I had launched at him midair, instantly dissipating it with what amounted to only a bare moment of effort. But that single second where he was focused on that was enough to distract him at exactly the right time (or wrong time, as far as he was concerned). Because in that second, he didn’t notice Gidget flying at him in hoverboard form. She spun sideways, slamming into the back of the boy’s legs hard enough to knock him over. As he landed on his back on the board, Gidget instantly flew straight up, slamming with unbelievable force right into the ceiling before he could recover.

The hoverboard flew away quickly then, letting Isaac fall back toward the ground. He caught himself partway down, slowing his fall somehow. Meanwhile, Gidget had flown down and around to let Roxa hop on, and the two were flying up toward the slowly falling figure. Rather than bring her metal companion in range of the boy’s control, however, Roxa took two steps forward and leapt up.

Floating there as he was, Isaac saw her coming. I saw a manic grin cross the psycho’s face while he readied that silver blade of his, flipping it around before thrusting forward, right into Roxa’s path. He wasn’t just going to stab her with the blade. He clearly intended to end her with it.  

But Roxa wasn’t there. At the last second, she used another of her new powers to create a stone duplicate of herself. The statue-like figure appeared directly between her and Isaac, just as he shoved his blade into its chest.

As for Roxa herself, meanwhile, she ran up the back of her stone duplicate, launching herself up above Isaac before spinning in the air. By that point, the statue was already plummeting toward the ground, its weight yanking the weapon from the boy’s hand before he knew what was happening.

From above Isaac, Roxa dropped, slamming into the boy’s back with both feet. The impact knocked him toward the ground. Roxa herself, however, stayed in the air and out of his reach, courtesy of a gravity orb that Jazz, obviously thinking quickly once more, had thrown behind and above the other girl.

Isaac was falling toward the ground, launched that way by the hard kick to his back (which had to have broken something). That coming so soon after he had literally been pancaked against the ceiling by Gidget, it took the boy a second to recover.

It was a second too long, because a second orb appeared on the floor. This one, however, didn’t decrease gravity. Instead, it increased it. Suddenly, Isaac was falling a lot faster, slamming even harder into the floor than he’d been driven into the ceiling.

He picked himself up, but I was already there. Launching myself with a quick burst from my weapon, I rocketed that way. The boy managed to get back to his feet. He saw me coming, a grin starting to form on his bloodied and bruised face as he clearly imagined everything he was going to do when he got his hands on me. That grin fell away, however, as he tried to step forward and raise his hands. He could do neither, because his arms and legs were suddenly held in place by more of that solidified oil courtesy of the still-floating Roxa.

He probably still could have pulled some power out of his ass to swat me aside like a bug. But he needed time to think of it, and time was one thing that the boy didn’t have. Because in that second, my weapon connected solidly with his chest, and I was rewarded with the crack of bones snapping. Isaac doubled over, and I pivoted, spinning the staff up and around before driving it down into the back of the boy’s head. As he was knocked forward and down, I drove my knee up into his face. Honestly, it hurt my leg. But it was a good hurt, especially when I heard his yelp.

With a livid snarl, the boy lashed out, managing to break his arm free of the solid oil in time to punch me hard enough to send me to the ground with a cry of my own.

“You think you can win?!” he screamed, looking completely crazed. “You’re nothing! You are fucking nothing! You’re all worthless! You’re pathetic! I can take every single thing you can dish out! You’re done!”

“Now, see,” I managed a bit painfully from where I had sprawled. “That last part, that’s right. We are done.”

“What are you–” the boy started before his gaze snapped down. He saw the badge that I had clipped to his shirt while he was doubled over just in time to blurt a sudden frantic curse.

Then he was gone, as the badge transported him up to the ship. It was done. He was caught. We’d finished it. 

Halle-fucking-lujah.

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A Different Kind Of Hunt 31-03

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The tunnels were a maze, with branches leading off in every possible direction. Seriously, it was like being trapped in a giant anthill. If it was just me, I would’ve wandered around down there for hours, if not days, without actually finding anyone.

But it wasn’t just me. Roxa was there too, and she could follow Isaac’s scent pretty much as well as if there had been flashing neon signs leading her after him. She and Gidget led the way while the rest of us trailed along in her wake. Together, we moved as quickly, yet cautiously, as we dared. I wouldn’t have put it past that asshole to leave traps of some kind.

Strangely, however, there weren’t any. We made our way through those tunnels, following Isaac’s trail without running into any problems. Above, I could occasionally hear the sound of the fighting going on, and all I could do was hope (and reassure Tabbris) that Haiden and Larissa were alright.

Each tunnel was about eight feet wide by eight feet high. I didn’t know exactly what had made them, but the walls were perfectly smooth. As we moved, I ran my hand along one side curiously. Stone. They were made of stone of some kind, as far as I could tell. But what exactly were they for? If it was just for carrying water up, they had pipes for that, and there would be no need for all the extra tunnels leading everywhere. Was it for mining, maybe? But in that case, why was everything perfectly smooth?

Oh well. I had to focus. Dealing with Isaac was the priority, not wondering about this alien civilization’s tunnel-building habits.

Abruptly, Roxa halted just before a T-junction in the tunnel. Snapping her hand up to stop the rest of us, she tilted her head to listen for a second. Then she whispered. “To the left, about two hundred feet in. He’s there, with… a bunch of others, I think. I can hear their hearts beating, and I can hear them breathing. They’re scared. Really scared. And there’s this… clicking sound.”

Gordon had a hand in front of his face, using his own x-ray vision. His voice was soft. “There’s a huge chamber there. Isaac is in the middle of it, and there’s… people along the walls to the left and right. It looks like they’re chained up. I count… maybe a hundred. They’re the ones making the clicking sound. Isaac isn’t close to any of them.”

Breathing out myself, I nodded. “Okay. So we go in fast and hard, and get Isaac up to the ship before he can do anything to those people. Ready?” As the others agreed, I kept a tight hold on my staff, bracing myself before whispering, “Go.”

Together, we threw ourselves around the corner and down that last tunnel. Ahead, just as Gordon had said, the tunnel opened up into a large square chamber. It was about three hundred feet across, at a glance, with a ceiling that was about fifty feet up. Most of the open space in the room was empty, but I could see the asshole himself standing right there in the middle. The figures along the two walls weren’t exactly human. Actually, they mostly looked like humanoid ants. Their bodies were divided into three endoskeleton-covered sections. Rather than being down horizontal like regular ants, however, the abdomen, thorax, and head were stacked vertically, like a snowman. There were four legs coming out the bottom of the abdomen to hold them up, and four arms coming out of the thorax, two at the top and two at the bottom. Their heads were basically just like giant ant-heads, with sharp mandibles that were clattering in terror. That was the clicking sound that Roxa had heard.

