It was a somewhat different feeling to be on the other side of watching a person come out of the delirious half-unconscious pleasure state that followed killing someone incredibly powerful. As Avalon’s eyes popped open and she started to reflexively gather herself, my hand found her arm. “It’s okay,” I quickly assured her. “It’s alright, it’s only been a few seconds.” Moving just a little bit out of her field of view so she could see that all the consoles were still dark, I added, “We did it. He’s gone and he didn’t have a chance to send off a message.”
After saying that, I took a few deep breaths. That had been… a lot. A thought of how close we had come to losing and fucking over everyone with us, as well as the entire population of this prison, flashed through my mind before I was able to shove it aside. Worrying about almosts wasn’t important right now. No matter how close it had been, we still won in the end. We won against a much stronger and older opponent. We survived, we pulled it out, we beat him together. A part of me wanted to be giddy about that, but I pushed that down as well. Now wasn’t the time for any of it, good or bad. We still had stuff to focus on.
Avalon was quiet for a moment, her eyes moving to where the body of a Heretic lay, then to where his head had rolled a few feet further off. A slight grimace crossed her face before she gave a short nod and pushed herself up with a little help from me. She still seemed a little unsteady, so the boost from that kill must really have been something. Her hand moved to touch the dark console next to us as the girl managed a smile of relief in my direction. Then she blinked. “Twister?”
“Right here.” The girl in question was squirming out from a hole in the machine in the middle of the room that linked up to the antennae above. “Just chewing on a few wires and ripping out some shit in there that looked important. You know, making it even harder to fix this thing. Not that I don’t trust your toy over there, but…”
“Redundancy is good,” Avalon agreed flatly. She had recovered enough by that point to take her hand off the console and stand by herself. “We need to check on Professor Kohaku.”
“I’m well, thank you.” Kohaku herself had just appeared at the top of the stairs. She looked a little ragged, enough that I could tell whatever happened down there had been rough. But she was alive, just like us. She won her fight.
Well, maybe she did. Before blindly accepting that, Avalon and I exchanged quick glances. Then the other girl looked back to our teacher. “How long do we have?”
A tiny smile played across the Asian woman’s face before she answered simply, “Until the stars fall on Rome.” Having said that, she added, “Very good, I was afraid you would forget.”
“Forget to use the password to confirm you weren’t a shapeshifted enemy?” I retorted. “I’m pretty sure if we did that, Wyatt would spontaneously appear in front of me and kick my ass.” He, in point of fact, had been the one to insist that we have a system of codes and responses that we had all had to memorize, each intended to blend into normal conversation so the other person wouldn’t know they were being tested.
By that point, Kohaku had moved over to kneel next to our dead Heretic. She carefully turned over the man’s head, looking at his face. A momentary flash of recognition crossed her features before she schooled herself and gave a short nod. “Esh, I should have known he’d be the one up here.” With that, she drew what looked like a folded-up neckerchief or bandana from her pocket. But when she unfolded it and shook it out, the thing was the size of a blanket. Using her foot, she pushed the man’s head over by the body, then laid the blanket over it. A few seconds passed, before the blanket collapsed flat against the floor. His body had vanished.
“That,” I muttered, “is still one of the darkest magic tricks I’ve ever seen.”
“We’ll search the body for anything useful and then return him to his family once this is over,” Kohaku informed us. “We may be enemies in this, but we are not monsters. His loved ones will have the chance to bury him.” She paused, glancing out the window toward the ground where she had fought the other Heretic. “Both of them.”
That said, the woman pushed herself back up and looked to the three of us, as Twister was brushing her hands off just beside me. “You did well. Not that that is a surprise at this point, but it should still be said. This man was incredibly dangerous. You–” She stopped, seeming to consider her next words before simply finishing with, “I’m very glad that you all made it.”
“Me too,” Twister piped up. “I was half-expecting to take one for the team just so the universe could convince these two that it was a serious situation, you know? Dying might not be permanent for me, but it still fucking sucks.”
Smiling just a little despite myself, I reached out to pat the girl on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, we knew just how serious the situation was. I’m sure the universe knew that and spared you.”
