Isaac Acosta

Interlude 37B – Chayyiel

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“Miss Chayyiel? I mean, um, Seraph, are you okay?”

Chayyiel heard the man’s voice, but for a moment, the girl who had been ten years old for millennia gave no response. She stood there in the rounded, tube-like corridor of the spaceship with her head down, her pixie-cut black hair too short to fall into her eyes the way she wished it would. That might allow her to hide the pain in her expression.

Manakel was dead. He was gone forever, wiped away, never to live again. Dead. Forever.

The news had only just come through, right when they had been in the middle of a very important operation. In mid-battle, even. She’d taken the information, walked three more steps along the same way she had already been going on what amounted to autopilot, then stopped. Right there in the middle of that corridor, Chayyiel had stopped, lowered her head, and let the actual truth of the news wash over her.

Her escorts all looked at one another. There were six of them, each powerful Seosten in their own right, they exchanged glances briefly before the one who had spoken before did so again. “Ma’am, do you need to call this off? If–um, if you need time…”

There were many people, both in and out of the Seosten species, who would have questioned why Chayyiel felt even a moment of remorse and mourning for a being like Manakel. And she even understood that. The things he had been responsible for, the people he had hurt and killed, she knew exactly why the general instinct for most was to add spit, rather than flowers, to his grave. But the truth was that the grief that she felt then was less for the man he had died as, and more for the man he had been before. Or rather, the man that she had seen him as when she was a child, growing up in the corridors and decks of the Olympus.

Manakel back then had given the young Chayyiel, a child with far too much power thrust upon her at such a tender age, comfort. He had taught her to enjoy tea and gardening, and had allowed her to enter his quarters at any point to play with his Dymenian rastfels. He’d even taught her to care for her own pets whenever she insisted on having them, drawn from the various worlds they visited. He had read her stories from his books to help her sleep, and had tutored her in several subjects. He was one of her guardians, one of her tutors, one of her friends. That was the man she grieved for in those few seconds. Those were the memories that played through her mind.

A Seosten’s memory was perfect. Which made it harder for someone’s current atrocities to entirely eclipse the thoughts of what he had once been. It was too easy to focus on the good parts.

Finally lifting her head, Chayyiel pushed those thoughts away. That was the other thing about having a perfect memory. It was easy to stop the thought process you were having and get right back to it later without missing a beat. “No,” she said quietly while already starting to walk again, “this is too important. We’re not abandoning the mission now.”

Her escort fell into formation around her, allowing Chayyiel to lead the way through the ship corridor. The ship was called the Alisper’s Craet, and it was a fast, heavily armored vessel without much in the way of weaponry. What it did have, however, were special clamps that allowed it to hook onto other vessels or stations, cut through the hatches or even the walls there, and attach their own boarding tubes. The Craet was a boarding and raiding ship.

The corridors of this ship were so different than that of the Olympus. There, the halls had been more square than rounded, and larger. There had been a less utilitarian look to them as well, as the ship was intended to be lived in comfortably away from regular civilization for many years. The Olympus had been meant for long excursions far away from regular Seosten space. And over time, the walls of the ship had been decorated by the people serving aboard it. Here and there had been pictures drawn or taken, or paintings, or any other bit of art and personality. The ship had been lived in. It had been a home, and for awhile, the people on it had been a family.

A few more steps, and the sound of laser-fire reached the group. Chayyiel and her escort picked up their pace, jogging down the corridor before reaching one of those boarding tubes. It had been extended to their target, and a group had already taken up position on either side of the opening. Like the group with her, there were six of them. In their case, however, none were Seosten. About half were very obviously different, two being rather massive ogres (their ten-foot tall bodies would barely fit into the boarding tube if they hunched over) while the third was a tiny pixie. The remaining three were roughly humanoid and wore the standard issue black armor and helmets.

All six carried guns of various sizes, and were already using them to send a continuous hail of laserfire down the boarding tube even as Chayyiel and the others approached. They spared  glances to the new arrivals, but didn’t do anything stupid like waste time greeting them or saluting. Chayyiel had broken them of that habit as soon as possible.

Instead, they kept shooting, even as the Seosten with the girl spread out, each moving to one of the non-Seosten. One by one, in perfect coordination both amongst themselves and between each of the two groups, a non-Seosten would briefly stop firing, and then their Seosten partner would possess them, stepping into the body before resuming their attack.

Partner. That was the operative term, and it was the only way Chayyiel, as Seraph, allowed anyone under her command to work. If you were a Seosten, you were matched with a non-Seosten partner that would be drawn from a pool of volunteers. A team of both psychologists and combat trainers alike would match Seosten to the volunteer they saw as the most likely fit. The Seosten and their non-Seosten host would then both work and train together, learning how to function as partners. Once a week, both would be interviewed separately to ensure that the partnership was proceeding properly and that the Seosten was not abusing their host as was so common in most other parts of the Empire. The non-Seosten beings were treated as being just as important as the actual Seosten were, and were provided wages, rights, and benefits to suit that. Within the ships, stations, and planets that were under Chayyiel’s command as part of the Seraphim, abusive Seosten did not last very long. Chayyiel couldn’t keep track of everyone under her command. But she could keep track of those most loyal to her, and they in turn kept track of those under them, and so on down through the ranks.

And so the Seosten and Non-Seosten partners linked up there without any hesitation or awkwardness. Their shooting continued, while Chayyiel herself moved to the open docking tube, looking that way. Several bodies, random assortments of biological monstrosities that were the Fomorian footsoldiers (not actual Fomorians, but the creations they sent to do their dirty work) lay scattered along the tube, while a few more continued to try rushing forward. One ran on four legs and looked a bit like the animal known as a moose on Earth, save for its much sharper horns rather than the antlers of that creature, while the other two loped along like oversized apes with more reptilian features and scorpion-like tails. None seemed affected by the laser-fire.

They were, however, vulnerable to other things. And as Chayyiel looked at them, her power took over.

Left-most reptilian-primate very slightly limps on his right side. Right primate brash and easily manipulated through temper. Does not limp like the other. Both are invulnerable to most forms of energy, meant to combat Seosten lasers specifically. Blunt and blades similarly ineffective. Fire negated. Cold a possibility. Not particularly weak, but not specifically protected against it. Poisons, many ineffective, few esoteric possibilities. Eyes only one-quarter as resistant to lasers as the rest of the body–protection comes mainly from scales. Scales vulnerable to sufficient pressure at one specific angle. Tails segmented, protected similar to body but vulnerable at the joining point between sections.–

Taking in the moose-like creature at the same time, her power continued. —Quick runner, fast-acting paralytic toxin on horns. Vulnerable at knees. Blindspot directly to either side of the shoulders when within two feet and lower than shoulder-height. Hearts located exactly six inches below the throat, five inches beyond the right-front leg, and directly above the tailbone.–

Everything her power told her, Chayyiel took in within an instant. In the time it took most people to recognize that the person they were looking at had blonde hair, she had already catalogued each of those facts that her ability had reported.

It was a power that would have been dangerous enough, if it had been all that she received after accidentally being left in the other-universe that her father had opened a portal to through his experiments. But it wasn’t. Her physical attributes, her strength, speed, and more had all been enhanced far beyond what a Seosten her size and age should have been capable of. Similarly, her ability to boost herself was greatly increased.

And then there was the fact that, any time she spent in what amounted to the same room as any person, she automatically learned every physical and mental skill they possessed. Combat, academic, magical, whatever they knew, she would know. She knew their weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and she gained every bit of combat skill, magic knowledge, and everything else that could give them an edge.

Just like now, when she looked at these three creatures and instinctively, immediately, knew their every weakness. She knew how they would fight because she knew how they had been trained/programmed to fight. Through knowing all of their skills and all of their weaknesses, Chayyiel knew everything that they could do, everything they would do. Knowing everyone’s skills, strengths, and weaknesses was a blueprint to understanding what they would do in any situation, against any stimuli.