But my focus, our focus, was centered on that son of a bitch standing right in the middle of the room. Narrowing my eyes, I pointed my staff back, about to trigger the kinetic charge to launch myself that way when I was suddenly stopped by a hand snatching hold of my arm.

“Stop!” Roxa blurted, bringing everyone to a halt.

Isaac, who had spun around at our approach, made a face of disappointment. “Aww,” he lamented with a shake of his head. “How’d you figure it out?”

While the rest of us just looked confused, Roxa stepped forward. Raising a hand, she extended it slightly until her palm abruptly stopped short. The air shimmered under her palm as she pressed firmly.

A forcefield. There was an invisible forcefield.

“I know you can’t hear or smell it,” the boy continued in a voice that made it sound like we were all just having a casual conversation. “So… new power? Gotta be a new power. That’s cool, I’ve got a few new powers of my–”

“You son of a bitch!” Jazz was suddenly there, going right up to the invisible wall to glower at the boy. “What the hell is wrong with you?! You just… just… k-killed all those people! You… you’ve been helping the Seosten? For how long?! How long have you been a fucking monster?!”

“See, that’s a really funny question,” Isaac remarked. “Cuz the thing is–”

“Lower the fucking forcefield!” Roxa interrupted. She was glowering furiously, her eyes dark as she made a low growling sound, like a wild dog that really wanted you to leave it alone. “Or I swear to God, I will tear it down myself and take you apart.”

“Well, see, you could try to come through that to get me, but–” Isaac started in a voice that dripped with condescension.

Roxa was having none of it. “Oh, you’re damn straight, I’ll come through it!” Rearing back, she threw a hard punch straight at the center of the forcefield. It reverberated, shockwaves running through the field sort of like ripples in a window. For a second, the thing looked like it might falter.

Then it didn’t. The forcefield suddenly returned to normal, going completely invisible once more. And at the same time, one of the Alters in the background slumped, dropping to the floor with a weak groan.

“Wha–” Eyes widening, I hurriedly snapped a hand out to stop Roxa from hitting the thing again. “Wait!”

Isaac was grinning as he wiggled two fingers at the both of us. “You know, there’s a joke here about two blonde bimbos and which one figures out the obvious first. If I had time, or cared, it’d probably be hilarious. But hey, what am I saying, this is hilarious enough all by itself.”

“He’s got them linked to the spell,” I snarled, disgust filling my voice. I was physically shaking. “If we damage the forcefield, we’re damaging them. It drains their life to keep… to keep the wall up.”

Can you undo the spell? I desperately asked my secret companion. Or at least unlink it from those people? I mean, can you take control of me and do something to break it.

Tabbris stammered, I–I thi-think so? But he’d know what you were doing as soon as you did it, and he might just… just kill them anyway if he thought you were about to get to him. He needs to be distracted. But I… I dunno how… She sounded just as sick as I felt.

“See?!” Meanwhile, Isaac had spread both hands, his smile broadening. “I knew you could work it out if you really tried. I think that deserves a smiley face sticker. Go ahead,” the boy gestured grandly. “Give yourself a hearty pat on the back, Miss Investigative Reporter.”

“You know what?” I shot back at him, “When we get in there, I’m gonna–”

“Cry over all the innocent people you had to kill to do it?” the boy interrupted. Waving a hand vaguely over his shoulder in the direction of the imprisoned figures, he added, “There’s about a… what is it… hundred of my friends back there? So yeah, sure. If you want me badly enough to kill a hundred ant-monster things just to get at me, be my guest. But then, wouldn’t you sort of be just as bad as me?”

Oh God, it was hard to resist the urge to smack that fucking forcefield with my staff. I wanted to wipe that stupid smirk off his face so fucking badly. Beside me, Roxa made a low snarling noise. She was clearly having just as much, if not more, trouble restraining herself.

But it was Jazz who took three quick steps forward, shoving her hands against the field firmly. Holding them there, she spat at her former teammate. “What the hell is wrong with you?! When did you become such a fucking psychopath?! You killed all those people, you son of a bitch!”

“Ah, well.” Holding his finger up, Isaac pointed out matter-of-factly, “Technically, I’m the only one in this entire group who’s actually doing our job like we’re supposed to. You know, hunting monsters? You might call that bit back on the ship an atrocity or whatever. But I’m pretty sure the Crossroads Committee would call me a hero. Oooh, maybe they’d even give me a parade.”

“Except for the part where you killed one of your own teachers,” Gordon pointed out from the back. His voice sounded brittle, like even he was close to snapping. When I looked that way, I saw that his hands were clenched into tight fists. “They would probably object to that.”

“Eh.” Isaac shrugged. “He was a traitor. I mean, not every traitor can be like Flicky’s mommy and just get her memory erased. Sometimes, you’ve just gotta…” He drew a finger across his throat, “Nip that shit right in the bud. But still, isn’t that kinda funny? You guys are all pissed off, sure. But when it comes right down to it, I’m actually more loyal to Crossroads than you are.”

“You’re a coward,” I informed him flatly. Glancing to Jazz, I stepped next to the girl to glare at him. “You just killed all those people. You killed Professor Katarin. So you should have all this power. But you’re still hiding behind hostages. Because you’re a coward. You’d rather hide behind all those innocent people than fight. Hell, even when you betrayed everyone, you did it with an entire ship, because you didn’t dare actually fight any of us.”

Pantomiming falling asleep on his feet, Isaac abruptly snorted and straightened up as though jolting himself awake. “What? I’m sorry, was that supposed to bother me? Hell, if I cared about fighting fair and all that, I probably wouldn’t have stabbed Paul in the back. I mean, technically it was the chest that I stabbed him in, not the back. But you know what I mean. No need to get nitpicky about those kind of details.”

“You fucking asshole!” Jazz slammed her fists into the field before jerking back a bit as one of the other Alters slumped to the ground, groaning weakly. We held our breaths, watching until it became clear that Jazz’s aura wasn’t popping up. The Alter was still alive.

Still, the other girl was trembling with rage. Her voice shook. “You sick fucking freak,” she snarled at Isaac. “What happened, did Paul figure out what a goddamn psycho you are?”

Isaac laughed at that, literally tilting his head back as he chuckled. “Figure it out? Nah, he was just sort of there. I was supposed to give my pal Fetch an opening to replace someone on the team and, well, Paul was right there in the van while we were watching Flickster’s house. I mean, you should’ve seen the look on his face. It was hilarious. I swear to God, it was so hard not to laugh when you guys were all talking to Fetch like he was Paul, while the real Paul was shoved into some magical freezer or something. It was just awesome.”

He sighed then. “But then you guys had to go and screw it up! All that work and you still insisted on talking things through with the Flickster instead of just going to the Committee to turn her in like we were supposed to!”