Avalon had already moved to stand by the nearby window, finding a spot that hadn’t been spiderwebbed by having our bodies slammed into it repeatedly. “What about the others? Do they need help?”
Holding up a small yellow stone between two fingers, Kohaku shook her head. “It seems they are still working on their part. We must be patient.”
Tempting as it was to head right out and go down to help the others with the scanning system, that wasn’t the plan. We were supposed to stay here and make sure someone didn’t come along and get a head start on fixing the communications, or simply notice it was down and alert the rest of the camp, before the truck arrived with the others. The stone that Kohaku had would turn green to indicate that the other group had finished their part and everything was ready, just as a stone they had would have turned it green once Kohaku triggered it to do so. If the stone turned red, it meant there was a huge problem and we needed to go help. The fact that it was still yellow meant while they weren’t done yet, things were still on track.
So, we spread out to each watch out one side of the tower. Hopefully, everything would stay quiet for the few more minutes we needed. According to what little we knew about this place (including a bit we’d learned on the way over here thanks to some journals and notes in the truck), there shouldn’t be a shift change anytime soon. Still, we weren’t going to take that for granted. Anything could happen, and I found myself staring through the window at the gray-black forest below (I had the rear-most side of the tower facing away from the prison itself) silently pleading with any force in the universe that would listen to just give us this. Our group already had to face two full, adult Heretics instead of the one we were expecting. We were supposed to have had Kohaku with us when we faced the guy in this tower. That went wrong and we still pulled through. So please, let that be the only thing that went wrong. Don’t let these guys have yet another friend stop by just to say hello or something. We had done enough. It was already going to be a huge fight once the others got here and things really blew up. Please, just give us these few minutes to rest.
With those thoughts running through my mind while I leaned against the window and caught my breath, I spoke up toward the other three. “This really is a waste, you know? Those two Heretics could be doing so many good things. They’ve been around for a long time, they were strong. They–” I stopped, grimacing once more as I fought to find the right words. “But they’re here, guarding slaves, and they don’t even see the problem with that. They’re so convinced that anyone who isn’t human must be irredeemably evil that they won’t even take a step back and look at what they’re doing. How does that happen? How do people become so indoctrinated that they’re okay with doing stuff like this and still see themselves as heroes?”
“For some, they enjoy it,” Kohaku reminded me. “They are simply evil and broken from the start. They enjoy the power. Others truly believe they are doing good and that everything, even the most distasteful parts of the job, are better than the alternative. And… and for many it is like water carving a ravine. It may take many years, but the water steadily wears against the rocks, slowly carving through them. The things otherwise good people will accept become worse over time, as they make moral concession after moral concession in the name of what they consider the greater good. There are many who, at the beginning of their careers, would see this place and feel disgust and horror. Perhaps even enough to bring them to our side. But over time, they find themselves accepting more and more terrible things, gradually working their way up to seeing a place like this as a necessary evil. Or even a good thing.”
“A good thing?” I echoed those words, forcing myself not to turn away from staring out at the forest. “How could this be a good thing, exactly?”
It was Avalon who spoke. “Because at least the ‘monsters’ here are being put to work doing something useful. They’re being stopped from hurting and killing innocent humans. The ‘evil’ inside them is being suppressed. I–there are some who think that these camps might even help make Strangers good, eventually. They think that if enough of them are taught like this and raised in these conditions, the evil can be bred out of them.” There was a brief pause, before she muttered, “Like domesticating dogs.”
Wow, there was a lot I wanted to say to that, but I couldn’t find the words. On the other side of the room, however, Twister summed it up fairly adequately with a flat, “That’s fucked up.”
“And yet,” Kohaku murmured, “an accurate depiction of how some of these people think. It is how they justify it to themselves, claiming that some evil is required to prevent even greater evil. And yes, some may truly believe that they are doing the prisoners in this place a favor by domesticating them. Horrific and absurd as it may seem to us, they see it as completely reasonable, and even noble. That is something you must understand. Many of them believe they are doing good things here, that they are saving not only the people they think their prisoners would kill, but their prisoners themselves. Or their prisoners’ children. They believe that, in the long run, this is how humanity will form an alliance with non-humans, by domesticating them, taming them, teaching them to behave as we do.”