After that brief instant of taking in exactly what these creatures were and what they were capable of, she launched herself into a sprint while crisply ordering, “Eyes!”

Her people reacted just as quickly. As well trained and disciplined as they were, they instantly knew that her single word meant to shoot at the eyes of the two creatures in front. Their lasers filled the air around her, Chayyiel trusting them to miss her. Which was one thing that her being so small actually helped. They could fire over her head and still miss her by a solid foot.

The two reptilian primates staggered a bit under the combined laserfire. They had to close their eyes to protect from being shot, which blinded and slowed them further. Instinctively, their scorpion-tails snapped up and around, probing the ground in front of them with a few violent stabs.

Exactly as Chayyiel had expected them to. In that instant, she hit her boost, her speed suddenly multiplying exponentially to turn her entire body into a barely visible blur. As those bladed tails rebounded from the floor, the girl moved right between them. Her hands snapped out, catching hold of the tails before she smoothly drove each up under one of the scales of the opposite creature. It was the exact spot and exact angle that her power had drawn her attention to.

Instinctively, as they felt the unknown pressure, each of the blinded primates heaved up and back with their tails. In doing so, they managed to free themselves. But in the process, they also snapped that single scale off of each other’s bodies, leaving a tiny patch of unprotected skin.

Without missing a step, she continued on past the two even while they were still yanking their tails back. The quadruped was right behind them, and coming in fast with its head lowered, those horns ready to paralyze and skewer her.

But Chayyiel was ready too. A quick, last-second step to her left and a drop to her knees put her in the creature’s blindspot. She slid that way, hand yanking what looked like an empty knife handle from her belt. She thumbed the button on it, making the eight inch laser blade hum to life.

Sliding past the animal’s blindspot there, Chayyiel used the laser-knife to cut through its front right knee. Just as quickly, as the creature stumbled on past her, she stabbed up through each of the hearts she had noted earlier, saving the one in the tailbone for last as she swung herself up onto its already stumbling body. Her weight back there drove the creature toward the ground back-end first. As it fell, a second laser-knife appeared in her other hand, and she threw each end over end to sever either side of the animal’s horns, cutting them from its head.

She sprang forward then, up over the collapsing creature’s head while her hands moved to catch its falling horns. By that point, the primate creatures had only just started to realize that she was behind them, and began to turn, still under a hail of laserfire.

They didn’t get far, however, before Chayyiel hurled the horns she had severed from their partner, straight into the tiny exposed spots of skin that their tails had exposed by snapping off that single scale on each. The horns flew perfectly, driving into that small spot before pumping their paralytic poison directly into their bloodstream.

It worked incredibly quickly, dropping each of the creatures to the ground in full paralysis a second later. Which left Chayyiel standing there surrounded by the bodies of all three Fomorian creatures. One of them dead, the other two paralyzed.

“Finish them off,” she ordered her people, already pivoting to head onward through the boarding tube and into the Fomorian vessel. “The Beta will be close.”

Beta. In the Fomorian ranks, there were generally six types of creature (with some exceptions): alphas, betas, gammas, deltas, epsilons, and zetas. Only the first three were actual Fomorians. Zetas were mindless, easily killed creatures that functioned only as massive packs. Epsilons were stronger and capable of acting alone, similar to the creatures that she had just killed. Deltas were very strong and independent, as well as being intelligent enough to create their own plans. Basically, the Fomorians’ best creations, but not really actual Fomorians.

Gamma Fomorians were young, unproven. Betas had been around long enough to make a name for themselves and made up the bulk of the actual Fomorian population. And Alphas were their leadership, rare even for Fomorians, who already had an actual population much lower than the Seosten with their own shortage.

Sure enough, right on the other end of the tube stood a tall, gray-skinned Fomorian. Its angular face, too-large eyes, and bulbous head was instantly recognizable, though individuals tended to differ widely as far as their bodies went through their own genetic enhancements.

Her power kicked in the instant she saw him. —Immune to heat up to roughly half the temperature of the core of a yellow sun. Immune to cold. Absorbs most types of radiation and energy. Absorbs most magic. Armored against blunt force. Poisons are useless. Can see through every conceivable spectrum including magic. Eyes are only one of several ways he can see. All critical organs packed into an armored shell in the center of the body, impregnable to most attacks even if they do get through the outer body.

This was a strong Beta, probably close to being promoted to one of the Alphas. And from the look in those eyes, he knew that dealing with Chayyiel would be just the boost he needed for that promotion. He started forward, each of his six arms coming up to produce a variety of bladed weapons meant for cutting her open.

She kept walking, not breaking stride as she moved straight for the Fomorian. She saw his toothy smile as the creature watched her approach. His blades went up, one of his hands opening to reveal a paralytic powder that he filled the air with. One single molecule of that powder entering her system would leave Chayyiel as helpless and frozen as the creatures she had just left.

She kept walking. Her thumb brushed over a spell inscribed into one of her gloves, and a light forcefield popped up around the girl. It wasn’t enough to hold back much, but it did force the paralyzing dust away from her, clearing the air.

The Fomorian reached for her, each of those six hands trying to grab onto the girl. But Chayyiel was too quick, too small, too aware of his every move. She barely seemed to react, ducking once, sidestepping a few inches, and turning her body. Yet all six of his grasping limbs utterly missed, putting Chayyiel directly in front of him with his arms extended past her.

He started to pull back, grinning even wider as his limbs moved to envelop the girl. But again, Chayyiel was too quick. In one, single motion, her hand snapped up, balled into a fist. She struck the Fomorian precisely seven inches below his throat and four inches to the right at the exact angle and with the exact force her power had already informed her of.

That single blow made him freeze. His arms went limp, falling to his sides, and the Fomorian made a sound like a gasping fish, trying in vain to suck in air.

His legs gave out a second later, and he collapsed to the ground, twitching and spasming as his brain went through the horrific stroke that had been brought on by that single, incredibly precise blow. A quarter inch in any direction, a fist angled even slightly differently, a blow with any more or less force, and nothing would have happened. But the blow wasn’t any different. It was exactly what her power told her to make it. And a handful of seconds later, his body was still and silent. He was dead.

Her escort arrived momentarily, and Chayyiel ordered them to follow the path that had already been planned out. The rest of the Seosten attack force was keeping other parts of the Fomorian ship busy, and her people had their own job to do. Again, her people asked if she was okay, if she needed to pull back. But again, Chayyiel refused. Destroying the brain of the Fomorian Dierev (essentially a three-hundred-plus foot tall monstrosity capable of untold devastation) before it could be delivered to the rest of the assembled body was too important to withdraw now.

Her power was too useful to sit on the sidelines. It had always been that way. For the past three thousand years, Chayyiel had been too important to sit things out. Ever since she had been lost on the other side of that portal. The portal into a strange other-universe full of indecipherable energy storms which, upon proximity with a living being, fundamentally altered that being, granting them incredible powers and halting their aging completely.

That had been her father’s project, all those years ago: to use the vast amount of resources it took to open portals into this world of power-bestowing energy storms, and expose his test subjects to them. How much power each subject received was impossible to predict, since it had to do with how much direct exposure to the energy storms they had, and the location and strength of those were impossible to predict.

When he had secretly been working on his own daughter, however, Chayyiel’s father had been interrupted. She had fallen in and been cut off for much longer than the others. Longer than she should have been able to survive.

And she’d still be there, or her body would, had two lab technicians not noticed what was happening while her father was detained, and set out to rescue Chayyiel themselves. The two had ended up exposed to the energy storms as well, for as long as it took to open the portal once more and pull the girl out. Unfortunately, doing so the way that they did, without as much time and care spent before opening the portal (as they refused to wait longer to pull her out) resulted in the energy storm somehow shorting out the hole in space that was their only access point to that universe.