“Fuck you!” Jazz screamed, suddenly yanking her sword free. Flames lit up around the blade as she glowered through the forcefield. “You fucking–you stupid–you psycho piece of–you–”

“Easy,” Isaac taunted, waving his hand. “Use your words, Jasmine.”

“Use my wor–” the other girl reared back like she was going to hit the forcefield, barely catching herself. “You… you…” Shoving the weapon away, she pivoted, moving back the way we’d come at a sprint. “Yeah, let’s see just how brave you are with Haiden and Larissa here, asshole!”

Watching her go, the boy tilted his head, remarking, “Did she seriously just pull a literal ‘I’m gonna tell on you’? I mean, what am I supposed to…” Giving a sharp shake of his head as though putting that out of his mind, he shrugged. “Doesn’t matter anyway. See, I worked out the math, and even those guys can’t get through this shield without killing all my friends here. So I dunno what the hell she thinks she’s doing. But you know, no one ever accused Jazzy of being the sharpest knife in the drawer. And I know a little something about sharp knives.”

“God damn,” I put in then, my mind racing as I tried to think of something that could distract the boy long enough for Tabbris to get the shield down. “You really did hate pretending to be a decent human being, didn’t you? Now you won’t fucking shut up. Just how much do you love the sound of your own voice, anyway? I mean seriously.”

If he was offended by that, Isaac didn’t show it. He just winked at me before continuing what he had been saying before. “So the team totally screws up and doesn’t go to the fucking Committee like they’re supposed to, which meant that Manakel had to come up with this stupid plan, and I end up getting caught in between a rock and a hard place. I mean, I go through all that, play nice for that long and you guys just happen to run into a situation where you’re about to find out who Manakel’s possessing anyway? I couldn’t let that happen, cuz if Manakel goes down, he’d sell me down the fucking river in a heartbeat. So, you see, if you really think about it, all those Strangers died because of you.”

“They died,” Roxa snapped in a voice that made it clear that it was all she could do not to shift into her wolf form and tear into that forcefield, “because you’re a sick fucking monster.”

“No, no, no, see you’ve got it backwards again.” Isaac was grinning, clearly enjoying himself thoroughly. He’d been waiting a long time to actually show us his true colors. “I told you, I hunt monsters. You play Friendship Is Magic with them, and I stab them. I mean, I feel like what I really need right now is a black Impala and a brooding brother who is just like, the physical manifestation of manpain.”

Beside me, the other girl slowly shook her head. “What you really need,” she informed the boy through gritted teeth, “is my hand tearing your heart out of your chest and making you eat it.”

“So violent!” Isaac shook his head. “You sound upset, Roxanne. Maybe you should take a breath, and just meditate for awhile. I hear that too much anger is bad for werewolves. You don’t wanna lose control and go after your friends, do you? I mean, I’d find that hilarious, but you… probably not.”

Sands stepped forward then, gripping her mace so tightly in one hand that her knuckles were white. “You’re going to die, Isaac. Either you die here, or you come with us. Or you become a Seosten meat-puppet. There’s no way out of it. The Seosten, they’re gonna bitch-slap your little safety measure like it’s not even there and then one of them’ll shove his hand right up your ass and control you for the rest of your miserable life. That or they’ll just kill you and be done with it.”

Rolling his eyes at that, Isaac extended both arms to either side. “I think you underestimate my negotiating capability, Sandy-witch. I’ve got all this–”

In mid-sentence, I saw a hint of movement behind the boy. He seemed to sense it too, because his eyes widened and he suddenly started to turn. But it was too late. With a sudden flash of metal and roar of fire, a flaming sword whistled through the air. There was a dull, wet thump then, as Isaac’s dismembered hand hit the ground, accompanied by a shocked scream of agony as the boy stumbled backward, hitting the nearby wall.

And Jazz, standing there with her flaming falchion raised, snarled, “Oops. Was that the hand with your suicide spell on it? My bad.”

With another scream, this one of rage, the boy threw his hand out. Jazz was caught by an invisible force and thrown backward into the far wall hard enough that it made me flinch. A second later, the rocks expanded into a band that wrapped around her waist and arms.

“How?!” Isaac demanded then, his voice raised into something approaching a squeal. “You–you–” He clutched his already cauterized wrist as he stared that way, “How?! You can’t–that’s not–that’s–”

“I turn things intangible, remember, idiot?” the girl replied while she was pinned to the wall. “Things like that rock wall over there.” She nodded over her shoulder to the rear wall of the little room.

“I checked it!” he screamed, sounding like a little kid having a tantrum that someone wasn’t playing fair. “There’s fifty feet of rock between that and the nearest tunnel! You couldn’t get through it that quick!”

“Eh.” Lifting her chin, Jazz replied, “True. It would’ve taken me an hour to make enough of that rock intangible to walk through it. But you know what? It turns out–” Abruptly, her body shifted until she was a nearly-invisible fog as she used her mist-shifting power. Slipping right out of the band of rock that had held her trapped there, the girl reformed next to it. “I can still do that. Which means I really only need a space about that big-” She held up her index finger and thumb in a close circle a few centimeters apart. “-to get through. Small enough that you didn’t even notice it. Mist-form, turning walls intangible, making myself invisible, combining powers is awesome. Maybe if you weren’t an idiot, you could’ve figured that out.”

Isaac was shaking as he held his stump tight. I could see it already regenerating, the skin, muscle, and bones starting to reform quickly. After a second, I realized his shaking was laughter. “And yet, you still just fucking stand there. You think I can’t kill you with one hand? All that power I got, I could–” His undamaged hand flicked out, and a glowing forcefield, different from the ones that were blocking us, appeared around the girl. “You think you’re so smart?” he demanded wildly. “I could just shrink this forcefield to the size of a pea. Think your mist form could handle that? How about if I shrink it and then incinerate it? How about if I just fill the whole thing with acid? I could fucking kill you in two seconds.”

He was on a roll with his ranting by that point. “The Seosten chose me, you stupid bitch! You think you could beat me?  You weren’t even supposed to be a Heretic. You weren’t trained for this. You weren’t meant for it. You weren’t a second choice, or a third choice, or even a fucking tenth choice! You were the last choice! You’re here because you were the last one left! You’re a mistake. You’re a painfully average, lost little girl who’s only here because the bad guys didn’t care about her enough to bother killing her. You’re a fucking loser, a stupid fucking loser! You are a fucking moron! You don’t matter. You have never fucking mattered. Your own people wrote you off and only used you when they had no other choice. So you tell me, how exactly could you ever, ever beat me?”

Trapped by the forcefield as she was, Jazz slowly lifted her chin as much as she could while staring intently at the boy. “Well,” she drawled casually, “Maybe it’s just the painfully average loser in me talking, but if I was you, I would’ve figured out that I was just being distracted.”

“Just being dist–” With that, Isaac whipped back around, spinning back toward us.