Squirming uncomfortably on my feet, I sighed. “Sounds like they would have been right at home ‘teaching’ the Native Americans back in the old west pioneer days.”
“Some come from those days,” Kohaku pointed out. “Or from Roman colonization, or British, or…” She paused, a sigh escaping her. “Suffice to say, humans have something of a history of believing in this sort of thing. No matter how often it is proven to be terrible. In many ways, we are a slow-learning species.”
We all fell silent then, absorbing that and thinking about it while keeping our watch. Thankfully, things stayed quiet. I couldn’t see anyone approaching the tower, and none of the others raised any alert either. Which gave us these few minutes to stop and collect ourselves. Not that it was very restful. I kept glancing now and then toward the center console, where Kohaku had placed the yellow stone. I was praying for it to turn green while half-expecting to see a bright red glow at any second. Sands, Sarah, and Tangle were on their own out there. Flashes of terrible thoughts of what might have happened to them because we weren’t there kept shoving their way into my mind, no matter how often I shoved them out again. If this went wrong, if they ran into trouble and weren’t able to signal for help, they could have been captured already. They could be hurt, or worse, or… or…
A sudden shift of light filled the room, and my gaze snapped back toward the stone so fast I felt a slight pop in my neck. Green. It was green. The stone had turned a brilliant, gleaming emerald color.
“They did it,” I blurted, then realized what that meant. “So did we. The communications and the scanners are down, and I don’t…” Pausing, I tilted my head, listening as intently as I could. “I don’t hear any alarms. Did… did we do it?”
Kohaku’s voice was firm, yet I could hear her underlying relief. “Let’s not lose ourselves in celebration until we are all on our way with the prisoners in tow, Miss Chambers. But yes, we do seem to be well on-track for the moment. The others would not have signaled green until they completed their mission and were on their way here to meet up with us.”
It would have been nice, of course, to have them guarding the scanners just in case someone noticed something wrong there, but that had felt like pushing our luck too far. The scanners would still work, or at least they would appear to. But the trio down there had been installing something into their system that would make every scan turn up clean. Which, given how soon the rest of our friends were supposed to be here, would hopefully go unnoticed until it was too late. The Eden’s Garden people would be able to figure out something had been done if they did a decent inspection of their equipment, but we were really hoping that we weren’t unlucky enough to end up having one of those happen between the time we screwed with their system and when the others showed up. I wasn’t dismissing the possibility of course, given some of the bad luck I’d seen, but still. All our fingers were crossed that we would catch a break this time.
Now I was really watching carefully. The sun was on its way down, spreading darkness quickly, but there was enough light that I could barely see to the edge of the treeline. Assuming they followed the plan, the other trio would circle around the long way and approach the tower from the back to avoid drawing any attention from the prison. So they would be coming out of the forest right below me. For the next few minutes, I felt my anxiety rising despite telling myself that it made perfect sense for them not to be here yet. They had to be careful, had to move slowly and make sure to go far enough around the mountain before climbing and making their way through the forest. I couldn’t let myself imagine the worst just because they hadn’t come into view. They’d be here soon, they would–
Oh thank fuck, there they were. The second I saw the trio come into view right at the edge of the treeline, I let out a breath of relief. Which was apparently enough to draw everyone else’s attention. They were all glancing my way, before Avalon spoke. “All of them?”
“All three,” I confirmed, before reaching into my pocket to produce a small coin. Pressing it against the window, I triggered the spell that would make it flash blue, then red, then blue again. My eyes were intently watching the trio who had just stepped cautiously out of the woods. When they saw the quick flashes of color, Sands produced a coin of her own. It flashed yellow, then red, then blue. The correct return signal. It was really them. Or someone who had possessed them, read their minds, tortured them into–for fuck’s sake, knock it off! I had to shove those thoughts down hard, before giving the return white flash to show that it was safe. Then I turned back to the others. “They’re coming.”