The project had been over, simply because there was no way to access that universe. Not until another similar ‘hole’ in the fabric of their reality was found. And in the past several thousand years, Chayyiel had yet to hear of one. It may have been the only one of its kind, ever.

In any case, the three of them had never been intended to be enhanced the way the ‘real’ test subjects were, those who had been specifically chosen by their Choirs and had resources devoted to the program so that they could be upgraded. But it had happened, and the Empire couldn’t afford to throw any resources away, particularly super-soldiers. So, despite all of their young ages (she was still a child, but they weren’t that much older either as far as Seosten went) Chayyiel and her saviors, Sariel and Lucifer, were added to the roster of the newly formed Olympus.

The Olympus. The family. They had been a family once. Or at least, Chayyiel had seen them that way. Yes, there were problems, disputes, grudges, even all-out fights. But Chayyiel had been a child growing up on that ship. She had been taught by them, raised by them. Manakel had his problems, but he had cared for her. He had helped her, comforted her.

So yes, she mourned for him. Even as she understood the man he had become, and that he had very much dug his own grave, she was still saddened by his death. It still left a hole in her that would not be filled.

“Seraph?”

After they had completed their mission, one of her men stood near her on board their own ship once more. The Fomorian vessel had been blown apart, its deadly cargo going with it. Her man watched her, concern written across his face. “Seraph, I’m sure the leadership would agree to a sabbatical, if you wish to make a brief trip to Earth to avenge Manakel’s death.”

“Avenge?” Echoing that word, Chayyiel glanced toward the man, giving a slight shake of her head. “Kalifiel, there’s something you need to understand. Sometimes we aren’t the good guys. And when people kill us, it’s not always because they’re monsters. It’s also because we are. Because we hurt them. Because we drove them to it.

“So no, I don’t want to kill the people who killed Manakel. His death makes me sad, not angry. I know why it happened. I know that he deserved it. I didn’t want it to happen. I would have stopped it if I could. But avenge? No. What I want is to end the situation that made that necessary. I want to fix the problem, not make it worse.”

“End the situation?” Kalifiel stared at her uncomprehendingly. “I know you’ve changed a lot under your command, that we’re… um, that we’re different from most of the Empire. And that’s really impressive. But fixing the entire problem? Is that even possible?”

For a moment, Chayyiel said nothing. She thought of what Jophiel and her lover were doing with the same girl who was apparently responsible for Manakel’s death. She thought of Sariel, and the way the woman had been pushed into the arms of the human that she had subsequently fallen in love with. She thought of every little nudge she had given to get things to this point. She thought of the way she had directed that shard of the broken banishment orb into Dries Akens’ prison in order to draw the Heretics there so that they would free him. She thought of all the small actions with much larger results. Some that had already happened, others that were yet to come.

“Oh, it’s possible,” she murmured softly then, barely loud enough for Kalifiel to hear the words. “It may take a lot of work, a lot of time, and… well, more than a few setbacks.

“But then, being patient is just another skill. And for now, I have something else to do.”

******

“Hah, I knew they’d send someone to pick me up.”

The human boy, Isaac, grinned as he watched Chayyiel calmly approach him. The unconscious bodies of the two men who had been his guards lay limp on the ground behind her.

“Ohh, it’s a perfectly secure prison in a base built and hidden by the mighty Athena, you’re never getting out of here.” Isaac’s words were mocking as he shook his head. “It’s like they’ve never read a comic book before. So you gonna hop out of the midget and find a more useful body for us to get out of here, or what?”

“Manakel chose to recruit you,” she informed him flatly, stopping just in front of the boy after deactivating the forcefield that contained him. “He decided that you had some use.”

“Oh yeah, and I’m even more useful now,” the boy replied with a grin, tapping the side of his head. “You wouldn’t believe the shit I’ve heard while sitting around in here. Plus I’ve got all those yummy powers.”

Chayyiel’s head shook once. “Manakel is dead.”

“Oh shit, really?” Isaac whistled then. “Right, no fucking wonder you finally came to get me. You’re shit out of options. So let’s go.”

“No.” Chayyiel’s denial was simple. “I didn’t come here to take you out of this prison.”

“What?” Annoyed now, Isaac spread his arms. “Then why the fuck are you here?”

“Because,” she replied easily, her eyes rising to meet his. “I have read comic books.”

There was a blur of motion then, accompanied by a hum of energy, And as it faded, Isaac stood there in complete disbelief, staring at the blood that had already drenched his open hands. Blood from the deep cut in his throat. His mouth opened and shut a couple times, as a weak, wheezing noise escaped him.

“And quite frankly,” Chayyiel continued while holding the laser-knife in one hand, “I’m sick and tired of villains who keep coming back.”

She turned away then, walking to the exit while the boy’s body collapsed behind her. As she moved, Chayyiel casually tossed a single, small silver object roughly the size of a pen behind herself. An instant later, it exploded and Isaac was utterly incinerated, his body reduced to little more than a dark smear on the ground.

Just in case.

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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 actual 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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Rendezvous 30-04

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Please note that there was a commissioned interlude focused on Jophiel and Elisabet (with a lot of information about the Seosten in general) posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

“You what?” The words accompanied a sudden rush of movement as I was yanked up from the ground. Professor Katarin had me by both arms, holding up to his eye level. Which, considering how tall he was, left my feet dangling in open air. “Would you mind repeating that?” he rumbled, the eagerness in his voice making him sound almost more like a kid in a candy store than the giant drill sergeant-like combat instructor I knew him as.

It was later that same day, and I was taking the chance to talk to Katarin about what had happened, as well as try to get past that damn memory spell.

“Um.” Dangling there, I gave as much of a shrug as I could with my arms held like that. “It was really Columbus blasting her when he did. That was what really made the difference. I just…”

“You followed up,” the man finished for me. “You took the opening and didn’t let her get away. Say it, Chambers. Let me hear those words one more time.”

“I… killed Charmiene?” I managed, blushing a little. “But like I said, I–hhhrrrk.” That last bit was because the man was hugging me. Hugging me so tightly I couldn’t breathe for a second.

“You followed instructions!” he announced after finally relenting a bit. Holding me out in front of him once more, he beamed the same way my own father had the day I’d first managed to ride a bike without training wheels. “You didn’t let up, you saw an opening and you took it! You see? You see? Doesn’t matter how strong they are, you wait for the right opening, don’t hesitate, and…” He just smiled broadly and proudly.

“Like… like I said,” I mumbled self-consciously, “Columbus deserves most of the credit. So, make sure you talk to him as soon as we get back, okay?”

Finally setting me down on the deck of the cargo bay (we were on the far end from where the refugee Alter camp was, for some privacy), Professor Katarin winked. “Oh, believe me, I’ll make sure Porter gets all the accolades he deserves, if it hasn’t happened yet. But you keep that up. You see these openings, you go for them. Got it, Chambers?”

Biting my lip, I nodded before hesitantly asking, “I… I never really got to ask you what you thought of my… my mother.”

His expression softened then. “I… didn’t have a lot of personal experience with Joselyn, to tell you the truth. I wasn’t a teacher when she was a student. So I don’t have a lot of personal anecdotes or anything. What I can tell you is that, from everything I know, your mom’s an incredible woman. And I knew her parents. Or at least… I think I did.” He frowned thoughtfully. “I met her father, Joshua, before the Fomorians were kicked off Earth. And I’m pretty sure I met her mother too, but…”

“The censor spell thing,” I finished for him. “The one that erased my grandmother from everyone’s memory?”

He nodded. “Kind of makes everything fuzzy. I’m almost positive that we met. I think she was one of the people who saved me. But…” His head shook. “Sorry. It’s just not there.”

“It’s okay,” I replied. “But speaking of things being hard to remember…”

“Right.” Straightening up, Professor Katarin cracked his neck twice before nodding to me. “Disabled the possession defense a few minutes ago. Which, let me tell you, makes me feel really uncomfortable out here. So let’s get this done, huh?”