But it was too late. Because the instant that the boy’s attention had been on the other girl, Tabbris had taken over, making me dart forward and down while yanking the field-engraver from my pocket before hurriedly scrawling some kind of spell in the floor. She didn’t bother to explain what she was doing, and I didn’t mind. I wanted her to focus.

And focus she did, rapidly drawing out an incredibly complicated series of runes that I couldn’t even begin to keep track of. Just as Isaac spun back, my hand finished scrawling the spell, and my mouth moved, blurting out several words I didn’t understand. As the last word left my mouth, I felt a rush of power leave me, like blowing out a long, heavy breath.

Isaac’s eyes were on us. He saw the field-engraver in my hand, saw the rune on the ground, heard the spell leave my mouth.

And then the forcefield that had been blocking us from him shattered. It broke apart like glass being hit with a brick before dropping entirely. Meanwhile, all those hostages… stayed upright. They were fine. They were fine! Tabbris had managed to disconnect them from feeding their life forces to the shield.

There was no more conversation. No pithy comments. Isaac was there. We were there. Nothing was standing between us except for open space.

Together, we went for him.

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Rendezvous 30-01

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Transporting an entire massive ship to some completely different part of the galaxy was an unbelievably impressive feat, for sure. There was no doubt about that. But honestly, I was pretty sure that in that particular moment, Larissa Mason would have teleported an entire continent out of her way without blinking if it had been standing between her and her daughter.

Staring at the woman now, I could see Sands and Scout in her. She wasn’t very tall, or imposing. She was quietly pretty, the same way they were. Not a bombshell, but more… classically attractive. Her eyes were green, with little flecks of brown in them that matched her hair. She wore what looked like dark gray cargo pants full of pockets, and a brown leather jacket of some kind.

“Sandoval,” she breathed out, more emotion filling that single word than I could have put in an entire book. Her eyes widened, and then she abruptly flung herself that way. Sands had time to make a choked noise before her mother hauled her up, and the two were embracing tightly.

“Mom, Mommy, Mom,” Sands was openly sobbing as she clung to her mother. Her words were pretty much babbling. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I couldn’t–I didn’t go. I didn’t go with you, I’m sorry. I should’ve gone, I should’ve gone with you, I could’ve been, I’m sorry, Mommy, it was dumb and I was trying to sleep but I wanted to go, I’m sorry, I wanted to see the whales, Mommy. Please, please.” At that point, the girl simply dissolved into completely incoherent stammering that itself faded quickly as she just held tight to her mom, burying her face into the woman’s shoulder.

“Oh, baby. My baby. Sandoval. It’s okay.” Holding her little girl close, Larissa kissed the top of her head and rocked her a little. “I’m here, my girl. My little Sandy. I’m here, I’m right here. I’ve got you, baby. I’ve got you. I’m here, my sweet little girl.” She kissed her daughter’s head again, nuzzling her tenderly. Both were crying.  

Maybe it should have surprised or confused me, at least a little bit, that the woman knew exactly which one of her twin daughters she was holding so quickly even after being separated from them for about seven years. But somehow… it didn’t. She was their mother. She just knew.

Turning away to give them a little bit of privacy, I tried not to think about my own mother. My mom. What was she doing right then? It had been months since I’d even been able to talk to her, and that had been through her monkey-figure. And before that, it had been… a sharp pang hit my stomach, and I gave a sharp shake of my head. Focus, Flick. Don’t be jealous. I was happy for Sands. Happier than I could possibly explain. Hell, she had spent most of the intervening years thinking that her mother was dead. To be reunited like this, it was… beautiful.

A voice said something beside me, and I looked over quickly to find Jokai there. Not that it was super-easy to see him, considering his skin kept taking on the coloration of his surroundings.

Biting my lip, I hesitated for a moment before asking inwardly, Hey, what did he say?

Oh, um. I could hear the emotion and longing in Tabbris’s voice. She missed her mother too. Hell, she had probably missed Larissa herself. H-he’s asking if he can go and tell the others that we’re safe for now, that we escaped. And that we should leave the mother and girl-child alone.

Smiling faintly, I gave him a little nod before holding up a hand for him to wait. Looking to the others, I announced, “We should probably check all those rooms we bypassed on the way up here. Unless…” Tabbris, translate for me, please? To Jokai, I asked, “Can you use anything up here to check how many living things are on the ship and see if we missed any guards?”

The response came quickly, and Tabbris translated. He says he already did that. It was um, it was one of the first things he did once we got up here, because he wanted to know if his people were about to be ambushed so he could warn them. He wanted to make sure they were okay. Oh, and he also turned off the ship’s security measures. The ones we didn’t destroy anyway.

From the look on the man’s face, he felt guilty about all that, like he was afraid that I would be angry with him for checking on his friends, or for turning off the security without being told to. As if it mattered what I felt. Shaking my head at that, I gave him a little smile that I hoped would manage to be reassuring. “Good,” I replied firmly. “Good job. See, that’s how we work together.” The words came from my brain in English, but by the time they reached my mouth, Tabbris translated them so that the chameleon-man could actually understand what I was saying.  

“Okay,” Isaac put in, arms folded over his chest as his three drones slowly revolved around him. “So for those of us who are out of the loop, that’s Sands’ and Scout’s formerly assumed dead mother, right? What the hell is she doing all the way out here, and… does that mean we have a way to get home now? Also, where the hell are we right now, and how far is it from those assholes? Oh, and while we’re at it, did she really just teleport an entire fucking spaceship and everything on it? Cuz I would really like to sign up for whatever god damn class teaches that.”

“It’s not a class, sorry.” The answer came from Larissa Mason herself, who stood there with her daughter’s back pulled tightly up against her front as she watched us. “Actually, it’s not something I could have done on my own. Not with the time frame that we were working with.”

Sands, clinging tightly to her mother’s arm, managed a confused, “But… but M-Mom, how are you here? How did you know to come, and how did you find us? What–what’s going on?”

“Oh, baby.” Brushing her free hand back through her girl’s hair, Larissa kissed her forehead. “It’s a long story. Let’s start getting everyone on the same page. I promise, I’ll explain everything.”

She looked to Jokai then, speaking briefly in Latin. Tabbris translated. “Sir, my name is Larissa Mason. I promise, I mean you no harm. This girl is my daughter, and these are her friends. I came to save them, but I am very glad to see that they have helped you and your people.”

After a brief hesitation, Jokai introduced himself, then repeated his request to go and talk to the other former prisoners to let them know what was going on. His voice was clearly nervous about talking to the adult Heretic, but he pressed on anyway, referring to her as Decanus Larissa.