“Good,” Kohaku replied simply, her gaze remaining on the window overlooking the prison camp far below, and the towers where the guards were patrolling. “I’m sending the signal to let the others know the path is clear.” Even as she said that, the woman produced a small piece of what looked like red sandstone, shaped like half of a ball or an orb. It was known as Carver’s Stone. Whatever happened to one half would happen to the other, no matter how far away it was. When Kohaku clenched her fist, crushing the stone into dust, the matching half of it that was back with Deveron’s group would fall apart too. They’d know we were done here and it was safe to make the last jump. Not immediately, of course. But they would be on the way soon. And then this whole situation would get even more interesting.
Tangle and the twins made it up into the tower a minute later, and we were all reunited. While the three adults (Twister counted despite appearances otherwise) stepped aside to confer and watch the camp below, Avalon and I told Sands and Sarah how our thing had gone. They, in turn, told us about the tough Heretic who had taken all three of them to lure out into the woods and deal with. That was what had taken so long, they had to get the guy away from his post without giving him reason to call for help, then ambush him inside a sound-dampening spell.
“But Tangle dealt with him?” I asked, glancing over my shoulder to where the woman was quietly talking to Kohaku.
“Not exactly.” Clearly unable to keep all the pride out of her voice, Sands nudged her sister. “I mean yeah, we would’ve been slaughtered if she wasn’t there. She… she saved our lives, took a few hits we couldn’t have. But Sarah got the… you know.”
Sarah, for her part, spoke in a flat voice. “I was lucky. Professor Tangle had his attention.”
“Unlike you guys,” Sands pointed out, glancing around at the cracked windows. “Sounds like you fought the guy in here with just the three of you.”
“Mostly the two of them.” That was Twister, leaving Tangle and Kohaku to join us. “I got sidetracked through a lot of it, thanks to that fucking fire construct.”
My head shook as I nudged her. “But you were here when it mattered. It took all three of us to handle that guy. So thanks for that.”
With a grin, the young-looking Pooka winked at me. “You can pay me back with dinner when we get home.”
Before I could respond to that, Kohaku spoke up. “There.”
It was a single word, but we all knew what it meant. Immediately, we moved to join her and Tangle. Looking far below, we could see a pair of truck headlights coming up the single road on the far side of the compound. Apparently the reason the truck didn’t transport directly into the prison was another safety measure. Somehow, they didn’t like the idea of people being able to teleport right into the center of the compound. Which was just baffling. So, the jump point was a half-mile or so away. And that worked out just fine for us, as it gave the group a chance to let Deveron and the Dornan cousins out ahead of time.
The headlights got brighter as the truck approached, and we could see a couple spotlights from the guards move to illuminate it. Tribald Kine would be behind the driver’s seat, shapeshifted to look like one of the delivery people we had fought back on Earth. And with their scanners down, the guards wouldn’t have any idea that he wasn’t the right guy.
Sure enough, the gates opened, and the truck came pulling into the center of the now-brightly lit compound. Some guards were approaching the back of the truck, ready to open it up to help offload the supplies.
Unfortunately for them, that was when Deveron and the Dornans made their presence known. Specifically, by appearing right in the middle of the road that the truck had just traveled down, in front of the outermost gate. The three of them announced their arrival by producing what looked like an oversized rocket launcher. But this didn’t fire a physical rocket. Instead, a blast of energy, as wide as I was tall, erupted from the thing. And that beam of energy passed right through the gates that were still in the midst of closing, striking the supply truck before blowing it to smithereens.
Or at least, appearing to. It was all a lot of smoke and mirrors, of course. The truck itself had actually been teleported by the beam, replaced with a whole bunch of rubble that looked an awful lot like the destroyed truck. Our friends were hidden inside that rubble, magic keeping them from being detected. When the guards glanced that way, all they would see was smoldering pieces of metal, wheels, and other bits. A full examination would have revealed the truth, of course. But they didn’t have time for that. Their attention was very focused on Deveron and the Dornans.
Now the alarm was blaring, and there were dozens of figures all running to the gate.
“Well,” I announced, “you can’t say we don’t know how to make an entrance.”