Yeah, we were going to try to bypass that memory-erasure spell that was stopping us from remembering what Katarin knew about Manakel’s host by having me possess him and look for the memory that way. He didn’t know about Tabbris (As much as I trusted him, I was still keeping her existence as secret as humanly possible), but she would be quietly helping too.  

“Yes, sir,” I replied quickly. “And um, I promise to be as quick as possible and… not to go rummaging too much. Thanks for trusting me with this.”

With that, I took the man’s hand and focused on possessing him. A moment later, I felt much taller and a lot stronger. Seeing through Professor Katarin’s eyes, I took a second to collect myself from the disorienting feeling.

“Chambers?” He spoke out loud. “Are you okay?”

“Yes, Professor,” the man’s voice spoke again, and I belatedly realized that I had made him reply out loud. “Err–”

Sorry, sir, I switched to internal conversation. You can think at me if you want. I mean, I can kind of hear your thoughts too, but you can make it a conversation if you just sort of purposefully think in my direction.

I’m going to think the identity of Manakel’s host to you, the big man’s voice came into my head. Ready? And…

I waited. Waited another moment. Then, out of pure desperate hope, I waited a little more. But in the end, all I could do was sigh. Well, that didn’t work. Um. Let me try looking for it myself. What were you doing when you found out?

Walking through the jungle, he replied. I thought that I saw….

You thought that you saw what? I–oh. I sighed inwardly. It won’t let me know who you thought you saw, because that’s the person that’s possessed. Great. This memory spell is seriously annoying, Professor.

We kept going like that for another twenty minutes, trying to come after it from every angle we could think of. We tried getting me to see his memory, and even tried having Professor Katarin think about every person it wasn’t so that I could fill in the blanks. It didn’t work. Even Tabbris couldn’t figure out how to get past it. The moment I had the idea of who it could be, the spell erased everything. Basically, Katarin would think every wrong name at me, and the second it was obvious who he wasn’t thinking about, every name he’d already thought at me would disappear. The spell would not allow us to get the name even indirectly.

It was, as I had already said, seriously annoying.

Finally, I stepped out of the man, shaking my head. “Sorry, Professor,” I mumbled.

“Not your fault,” he assured me, rolling his arms back and forth now that he had control of them once more. “And like we said, don’t count us out yet. Dries has some idea about breaking through it with help.

“Yeah…” I mumbled, glancing down while frowning. “I just hope it works.

“I really, really hope it works.”

******

“You really have no idea what this anti-possession thing that your wife put into her vault was?”

It was the next day, and I couldn’t quite keep the disappointment out of my voice as I stood next to Dries on the Liberty Bell, watching the Alter camp through the open hatch.

In the distance, I could see most of them sitting attentively in a large circle, watching Katarin as the man led them through some basic self-defense instructions. He’d basically jumped right back into teaching just like before. Not only was the man offering to help any of the Alters here learn how to protect themselves, he’d also insisted on having all of us students run through regular exercises and combat training as if we were still at Crossroads. Avalon would approve.

Dries gave a slight shake of his head at my question. The thin man’s voice was still rough and hoarse. “I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I think Liesje started her work after I was imprisoned.” As he spoke, the fingers of his left hand scratched at his beard while the fingers of his right hand rubbed his left wrist. Occasionally, he would bite his knuckles or look around suddenly.

Biting my lip, I hesitated before starting slowly, “I know this might be a little, um, forward, but–”

“–Why did I kill Hieronymus?” Dries finished for me. He was looking away, watching the Alters with Katarin. Rather than answer, he said, “They told me about you, about your mother and what she did. What she tried to do. They told me about the rebellion and everything that happened.”

I didn’t say anything. Instead, I just watched the man silently, letting him go on at his own pace.

Eventually, he did, lowering his head a little to look at the floor while speaking quietly. “Liesje and… and I, we knew something was wrong with her father. We knew something was wrong with Hieronymus. Eventually, we found out he was–” Swallowing hard, Dries jerked a little, twitching to look over his shoulder as if he had heard something. He stared at the empty ship behind us for a long moment before continuing. “We found out he was possessed, that… that he wasn’t this genius inventor, that it was really a Seosten behind everything.

“Liesje, she confronted him. Tried to force the Seosten out of her father. It–” Again, he hesitated. This was clearly hard for him to remember, let alone talk about. “It didn’t go well. The Seosten would have killed her, would have killed her with her own father’s hand. I couldn’t–I didn’t have a choice. I had to save her. I had to save her, so I just- there was so much blood and–and I…”

Quickly, I shook my head. “It’s–it’s okay, you don’t have to go on. I get the picture. But why did they keep you alive after that? Larissa said that they found you imprisoned in a tower and had to go through all this stuff to break the spell that was holding you there. Why did the Seosten go through all that instead of just killing you, or possessing you for their war with the Fomorians?”

Twitching a little, the man responded, “They need me alive. Something… something they did to Hieronymus. I don’t know, still don’t know. Something they did to him that had to do with the Reaper, the one that gives Bosch Heretics their power. They did something to Hieronymus, and when I killed him, I inherited it. So they need me alive. I don’t… I don’t know more than that. Just that they need me alive, but don’t really care what condition I’m in. It’s been so long since they shut me up in that tower, I just… I don’t know.”

I blinked at that. Why would the Seosten need him alive? What could they have done to Hieronymus that had been passed to Dries when he killed the man? And why wouldn’t they just kill him in order to pass it on to someone else? Clearly, we were missing something important.

Do you know anything about what he’s talking about? I asked Tabbris curiously.

I could sense her confusion and uncertainty as she quickly replied, Nuh uh. Mama never mentioned anything about it. Maybe… maybe she didn’t know about it. Or maybe she just didn’t think that it would, you know, um, come up? She didn’t have time to tell me everything, I mean–

It’s okay, Tabbris, I assured her hurriedly. I know. The fact that she told you as much as she did is still really impressive. It’s okay if she couldn’t give you every answer. We’ll figure it out.

Deciding to change the subject then, I asked, “But you can really break the spell that’s stopping Professor Katarin from telling us who Manakel is possessing?”

His head gave a quick jerk of a nod. “Yes. We couldn’t before, because we didn’t have enough power. But with you… you students and all those people out there supplying power, we can do it. It’s uh, it’s not elegant, but I can break it. Just needed more power.”

“Right.” I nodded then. “Well, they’ve been collecting energy from volunteers ever since you guys arrived. Last I heard, they’ll be ready for it tomorrow.”

The man gave a little crooked smile then, the awkwardness of it making it obvious that it was not an expression he was accustomed to making. “Then tomorrow we will break the spell.”

A motion caught my eye then, and I looked out through the open hatch to see Professor Katarin waving me over. He already had the others with him, though Isaac was wrist deep in one of his drones. The boy had been obsessively working on them pretty much since we’d left the planet, and especially over the past day since Katarin, Dries, and Haiden had shown up. I had tried to get him to tell me what he was doing, but he insisted it was a surprise and that I would be, to quote, ‘so fucking surprised.’ Honestly, I just hoped he didn’t end up blowing himself up. Or us.

“Oh,” I started while straightening. “Looks like I’ve gotta go work with the others. Do you, uh…” I looked over to Dries, who was already shrinking back from the open hatch. No. He wouldn’t be coming out with me. The man did not do well around crowds. He was barely functional enough with just the few of us all together. Situations like this, where we were one-on-one, were better.

“Never mind,” I quickly put in, giving him a smile. “I’ll be back later. Thanks for talking to me.”

“Thank… thank you,” the man hesitantly spoke. “And… next time, maybe you could tell me a little bit more… about the girl.” His eyes raised to look at me, and I saw the shielded hope there.

“Avalon,” I murmured, nodding quickly. “Yeah. Yeah, I’ll tell you anything you wanna know.”