Decanus, Tabbris whispered to me, it’s… it’s a rank in the Seosten military. A Decanus is the leader of a group of ten soldiers, a dec. They’re um, they’re basically like sergeants. I could still hear the longing in her voice. After so long away from her mother, seeing the woman who was supposed to have been pretty much another mother-figure to her before her disappearance had to be hitting Tabbris almost as hard as it was hitting Sands herself. It was obvious that she really, really wanted to reveal herself to the woman, really wanted to talk to her so very badly.

Don’t worry, Tabbris, I privately assured the girl. We’ll get a chance to talk to her. You’ll get to see her and let her know how you are, I promise. Let’s just find out what’s going on now, okay?

She hesitantly agreed, sounding embarrassed that I had picked up on just how badly she wanted to talk to the woman. By that point, Larissa had finished speaking with Jokai, telling him that his scans had been correct and that the ship seemed to be safe enough for him to go and talk to the other Alters. She told him to let them know that we would be in transit for a few days.

“A few days?” Isaac suddenly put in once Gordon, standing nearby, had translated the meaning. “Where are we going? Can’t you just… you know, poof us to wherever we need to be? Actually, we already teleported once. How come we’re not already where we need to be?”

Shooting the boy a look, I coughed before pointedly putting in, “I think what Isaac means to say is, we know that Professor Katarin got sent out here with you. Is he… is he close? Is he okay?”

The woman gave me a brief, searching look. Her expression changed for just a brief second as she met my gaze before getting herself under control. “Yes, Ulysses is alright. But he’s not here. We… “ She paused, considering her words. “When we got the message that you needed help, and where you were, there wasn’t time to get here normally, let alone with enough power to set off a spell that could transport an entire ship this size. That world that you were on has some powerful shields around it. It took pretty much all we had just to transport one person through with a strong enough mass transport spell to get this ship out of there. The others put everything they had into it. Even then, we couldn’t bring this ship all the way to where we are. We’ll have to go the rest of the way under the ship’s own power. Which, as I said, will take a few days.”

She gave a little smile then, clearly trying to reassure us as she hugged her daughter even tighter against herself. “Don’t worry. Like I said, Professor Katarin is fine. He exhausted himself with those spells, but he and the others should be recovered by the time we get back there.”

Right, so teleporting right past all the Seosten defenses and then transporting this entire giant ship somewhere else in the galaxy wasn’t something that Sands’ and Scout’s mother had done all by herself. It had taken a group effort from her, Professor Katarin, and Vanessa and Tristan’s father. And now we just had to be patient while the ship flew to meet the others. I could handle that, honestly. Aside from the sharp, painful reminder that Avalon and Shiori were still something like billions of lightyears away and that I was actually not any closer to having a way to get back to them, I really did need the downtime after what we had just gone through. Plus, it would give me a chance to talk to Larissa before things got crazy again. And I really needed to talk to her.

Jokai excused himself once more then, heading for the doorway with a brief promise that he would come right back and get the ship going as soon as he had a chance to talk to the others. Larissa assured him that we were far enough away from any Seosten ships that he could take his time, and that she would work on making sure the ship stayed undetected before we set off.

“I’ll, um,” Jazz started before hesitating. “I’ll go with him.” She gave Jokai a brief glance before straightening. “Not because I don’t trust him or anything,” the girl put in quickly. “Just because, you know, I can’t, um, do much up here anyway.” Looking self-conscious, her mouth opened and shut for another moment before she coughed and looked away, clearly uncomfortable.

“I’ll go with too,” Gordon put in. He nodded to his teammate, adding simply, “I can translate.”

Jokai babbled another long thank you, and the three of them started out. After a moment, Isaac shrugged and followed suit while muttering something about knowing how to read a room.

Which left Larissa, Sands, Roxa, and me. Sands was busy clinging to her mother, apparently trying to fit the million conversations that they had missed out on over the past seven years into a single five-minute time frame. I couldn’t blame her. If it had been my mother standing there in person after all this time, I probably would have been an even bigger wreck than Sands was. Hell, I would’ve been surprised if I managed to get coherent words out for the first couple hours.

Roxa stepped over close to me, dropping her voice to a whisper. “She was the one, wasn’t she?” the girl asked quietly, giving me a significant look while Gidget nosed up against my leg.

I nodded, reaching down to rub the cyberform cougar’s head absently. In turn, Gidget butted my hand before squinting at me pointedly. Realizing what she wanted, I quickly told Jaq and Gus to shift out of their weapon forms, before putting both of the mice on Gidget’s back. Before they could take off, however, I held up a hand. “Hey, don’t forget your brother, you guys. He gets to play too.” With that, I passed Herbie to them, letting the mice take the rock before they all went off to a corner of the bridge to do… whatever robot animals and pet rocks did in their downtime.  

“You are one really, really fucking weird girl,” Roxa pointed out with a raised eyebrow.

I shrugged, smiling despite myself. “I know, it’s goofy. But if we just forget how to be silly, if we’re all grr serious all the time, then… I mean, it kind of seems like what’s the point? I can be completely serious when I need to be. I’m not crazy or anything. I know what’s real and what’s not… usually. But in a situation like this, what does it hurt to goof around a little bit? It helps me remember that we’re different than they are. It helps me feel… well, sane. Maybe that’s dumb.”

“No.” Roxa shook her head. “No, I get it. You’re weird, but sometimes it’s good to be weird.”

Nodding, I glanced the other way before murmuring, “We should let Sands and her mom have some time alone. They deserve it.” God, did they ever deserve it. If I had my way, we would have walked off and left those two alone for a solid month before doing anything else, just so they could have the time they needed. Hell, while I was at it, I would’ve had Scout here too.

“Wait.” Larissa spoke up. She straightened, still holding onto her daughter tightly as she looked me up and down a little searchingly. “You’re… you’re Felicity, right? Felicity Chambers.”

“Wait, you know her, Mom?” Sands blurted before realizing. “Oh, from Professor Katarin.”

“And from something else,” her mother replied quietly. “Something that we need to talk about before this goes any further. Actually, there’s a lot that we need to talk about. But this is more important. I need to know if she…” She winced, looking to Roxa. “I’m sorry, this is going to sound unbelievably rude and wrong. But could you excuse us for just a few minutes, Miss…”

“Roxa,” the girl replied easily. “Roxa Pittman. And uh, it’s okay. I kind of know already. But I’ll step out in the corridor anyway, make sure nobody comes back in here while you’re… busy.”

“You know what–” Cutting herself off, Larissa glanced from the other girl to me and back again, her expression searching before her eyes widened with sudden realization. “Oh, my God. You really do know. And you–” She snapped her gaze back to me, taking a step closer. “You know, and you’re okay. She’s okay? She talked to you, and you’re… and you’re both alright?”

I nodded quickly at that. “I know about her. We’ve been talking for a couple weeks now. It’s kind of a long story, but yeah. She’s okay. She’s really… she’s really helped a lot. She’s amazing.”

“Um.” Sands was squinting back and forth at us, her expression completely (understandably) lost. “Could someone throw me a freaking bone here? What the hell are you guys talking about? Who’s amazing? What–how do you know Flick, Mom? How did you–what’s going on?”

Roxa gave me a nod before stepping outside to watch the corridor out there, while Larissa turned her daughter around to face her. “Okay, sweetie, we need to show you something very important. It’s probably going to make you… it’s probably going to scare you. But I promise, it’s alright, okay? Felicity–Flick is just fine. Everything is fine, alright? I promise, it’s okay.”

“But what’s okay?” Sands demanded, sounding just as confused. “I don’t understand.”

“Sands,” I spoke up then, meeting the girl’s gaze. “Your mom’s right. This is probably going to freak you out. But I swear, there’s nothing wrong. It’s me. It’s always been me, and it’ll still be me afterward, okay? Just hear us out, and… okay,” I shook my head. “Literally everything we’re saying right now is probably just making her feel even more freaked out. So let’s just show her.”

Carefully taking her daughter’s arm so that she wouldn’t do anything crazy, Larissa nodded to me. “Go ahead,” she announced, “it’s long past time that we all met face to face anyway.”

Sands opened her mouth to ask what that was supposed to mean. Meanwhile, I focused inwardly. It’s okay, Tabbris. You can come out now. You wanna see Larissa, right?

Y-yes. There was an intense, incredible longing in the Seosten girl’s response. I do. I-I…Trailing off, I felt her nervousness and longing build for the next few seconds until she finally went for it.

Sands was talking. “Would someone please just stop beating around the bush and tell me what–” She stopped in mid-sentence then, as the glowing figure stepped out of me. Her mouth fell open in total and complete shock while she watched the glowing shape resolve itself into the little blonde girl, who stood there nervously shifting from foot to foot.

“Wh-wha–what–” Stammering incoherently for a few seconds, Sands finally blurted, “Your inner child is fucking tangible?!” Her hands flailed briefly. “I mean–wait, no. You’re a… you’re a Seosten. But–but–”

“Sands,” I cut in. “It’s still me. I’m still me. See? All me. This… this is Tabbris.”

“But you–you were possessed?!” I was pretty sure there was almost nothing that could have shocked Sands more in that moment. Nothing, that was, except for when her mother took a knee and held her arms out.

“Come here, sweetie,” she called to Tabbris. “It’s okay.”

That was all it took. The little girl, who had been shifting nervously and cringing with every word that Sands spoke, quickly darted that way. She leapt the last few feet, throwing herself at Larissa, who caught the girl and brought her close into a hug that was almost as tight as the one that she had given her daughter.

“I’m so sorry, baby,” she whispered to the girl as Tabbris clung to her and whimpered. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there. You’re such a brave girl. Such a brilliant, brilliant brave girl.” To her actual daughter, she explained, “Sandy, this is Tabbris. She’s… Sariel’s daughter. I don’t know how much you–”

“Sariel’s daughter, like Vanessa? I–” Sands stopped. “Never mind. I am so beyond confused and lost right now, but I don’t care. You’re sure she’s okay?” She looked over to me.

I nodded. “She’s definitely okay. She protected us. She helped us. We’d be dead or enslaved if it wasn’t for her. She’s protected us a thousand times over.”

“Then you know what?” Shrugging pointedly, Sands announced, “For now, that’s good enough for me.”

And with that, she stepped over and embraced her mother and Tabbris, hugging onto them both.

There were still a lot of questions that we had to get through, a lot of problems to deal with. I had no doubt that all of this was going to get much worse. We were nowhere near getting home, still lost on the far side of the universe, surrounded by one of the most powerful evil empires that had ever existed. But for this one moment, as I watched Larissa’s reunion with both her daughter and Tabbris, all I could think was one thing.

Everything we have to do, everything we go through. All the pain, effort, and work. Everything, for moments like this.

It’s all worth it.

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Uprising 29-09

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A pair of strong hands caught both of my arms from either side as the portal winked out and the blast from my staff faded. Roxa was on one side, holding my right arm with both of hers, while Gordon had caught my left. A bit to the side, the Alter that I had pulled through with me went stumbling until Jazz caught him to stop the man from falling. It had been close, but we’d made it.

Made it, apparently, to an enormous room of some kind. As the others released me, I took a look around. The place was as long as three football fields set end to end, and equally wide. The floor was black grating, with some kind of red fluid running a foot or so below it, and there were tubes filled with a glowing orange fluid that served as a light source running along the floor about every ten feet. The walls were a dark red, almost black color, with more orange tube lights that ran along near the bottom and along the ceiling. Scattered here and there were huge metal crates about the size of shipping containers, with weird alien symbols all over them. One was open, revealing that it was about half full of glittering silver and blue minerals of some kind.

Right, minerals. Mining. We were on a mining ship. I remembered that. This room must have been some kind of cargo bay or something, where they held whatever they dug out.

“Pardons,” Karees spoke hesitantly, interrupting my examination of the enormous room. When my attention turned that way, I saw that all of the Alters that we’d just brought with us were staring at me. Just like they had been down on the planet below. “We are not out of the danger,” he intoned carefully, clearly trying to take the time to pick the right words. “There are the defenses and violent ones on this ship to protect it from what we are doing now. And the masters will come. It is not… intentions to be harmful rude bad, but if we are all to escape-”

I nodded quickly. “Right, um, where’s the–” Looking around, I spotted the doorway on the far side of the room. “There. Okay, Karees, keep your people here. We’ll deal with the defenses.”  

Jokai spoke up, raising his hand as he said something in Latin while looking earnestly to me.

He says he’s going with you, because he can fly the ship, Tabbris translated, sounding a little shaky herself from everything we had just witnessed back on the planet below. Because there won’t be time to come get him and get all the way to the bridge before the Seosten show up.

Biting my lip, I translated that for the others before nodding. “Okay, come on.” With a quick gesture, I pivoted to head for the doors. “Guys, we need to get to that bridge right now.”

We ran. Roxa, Gidget and I took the lead, with Jokai behind us. Sands and Isaac ran along either side of him, with Jazz and Gordon bringing up the rear. Whatever else happened, we had to keep Jokai safe. Because he was right, he was the only one who knew how to fly this thing.

“It’s a fucking escort mission,” Isaac muttered from behind me. “I hate fucking escort missions.”

I wasn’t going to dignify that with a response. Instead, I just kept going. The doorway from the big cargo bay led out into a corridor. Instead of the grated floor, this one was solid, a dark blue material that looked and felt almost like marble under our feet. The walls, meanwhile, were pure white, with blue trim about a third of the way up, and more of those pipes with glowing liquid for lights near the top. These were white rather than orange, leaving the corridor itself pretty bright.