With that, I hopped through the open hatch and headed down the ramp to join the others. On the way, the hatch behind me closed, leaving Dries alone again.

Honestly, I really hoped that we could get the man back with us. Because I kind of had the feeling that he needed Avalon as much as, if not more than, she needed him. It seemed like they really could help each other through a lot of their issues. They both needed family.

All we had to do was get everyone back to Earth in one piece.

******

“Hey guys!” I called while stepping up onto the Liberty Bell the next day. As Isaac, Roxa, Jazz, and Professor Katarin looked up from where the man had been teaching the other two something about the ship, I waved. “They’ve got the stuff all ready to get rid of that spell.”

“Great,” Roxa announced, jumping to her feet before reaching down to pull Isaac up. “Let’s do this.”

“How is Dries doing?” Katarin asked, hitting a button with his closed fist to turn off the console that he had been using. “I haven’t seen that guy leave this ship since we got him onto it.”

Yeah, there hadn’t been enough open space on this ship to set up the spell. It had taken a little prompting and a lot of patience, but Dries had slowly, gradually made his way off the ship. They had to set up a private little temporary corridor for him with Sands’ construction mace and some other powers so that he didn’t have to be right out in the open with all those other people, but he made it.

I had seen the shame on Dries’ face, his agony that he couldn’t stand to be around people. He fought it, had tried for the past couple days (and probably long before then) to get over it. Yet, as powerful and knowledgeable as the man clearly was, the simple act of standing in a room surrounded by others was too much for him. After everything that had happened, after he had spent hundreds of years trapped in a tower, he couldn’t do it. His agoraphobia was too encompassing and powerful.

“He’s… doing a little better,” I confirmed with a nod. “Once they got him in that other room away from the cargo bay, he started opening up a little bit. And he said it’s all ready to go.”

“Well,” Professor Katarin gestured while starting to move. “Let’s go, then.” The man paused on his way past, clapping me on the shoulder. “I heard you spent some time with him yesterday, Chambers, that you talked with him about Avalon. Good. He uh… he’s been through a lot. Keep doing that, okay? He might not always show it, but he really wants to know about her.”

He was right. Even in the short conversation that I’d had with Dries the day before, telling him about how I’d met Avalon, I had been able to tell that he needed it. He had been like a dying man in the desert, desperate for even a drop of information about his descendant, his family.

Avalon’s family. I still couldn’t believe that was a thing. When we got back home, she would meet her ancestor, a male blood relative who actually wanted to know her.

Professor Katarin moved on, heading down the ramp while Gordon, Roxa, and Jazz followed suit. They seemed just as impatient and excited as I was to finally deal with this spell and learn the truth.

“So it’s really that simple?” Isaac asked curiously from behind me then. “We just use the spell and Katarin’ll be able to tell us who the big bad guy’s possessing?”

I nodded, pausing in the hatchway to look back at the boy while the others finished stepping down. “That’s what they sa–oh hey, looks like one of your buddies doesn’t wanna leave.” I gestured past the boy to where one of the orb-shaped drones from the boy’s flail was hovering next to one of the ship consoles. “You think he’s got a hot girlfriend or some–wait.” In the middle of my joke, I saw the screen itself. It looked like a view of the cargo bay behind me, with targeting reticles. “What’s that thing doi–”

That was as far as I got before Tabbris screamed a warning in my head. I felt my body jerking backward as she took control, but it wasn’t fast enough. A sledgehammer blow took my breath away as Isaac’s suddenly metal-covered foot slammed into my chest. I was sent flying off the ramp, crying out in surprise as I hit the deck hard, rolling onto my side. I couldn’t breathe for a moment. I couldn’t even think. The strength behind the kick, it felt like he’d broken a couple ribs, at least.

Even as I hit the floor, a deafening, high-pitched shriek of power filled the air, and a blinding green light shot over my head. My eyes snapped that way just in time to see an emerald laser as wide around as my body literally vaporize three Alters who happened to be standing in its way. One instant they were there, and the next, they were gone. Dead. Atomized.  

But the laser didn’t stop there. Everything seemed to slow down dramatically, as my horrified gaze took in the sight of Katarin surrounded by the others. I saw the man’s eyes as the enormous ship-powered laser shot directly at them. He had half a second to react. And he reacted by throwing both arms out. An invisible force picked up Jazz, Roxa, and Gordon, hurtling them away. In that instant, Katarin’s immediate action saved all of their lives.

But he paid for it with his own. Unable to protect himself, the laser ripped through the big man, burning half his body away just like that. The remains were charred and burned beyond recognition, blown apart by the incredible force and heat of the laser cannon.

I saw Professor Katarin die. I saw his realization that it was going to happen, and that his first and only reaction had been to save his students. He could have thrown himself out of the way or done anything whatsoever to protect himself, or he could focus on saving them. In that brief, tiny window, he chose the latter. He sacrificed himself to save their lives. In my head, I heard Tabbris scream, her own terrified cry of shock and horror matching my own.

Behind me, a moan of pleasure reached my ears. My head jerked back that way in time to see Isaac. Isaac, the traitorous, murderous, fucking evil piece of shit who had just murdered three Alters and Professor Katarin, was all-but collapsed there in the hatchway, his orange kill-aura glowing almost blindingly bright. He gave me a thumbs up then, winking just as the hatch whooshed closed, cutting us off from each other.

Why? Why, why, why?! Why was he doing this?! What the hell?! Was he possessed? Had we missed something? Was Isaac actually possessed and I’d somehow missed it? Had another Seosten managed to get on the ship somehow? No. No, I knew that wasn’t it. It couldn’t be, because I knew Roxa was wearing the choker. She had been wearing the choker when she helped Isaac to his feet just a minute earlier, and she had said nothing about him being possessed. Which meant that he couldn’t be. So what the hell was going on?! What… what…

An instant later, a glowing blue forcefield appeared around the smaller ship. The shield. He’d activated the shield, or one of his drones had, more likely. Which meant that no one could teleport onto the Liberty Bell. No one could stop what was about to happen, what was about to keep happening.

Because the ship wasn’t done firing. Lifting off its landing struts, more of its cannons finished popping up into place. And they all opened up. Blinding emerald lasers flooded the cargo bay. I saw three, four, five more Alters torn through. Alters who should have been safe. Alters who were supposed to be free and protected now were suddenly gone. Dead. Murdered by Isaac, an Isaac who wasn’t possessed. No one was forcing Isaac to do this. He just… was.

Chaos reigned. More blinding shots from the ship’s cannons filled the cargo bay. I saw one heading straight for Karees. Karees! My mouth opened to scream a warning, knowing it was too late.

Except, while it was too late for me, it wasn’t too late for Jazz. The other girl literally slammed into the tree-man, knocking him to the ground. An instant later, that laser tore through the girl… except she had turned into her mist-form. I saw her turn, staring at the ship with a look of complete horror, mouth open as she screamed a name. Isaac. She was screaming Isaac’s name, a look of rage overtaking her face.

I pushed myself up then, ignoring the pain in my ribs, only to be knocked to the floor once more as Sands came out of nowhere, tackling me to the ground an instant before another massive laser tore through the air where I had just been. I felt the heat of it burn part of my skin.

Sweeping her mace up as we landed, Sands created a short wall. It didn’t matter. The next shot from the ship’s cannon tore through it like it wasn’t even there. We had to move!

Getting my staff out, I grabbed Sands, wrapping an arm around the girl while pointing the staff backward. Lying there on my side, I triggered the boost, sending both of us rocketing along the floor. An instant later, three more laser shots utterly destroyed the spot where we had just been.

The Liberty Bell was floating backward toward the open cargo bay doors, firing its lasers the whole time. Screams and death filled the air along with the heat and light of those deadly cannons. In those few seconds while I was picking myself up from the floor, I saw a dozen more die, snuffed out just like that.