It was a long corridor, that curved at the far end. All along the way, there were little hatches that led who knew where. But Jokai, who was the only one who actually knew where we were going, kept pointing forward. So we didn’t slow. There wasn’t time to check all the hatches. Not now.

“Flick, left!” Sands shouted. My eyes were already snapping that way, as my object sense registered something appearing there, just in time to see a small ball-like turret finish popping out of the ceiling. Its twin-laser cannons were just twisting around to face us as the other girl shot a ball of webbing at it that clogged the barrels. Before the thing could blast them free, I finished switching my staff into its bow form and drew back an energy arrow. It flew straight at the turret, blowing the thing off the ceiling with a screech of tearing metal.

A second turret had appeared along the right-hand side in that time. But that one was dealt with by Isaac’s trio of floating drones, which essentially ganged up on the thing to blow it away.

Finally, a third turret had popped out of the floor. This one was larger than the other two, more like something that would be manned by someone. Its twin cannons were as long as actual rifle barrels, and the thing was powering up to send a couple shots straight through us.

Or rather, it would have, if Gidget hadn’t thrown herself straight at the damn thing. She knocked it bodily off target, so that the twin laser blasts went up into the ceiling rather than hit any of us. With a snarl, the mechanical cougar bit down on the nearest barrel, snapping it off the turret after shaking her head back and forth like a dog worrying a bone. The barrel crumpled under her teeth before she tossed it aside. Then the second barrel was subsequently demolished under a couple hard slams from her front paws as she jumped up and down on it.

“Good girl!” Roxa called, taking a knee to give Gidget a tiny bit of the affection she deserved.

“Can you send those things ahead to scout?” I asked Isaac once the dust had settled and we were sure that none of us had been hit. “Make sure we’re not about to run into a better ambush.”

He made a face at the question. I got the impression that he didn’t like the idea of sending his weapon so far away from himself when he might need it. “Why can’t the big metal cat go?”

My mouth opened to snap at that, but I stopped myself. I understood his reluctance to send his weapon away, even if he wasn’t exactly that diplomatic about it. “Because your drones are faster, smaller targets, and they can fly,” I pointed out as patiently as possible. “And you can send two of them ahead to scout while keeping one back so it can communicate with them.”

For a moment, I thought that he was going to argue with that and waste even more time, as the boy stared at me long and hard. But in the end, his flat expression melted into a wide grin. “Great,” he abruptly replied as if there was nothing wrong, “just as long as there’s a reason.”

Two of the drones flew forward then, and we kept going. There were several more areas with turret defenses that popped out. But we were ready for them each time. As we continued through what turned out to be a literal maze of corridors, Jokai never hesitated. He seemed to know exactly where we were going, immediately pointing each time we came to an intersection.

Jazz spoke up after the fourth such area, grimacing as she gave a violent shake of her head. “You know, in the interest of avoiding certain cliches, I’m just gonna say that this has been the perfect amount of difficult. Yessiree Bob, all these random automated guns are exactly what I expected to find on this ship, and we are barely making it thr-oh son of a bitch.”

That last part came as a group of figures abruptly popped out of seemingly nowhere. They had clearly been invisible or something, because they were suddenly all around us. There were nine of them, six fairly humanoid in appearance and wearing a blue version of the black armor that we had seen previously, with white accents. The other three were larger and wore no armor, one of them looking like an oversized gorilla with massive arms and fists that were several times bigger than my head. Finally, the last two looked like crocodiles, except they had dozens of legs and a pair of long, scaled arms with nasty claws on the end of their hands. They were all pissed.

The nearest two guards snapped their guns up, even as I caught hold of Jokai’s arm and dove to the side. There was a squeal from the weapons, and a pair of orange energy blasts sailed through the air where we had just been. They collided with the wall, leaving a scorch mark.

In the background, I saw the trio of drones attacking one of the other guards, even as Sands webbed one of the gorilla-thing’s massive fists to the floor. Meanwhile, Gidget was leaping on a crocodile-monster, while Roxa lunged at the other one with a pants-wetting snarl.

Right, the others were doing their part. But I had to keep Jokai safe. And I knew how. Straightening up in front of the guards, I kept myself between them and the former prisoner. “Oh, no, lasers!” I blurted rather unconvincingly, holding my arms out to either side. “Please, whatever you do, don’t shoot me with your lase–”

They shot me with their lasers. Both of the guards that I was facing opened up, firing several more orange blasts directly into my chest and stomach. Blasts which did precisely diddly squat, thanks to Doxer’s power and the fact that I was ready for them. The energy absorption gift that I had inherited from that son of a bitch meant that the lasers barely tickled. I felt their power like a heat in the pit of my stomach, and a tingling in my arms that I needed to get rid of.

So I did. Throwing my hands out, I pictured the energy leaving me. The shots flew back the way they had come, sending the thoroughly surprised guards to the floor with a pair of screams. A second later, I felt the familiar wave of pleasure that made me gasp.

Unfortunately, it was a really bad time for something like that to happen. Another of the guards had come at me with some kind of black metal blade. He had clearly timed his attack for the moment when the Heretic killgasm should have left me unable to defend myself.  

Except, I wasn’t the only one piloting this particular body. While I was briefly distracted by the rush of pleasure, my hand jerked up to snap my staff into place to block the man’s descending sword smacking it aside. The guard seemed completely surprised by my quick reaction, stumbling a bit as he tried to recover. Too late, my staff spun around, and crashed into the side of the man’s head to send him crashing to the floor.

Recovered by that point, I blurted, Thanks, Tab! Then I brought my foot down on the guard’s back while spinning my staff up and around into position. With a grunt, I drove the bladed end down through his neck, turning his cry into a gurgle that was quickly cut off as yet another wave of pleasure filled me.  

That was three of the six humanoid guards down. And as I quickly looked up, my searching gaze found Jazz practically laying atop the body of another one, her sword driven through his head as her aura flared up around her and she panted from the effort. Meanwhile, Isaac and his drones had just dealt with the fifth guard, while Gordon was finishing off the sixth and final humanoid figure with his tommy gun.

That left the three non-humanoid guards. First, there were the two crocodiles, one of which was being torn apart by a vicious Gidget. The thing kept trying to bite her, but she barely seemed to notice, basically throwing herself into its mouth and taking it apart from the inside.

The other crocodile, meanwhile, wasn’t faring any better against Roxa. She had half-shifted into her wolf-form, fur covering over her skin while her face had bulged out. The body of the crocodile was torn open around the stomach, its internal… parts spilling out while Roxa herself kept ripping into it mercilessly.

Which left the gorilla. With a roar, the thing tore its oversized hands free of the webbing that had held it down. It beat its chest twice, then lunged for Sands.

The other girl… suddenly wasn’t there. Oh, she was there, but not in the spot where she had been standing. Sands was abruptly moving almost fast enough to be a blur. She twisted away from the outstretched gorilla hands, spinning to the side before slamming her mace into his face. She connected with enough force to snap the big furry monster’s head backward with a cry. Without pausing, she leapt up, smacking him again before dropping to run behind him. Her mace crashed into the back of the gorilla’s left leg, before she was suddenly around to his right.

Sands wasn’t quite a blur. I could follow every motion she made. But she was faster, much faster than she should have been. Which was especially devastating in these close quarters. And, unless I missed my guess, she was stronger than she should have been as well.

Oh! It’s the boost, Tabbris whispered. That um, that S-Seosten she killed, she got his boost power. She can make herself several times faster and stronger than she should have been, for a short time. She, uh, she probably doesn’t even know how she’s doing it.

Whether Sands knew how she was doing it or not, she was definitely using it. As the gorilla reeled backward and stumbled to one knee, she was back in front of it again. Her mace swept upward, conjuring a metal wall up to about chest-height (her chest, not the gorilla’s). Then she leapt up and over it, landing on the gorilla’s back. I just barely had time to see that there were spikes in the wall before Sands’ forceful collision with her opponent’s back drove it crashing down, literally impaling its neck on the spikes in the wall. Even that didn’t kill the thing, though it did slow it down an awful lot.

And Sands wasn’t done yet. Still crouching on the gorilla’s back, she made a sweeping motion with her mace that made the metal wall she had created extend itself up and around the monster, trapping it by the neck and one arm. It was like the thing was locked in some kind of medieval stocks. It heaved and growled, struggling to break its way free. But before the metal could do more than groan a little, Sands was moving. She launched herself up off the monster’s back, turned in mid-air, and came down with her mace outstretched. There was one last, almost pitiful howl from the thing before the blow landed. Then it was over. The force of the blow against the gorilla’s trapped head had… separated it.

Sands was on the floor, mace lying beside her as her aura flared up once again. She was gasping for pleasure. But there wasn’t time to wait. I grabbed the girl, pulling her to her feet while Roxa picked up the mace. Then we were running once more, with Jokai right behind us. The former slave was babbling something that Tabbris quietly translated as awe for what we had just done. I mostly tuned it out, focusing on where we were going. There would be time to deal with what we’d just done later. For the moment, every passing second was another second where Radueriel could show up. And as well as we were doing with the mooks, I had no doubt that we would be completely screwed if we had to fight him directly.

We hadn’t gone much further before reaching a pair of circular doors, which slid apart as we approached, granting entrance to a room that was immediately obvious as the bridge. Straight ahead was a floor to ceiling window or possibly just a viewing screen of some kind that showed the starfield beyond, with the planet taking up the bottom third. The room itself was shaped like a crescent, or a slightly widened letter C. The screen took up the open space between the two points of the C, while the doorway where we were standing was opposite it, right in the middle of the C’s curve.

In the middle of the room there were three rugged-looking seats, with control panels in front of them. Meanwhile, the walls of the bridge were lined with an assortment of computers and screens, with a several more chairs scattered here and there.

“Jokai, can you get us out of here?!” I blurted, looking to him quickly.

In response, the former slave spoke a single word that was clearly an agreement before darting straight for the middle seat. He practically dove into it, hitting a few buttons before he had even finished straightening up. The ship came alive around us. I felt a slight vibration beneath our feet as the engines came online. Jokai himself was babbling something excitedly while gripping what looked like a steering yoke to turn it.

The ship didn’t exactly have a tight turning radius. It seemed to groan in protest while slowly coming around, leaving the sight of the planet to face open space.

Or… what should have been open space. Instead, we found ourselves facing another ship. A much, much larger and frankly terrifying ship. The thing was shaped kind of like a giant hammerhead shark, with a slight bulge just behind the ‘head’ where I thought the bridge was. Where the hammer part of the ‘hammerhead’ was, a dizzying array of guns were lined up. Its ‘mouth’ was permanently open, revealing a much, much larger cannon that looked like it could blow our entire ship apart all by itself. And along both fins were open areas where I could see smaller fighter-type craft arranged.

We were all still staring as the screen abruptly changed. Now, taking up half the view was a face. A familiar one.

“Well,” Radueriel announced from what looked like the bridge of his own ship, “I will give you this much… you came very, very close. But the games are over now. There are no more hidden codes to save you. I will give you to the count of, shall we say, four. If you do not surrender, I will cut my losses and remove that ship and everything on it from existence. One–”

“Flick!” Sands was looking to me. “What do we do?”

My head was shaking, even as the others called out similar questions. “I don’t–”

“Two–” Radueriel continued with exaggerated slowness. He was in no hurry to finish us off.  

My desperately searching eyes settled on one figure then: Jokai. He was still sitting in the pilot’s chair. Meeting my gaze, the normally petrified Alter simply met my gaze. He wasn’t shaking, wasn’t babbling. His fear was gone. Not because he wasn’t in danger, but because whatever happened next, would happen on his terms. He might die, but he would not die as a slave. He would die fighting.

“Three–” Radueriel’s voice droned.

“Do it,” I told Jokai, giving him a nod.

Whether he understood what the actual words meant, or just the intention, I didn’t know. Either way, his hand grabbed the controls, and he started to send the ship forward, toward the massive Seosten battleship (or whatever it was called) ahead of us.

“What the fuck?!” Isaac screamed. “What the hell are you doing?! We can’t fight that thing, just–” He stumbled along with the rest of us as the cannons on the other ship immediately opened up. We were pummeled mercilessly, and I was pretty sure that only the heavy shields and armor that they’d mentioned kept us alive through that first barrage.

It wouldn’t last. That big main cannon was already glowing. One shot and it would completely blow us apart. One shot and we would be dust.

“Four,” Radueriel finished. “As you wi–”

There was a brief flash of blue light, and a figure appeared in the middle of the bridge, right in front of the screen. I barely had time to notice the presence before they dropped to one knee, slamming both hands to the deck with something held tightly in each. A voice blurted a six syllable spell of some kind, and then the entire world went white.

It faded, and the view through the screen was different once more. Radueriel’s face had disappeared, as had the sight of his ship. Not because it was gone, but because we were. There was no planet around us, and the starfield was slightly changed. We had moved. The entire ship had moved.

The spell, the spell that the mysterious, suddenly arrived figure had cast. It had moved the entire ship somewhere completely different.

As I realized that, my eyes snapped toward the person who had just saved us. The figure had risen once more, pushing themselves up from the floor before turning to face us. “Is everyone okay?”

One word met the newcomer’s question, one single, quiet, trembling word that filled the otherwise silent bridge. 

“… M… mommy?” Sands whispered.

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Uprising 29-08

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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 Charmeine hadn’t left herself open like th–”

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

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

The Relukun nodded. “Charmeine 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 Charmeine 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. 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 Charmeine 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. Charmeine 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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