Jazz, Gordon, and Roxa were all trying to help, trying to get the Alters behind what little cover there was, or out of the cargo bay entirely. The problem was that there was so much open space. A lot of them were trying to hide behind the metal shipping containers, but there were only so many of those, and there was too much open ground to cover to get to them. 

It felt like hours had passed, but I knew it had actually only been a few seconds. A few seconds, and Isaac had already done so much damage.  

Just as the other ship reached the exit, the cannons all pointed toward the biggest cluster of terrified Alters who were running for cover. I screamed a warning, the force of the words burning my throat, even as those cannons opened up one last time. An armageddon-worth of deadly light tore through the air, straight at all of those innocent people.

At the last second, Haiden Moon appeared out of nowhere. His arm jerked up, and I saw a dark red forcefield appear, surrounding both the man and the clustered group. Seven, eight, nine enormous, pulverizing lasers collided with the shield, which barely held. I could see the strain on it, and on Haiden himself as he kept it up, protecting the people behind him.

Then Larissa was there. She appeared beside Sands and me, both arms outstretched. Her right hand jerked to the side, while the left glowed red. I saw two of the laser cannons on the other ship literally torn free of their housing, ripped off the ship. At the same time, another one literally melted into a heap of molten metal.

That was enough. The ship stopped firing, instead throwing its engines into reverse before shooting out into open space.

And just like that, as suddenly as it had started, the carnage was over. The ship was gone, with Isaac onboard. And in his wake, he left… devastation. Bodies, or pieces of bodies, filled the cargo bay. At least a quarter of the Alters that we had saved and spent the past several days with were dead. Professor Katarin was dead.

“Girls!” Larissa was facing Sands and me, her eyes wide. Alarms blared, the survivors screamed and sobbed, as she blurted in total confusion and horror, “Girls, what happened?!

“What the hell happened?!”

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Rendezvous 30-03

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“So explain again how their warp speed or whatever works?” I asked Larissa a couple days later, as the two of us stood on the bridge of this stolen mining ship. Jokai was sitting at the controls next to Sands, going over them with the girl again. My teammate had really taken to the idea of being able to pilot this thing (not that I could blame her at all), throwing herself at the subject the way that Vanessa threw herself at… well, pretty much every subject back in school.

“Of course,” Larissa (was it weird that I kept thinking of Sands’ mother by her first name rather than as Mrs. Mason or anything?) replied easily while gesturing for me to follow her to the side of the bridge, where a small console sat. Waving her hand in front of it, she made a hologram appear. It showed a bunch of different planets and stars, taking up several feet in front of us.

“You know the way normal travel works,” the woman began. Putting her finger on the hologram at one planet, she slowly dragged it across to another one, creating a red line between them. “Say a ship starts here, powers on their regular, day-to-day engines, and putters along until they reach the next closest planet. With the kind of engines that the ships use when flying around normally, that one trip would take about… say, a hundred and twenty years. Give or take.”

“Uh, yeah.” I coughed, shaking my head. “Seems like that kind of travel time would be pretty hard to run an interstellar empire on. ‘Hi, we have some new orders from the capital planet.’ ‘Oh, when did they send those out?’ ‘I think it was about three hundred and forty years ago, why?’”

The woman gave a slight smile at that. “Exactly. It doesn’t really work. So there’s a few other options. First, there are certain Alters who can create foldjumps, linked points where people can travel instantly from one spot to another no matter how far away it is, even on another planet.”

“Abeonas,” I finished for her. “Yeah, I’ve heard of them. Even met one of them named Berlin.”

“You are definitely not a normal first year student,” Larissa informed me with a little cough before nodding. “But good, you know about them. There’s a few others like that, but Abeonas are the strongest and the most well-known. They’re also pretty rare, and it’s hard to keep their loyalty. I mean, when they could go pretty much anywhere in the universe they’ve already been at the drop of a hat, it’s not easy to keep them contained. Even possessing them isn’t a perfect answer, since they tend to be pretty resistant to it, and using a Seosten to keep them under control means that Seosten can’t be doing anything else. Basically, if the Abeonas is strong enough for interstellar transport, they’d need an equally strong Seosten to maintain control.”

When I nodded to that, the woman went on. “So that’s the first option, Alters with some kind of transport ability. Limited for the reasons we just talked about. After that, there’s regular teleportation spells, like the one I used to get this ship away from Radueriel and his ship.”

“Let me guess,” I put in, “those are rare too. I mean, you said you got that one from Apollo.”

“Yes,” she confirmed. “Rare and hard to do. We only moved a few solar systems, and that took four strong Heretics to pull off, exhausting three of them for a few days. Like I said, not easy.”

I started to nod once more to that, before stopping myself. “Wait, what do you mean, four?” Pointedly, I counted on my fingers. “You, Haiden Moon, and Professor Katarin. That’s three.”

“We, ah,” the woman paused, seeming to consider her words for a moment. “We met a new friend out here. But that’s a long story that’s best told once we actually get back with the others. Which, I know, sounds needlessly cryptic. But just trust me, this is something that you really need to find out in person.” She smiled then. “Besides, we’re getting off subject. Innate Alter abilities and magic teleportation are two ways to move from world to world. But with ships like this, you want something reliable. Something that isn’t super rare and doesn’t exhaust your most powerful people right when you get to what might be a planet where you need them to fight.”

“So, technology-based?” I asked then. “Rather than magic or ability-based. Something where you can just flip a switch and go faster. I mean, I know it’s not not that simple, but basically.”

“Basically,” she confirmed. “Now, like I said, there’s the normal engines that work fine for tooling around the same solar system. But for interstellar travel to take less than several centuries, you need the big guns. You need a reliable way that doesn’t exhaust your important people and allows you to send entire fleets all over the universe. That’s where the slide-drive comes in.”

Tilting my head a bit, I asked, “Slide-drive? So that’s what they call their hyperdrive or whatever.”

“Yup.” The woman reached out to the hologram of the space map once more. “So, here’s how they work. Remember how I said a normal engine just takes you from one spot to another?” She drew her finger along that red line once more demonstrably. “Well, the way a slide-drive works is by repeatedly opening a small pocket dimension. You already know what those are, right?”

I nodded quickly at that. “Sure, they’re basically the things that our weapons disappear into.”    

“Exactly. The slide-drive on each of these ships basically slips the ship into one of those pocket dimensions for a few seconds, then pops it back out again. Except for two things. First, while the ship is in that pocket dimension, the universe just continues on without it. Everything is always moving at millions of miles per hour. So the ship wouldn’t appear at the same point anyway. It would pop out at wherever that spot was with the universe moving around it. It’s like… say you have a spinning plate with an olive sitting on it. Pick the olive up and drop it again, and it’ll be in a completely different spot from where it was, because the plate itself keeps on spinning.

“And second, before the ship comes out of the pocket dimension, it travels to the limit of that space. See, every kilometer in the pocket dimension translates into a thousand kilometers in real space. The more powerful the slide-drive, the bigger the pocket dimension. Which means-”

“The further they travel with each slide,” I realized. “If their slide-drive can make a pocket dimension that’s a hundred kilometers long, that’s a hundred thousand kilometers in real space.”

She gave a short nod at that. “Yes. And most decent ships are capable of making pocket dimensions that are at least a few hundred kilometers. So that helps.

“Put together, those two things mean that when the ship pops back into the regular universe, it’s not in the same place. It basically jumps from one spot to another very quickly just by slipping out of the universe and then slipping back in. The computer calculates where they are in relation to where they need to go, adjusts, and then slips out of the universe again, only to pop back. That’s why we call it a slide-drive. They slide into a pocket-dimension, then slide back out again. It keeps doing that, sliding in and out of regular space until they get where they need to go.”  

“Huh.” I thought about that for a few seconds before nodding. “Thanks for the explanation. You… you weren’t a teacher back at Crossroads, were you?” It felt a little awkward bringing up her life on Earth after she had been away from it for so long, but I shoved that back down.

“No,” she confirmed with a quick head shake. “You’re right, I wasn’t a teacher. Not exactly, anyway. But I did work with students a lot. I was the Head of Student Affairs for the school.”

I did a quick double-take. “You had Peterson Neal’s job? Damn, we really missed out, then.”

Smiling a little, the woman gave me a pat on the shoulder. “Yes, Ulysses told me that he was the one who took my job. I’m sorry. Peterson is… competent, but not exactly creative or warm. But between Ruthers and his brother, I’m not surprised that he ended up with an important job.”

Blinking at that, I looked back to the woman while asking, “His brother? Who’s his brother?”

“Counselor Davis,” she informed me, looking a little surprised. “I’m sorry, I thought you knew that the two of them were related. I know you’ve had some conversations with the Committee.”

I thought back to what I knew of the Committee member called Davis. All I really remembered was that he looked like a lumberjack. Did he actually do anything important? I asked Tabbris.

Um, she replied a little hesitantly, not really. He didn’t say much at all, actually. Mostly he just brought up that thing about how people have been trying to kill Avalon for awhile.

Right. I squinted thoughtfully for a second. So he didn’t really say much. No way of knowing how he feels about things, or if he’s anywhere near as much of a stooge as his brother.

“So,” Larissa started with a raised eyebrow. “How the conversation with the little one going?” When I gave a quick glance over to where Jokai was, she waved a hand. “It’s okay, he can’t hear us right now. Or, more to the point, he just hears us talking more about Davis.”

“Sorry.” I blushed a little bit despite myself. “I guess it’s probably kind of obvious what’s going on when I trail off and go silent for a few seconds like that if you know what to look for, huh?”  

She nodded. “It is. So you’ll need to be careful with it. Very careful, Felicity. If the Seosten ever suspect that you’re possessed and that that’s the reason they can’t possess you–”

Blanching, I interrupted. “They’ll hurt Tabbris. I know. Trust me, I won’t let anyone hurt her.”

Her hand found my shoulder, squeezing tightly. “Sariel made the right choice when she sent her to you.”

After a moment of that, she continued. “So, let’s talk about the ship a little more. I’m sure you’ve got more questions about how these things work. Though there’s something I really hope you can tell me about.”

“There is?” I blinked. “Uh, I’ve told you pretty much everything I know. The Seosten want to kill Avalon, Fossor has my mother and is coming after me when I turn eighteen, my dad’s living with Gabriel Prosser, my mom’s first husband is my team mentor… what else could I tell you?”  

“Well…” Larissa gave me a brief pleading look. “There’s a really important question I have to ask you that Ulysses couldn’t answer. I’ve kind of been stuck out here for over seven years now, and I’ve been waiting all that time to find out…

“Do you read DC comics? And if so, what the hell happened in Flashpoint?”

******

“Your ship is a lot smaller than this one, Mom.” Sands was standing in front of the bridge’s viewscreen the next day, her eyes centered on the image of the vessel in question. We had met up with them in the middle of what was basically empty space, far from any planet or star.

She was right. The ship that Larissa had brought us to meet up with was much smaller than this one. It was more around the size of a large jetliner, and was shaped a bit like a narrow oval with two angular boomerangs attached to the top and bottom that glowed red in contrast with the middle oval part’s bright white. I was pretty sure that the boomerang parts were where the engines and weapons were, while the oval part held the main compartments and bridge.

“Yeah, we’ll have to bring the Liberty Bell aboard this one for now,” the woman replied easily from her place behind her daughter. “There should be plenty of room, even with the Alter camp.”

Liberty Bell?” I blinked that way after giving the ship another look. “That’s the name of it?”

“Well, yeah, after we renamed it,” Larissa amended with a slight chuckle. “I think its previous name was something like Letum Praedator. Ruin Hunter. We liked Liberty Bell a bit better. And besides, they vetoed my vote for the ship name. Said Starjammer made them think of hair metal bands. Honestly, I’m still trying to figure out why that’d be a bad thing. But Liberty Bell’s okay.”

A light on the nearby console flashed green, and the woman waved her hand in front of it. A moment later, half of the viewscreen was taken up by the image of a familiar face.

“Professor Katarin!” Sands blurted, waving a hand. The relief in her voice was obvious, and I knew how she felt. We’d already known that the man was alive and well (enough) from Larissa herself and through Vanessa, but knowing it and seeing it were two entirely different things.

The man smiled broadly then, and I could tell in that moment that he was just as relieved to see us. It did kind of look odd, considering his tendency to remain as stoic and… drill sergeant-like as possible while he was training us. But then again, this was a pretty unique situation.

“Sands, Flick, you’re both alright!” Katarin announced before lifting his chin. “And the others…?”

“They’re okay,” Larissa answered for us. “Everyone’s… physically fine. They’re in the cargo bay with the former slaves. So, you wanna dock that thing so we can have this reunion in person?”

He agreed, as did someone offscreen (Haiden, I assumed, though it could have been the mysterious ‘other Heretic’ that Sands’ mother wanted us to meet), and the ship started to dock.

“Guess we should head down to meet them, huh?” Sands looked to her mother, smiling immediately. She’d been doing that pretty much constantly over the past few days. Which was more than just understandable. If it had been my mother, I probably wouldn’t be able to tear myself even a few inches away from her for at least a couple of weeks. I was honestly surprised that Sands was able to focus on anything other than the fact that her mother was standing there.

Leaving Jokai at the helm just in case anything happened, we headed down to the cargo bay once more. On the way, we used the intercom system that Jokai had shown us to warn the others so that nobody would freak out too much. The last thing we wanted was to give any of these poor guys a heart attack when they saw a Seosten ship pop in.

The Alters had taken up about a quarter of the cargo bay with their little camp, which actually looked pretty homey. They had tarps set up for different sleeping areas, a cooking area in the middle, and a spot for everyone to work on the anti-possession spell that we’d taught them. They’d been using that spell a lot, on themselves, on each other, basically whenever possible. Even though they knew they weren’t possessed, they still wanted that little bit of reassurance. And, of course, they wanted to make sure that none of the Seosten had projected into one of them. That was another reason that I was glad they had all decided to stay together in the cargo bay. It would be harder for one of the Seosten to screw things up if they never left each other’s sight and were constantly just sitting in a room with no idea of where the ship actually was.

By the time we made it down there, all of the Alters were already gathered right at the edge of their camp as they nervously watched the Liberty Bell rise up through a forcefield-covered opening on the other side of the room. The thin, invisible shield was enough to keep the atmosphere inside, while allowing the other ship to slip through.

The murmuring stopped as we entered, and they all looked to us expectantly. Gordon, who had been standing near the front of the group, raised a hand as we came over. Isaac was kneeling nearby, tinkering with something on one of his drones.

“They’re still a little nervous,” Gordon announced as I stepped up next to him. He nodded toward the other ship, which was extended three landing struts while slowly easing down onto them.

“I bet they are,” I replied. “I’d be nervous too if I had their lives, even if we did tell them that it’s safe.” Glancing around, I added, “Where’s Roxa?”

“Here.” The girl herself emerged from a clustered group. She looked sweaty (distractingly so), like she had just been working out. Pushing a hand back through her hair, Roxa explained, “Just ran through a little training with some of these guys. They wanna learn how to fight, so I thought I’d help. Seemed like a good idea.”

“It is,” Larissa agreed. “The best thing we can do is help them learn how to take care of themselves.”

That seemed to generally be the sentiment all around, judging from what I’d seen of the rest of our new friends. There were a few who didn’t really want to fight at all, but most of them at least wanted to know how in case the time came that they had to.

By that point, the ship had finished settling in. A hatch opened along the side, and we watched as a ramp extended before two figures appeared at the top. Katarin and a man that was clearly Haiden Moon. I could see the resemblance between him and Tristan, though his hair was dark and worn long. He was ruggedly handsome, like he should have been stepping off a horse in some kind of western movie. They both descended, stepping easily down onto the deck.

“Well,” Vanessa and Tristan’s father started, “I guess we screwed that up. Weren’t we supposed to ask for permission to come aboard?”

“I’m not sure who you’d ask,” Larissa pointed out. “The job of captain seems to have been divided among three or four different people over here.”

Chuckling, the man took a look at us. “Well, I guess I don’t have to guess who you guys are. This must be Sandy. Your mom’s said a lot about you. Though I have to say, you’re not nearly as pretty as she claimed you were.”

“Sir,” a thoroughly unamused Gordon replied, “Sands is over there.”

Doing an exaggerated double-take, Haiden pointed. “Oh, there you are!” He stepped over, extending a hand with a smile. “Miss Mason, it is my great honor and privilege to finally meet you. Though I feel like I know you already.”

Sands shook his hand, blushing a little. While they spoke for a moment, I looked to Professor Katarin and blurted, “Okay, I can’t wait anymore!”

The man blinked at me. “Excuse me?”

“I’ve been trying to keep calm and focus on everything else,” I hurried on, babbling a little bit. “Because there’s so much else to do. But you’re here now, you’re right here, and we really need to find out before anything else goes wrong. Manakel. We know you got sent out here because you saw who his host was. So… so who was it? Who is he possessing? And tell me that it was the first thing you sent back through to Vanessa when she contacted you guys!”

“Ah.” The man lifted his chin. “Yes, well, there is a slight problem with that, when it comes to telling you who the Seosten’s host is.”

I frowned. “What do you mean, there’s a problem with it? Can’t you just tell us?”

He gave a long, low sigh. “I just did, Miss Chambers.”

“No you–” I stopped. Tabbris, did you?

N-no, she answered. I didn’t hear anything. I mean I don’t… remember…

“Oh,” I said simply. And then I cursed, long and loud.

A spell. They were using the same spell to stop Katarin from telling anyone who Manakel was possessing that had been used to stop me from telling people about Wyatt and Abigail, or that the people who had cast the spell that erased Mom’s identity were under to stop them from telling anyone else about her who didn’t already know. Or a similar effect anyway. This one was clearly stronger since it wasn’t limited to Earth. And it was even affecting Tabbris.

“Yup,” Haiden agreed. “That’s pretty much what we said. But hey, it’s not a total loss. Our new friend onboard might be able to do something about it, with a little help. He’s got some ideas about breaking the spell, but needed more juice to get it done.”

“New friend?” Jazz had joined us. She looked like she’d just woken up. “What new friend? You mean the mysterious fourth Heretic that you keep refusing to tell us anything about?”

They all exchanged glances before Larissa gestured. “Ah, it’s better if you meet him in person.”  

Professor Katarin was already moving back to the ramp. “Inside. He doesn’t do well in front of a crowd.”

At the reminder, I glanced the other way. Karees and his people were all there, staring at the new arrivals with obviously barely constrained fear. Yeah, Katarin had a point. If whoever this guy was happened to be that skittish about crowds, I couldn’t see it ending well if he had to come out.

So, with a collective shrug, we followed our professor and the others up into their ship. I had no idea who they wanted us to meet, who could have been out here that was so important, and apparently so traumatized that he had to stay away from large groups.

The answer, as it turned out, was a man that I didn’t recognize at all. He stood a short distance away from the entrance ramp as we climbed aboard, clearly having been close enough to listen to what was going on without exposing himself.

He didn’t look like anything all that impressive. Actually, he looked like any countless number of homeless veterans people passed on the street every day. He stood only about five foot six, a bare couple inches taller than me, his figure ragged and bone-thin. He had long, scraggly hair and beard, both of which were dirty blonde with flecks of brown and gray spread throughout.

Seeing us, the man opened his mouth to say something, only to stop and cough, clearing his throat noisily. When he finally did speak, his voice was rough and hoarse. “You. Hi. Hi. You would be… the… students. The students from Earth.”

“Guys,” Larissa started, stepping closer that way. “I’d like you to meet Dries Aken.”

Aken–wait. As I realized that that was the same last name as Bosch’s daughter, Jazz, Sands, and Gordon all made collective sounds of shock around me.

He’s alive? Tabbris squeaked inside my head, her own shock just as thorough as everyone else’s. They kept him alive all this time?!

“Y-y-you.” Sands’ voice cracked almost as much as the man’s had. “You… you’re alive? You killed… y-you killed Hieronymus Bosch. You killed him.”

Aken. Aken. As in… as in Avalon’s ancestor!? This guy, this guy was… was related to Avalon somehow. He was her… great, great, something something great something!

“Hi, sir,” I started to extend a hand toward the man, only to stop as he stepped back from me. From the look on his face, I might as well have offered him a live snake. His eyes darted to my hand and then back again, visibly forcing himself to relax. 

“It’s–” He started roughly before seeming to lose track of what he was saying. His eyes drifted up to the side, and I saw his mouth move a little like he was actually silently sounding out his next words, practicing. “I’ve been waiting to meet you,” he finally settled on. Then he nodded, as if convincing himself that he’d said the right words in the right order.

“Yeah,” I nodded quickly, lowering my hand. “It’s–” A thought struck me then. “Oh my God. Oh… my God,” I muttered, my eyes widening as I stared at him. “Do you guys know what this means?” As they all looked at me, I motioned wildly. “Look, we’re bringing back Sands’ and Scout’s mom, and Vanessa and Tristan’s dad, right? And now, now–” I gestured at Dries like Vanna White. “We’ve even got Avalon’s ancestor! This is like… the family reunion roadtrip.”

“What… is a roadtrip?” the man asked, sounding confused as he looked at us.

“Um.” I paused. “It’s like when you start at home, then go for a really long trip just to visit someplace far away, for like… vacations. Or to visit family. Like you and Avalon, see? This is amazing.”

“Sure, okay.” Sands was nodding slowly. “But Flick, he’s also like… the worst criminal in our entire society. I mean, no offense, Mr. Aken, but the regular Heretics, the people who grew up in the knowledge, they see him as… as…”

“Hitler,” Jazz supplied. “Hitler mixed with Benedict Arnold… if he killed Jesus… by strapping him down in an orphanage and setting it on fire. Arsonist, Orphan-Murdering Benedict Hitler.”

I nodded slowly at that. “So what you’re saying is, to get Avalon have an actual relationship with her long-lost family member, we’d have to change an entire society’s opinion of the worst monster in their entire history.”

“Yeah, it’s totally– wait.” Sands squinted at me. “Are you saying it like that because you’re illustrating how impossible that would be, or because you’re adding it to your to-do list?”

I just smiled.

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Rendezvous 30-02

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“So you really didn’t know she existed until New York?” Sands asked a short while later, as she and I sat on the other side of the bridge. The brunette girl was looking past me, over to where her mother was quietly talking to Tabbris. “That must’ve been pretty… surprising.”

I coughed. “You can say that again. But I wouldn’t have gotten away from Charmiene’s trap without her help. I’d be Radueriel’s prisoner as he took me apart. And you guys would all either be dead, or Seosten slaves. Tabbris… she saved all of us from some pretty bad shit.”

Sands coughed. “Technically, you wouldn’t even have gotten that far without her. If she wasn’t possessing you, there wouldn’t have been anything to stop the Seosten from possessing you back when you were first made Avalon’s roommate. Or earlier. You probably would’ve been Charmiene’s puppet from pretty much the beginning, so she could try to kill Avalon that way.”

I grimaced at that reminder, shuddering a little before nodding. “Right, thanks. Like I said, Tabbris has been helping a lot. Probably more than we’ll ever actually be able to quantify. I…” Glancing toward Sands then, I continued, “From what I’ve been able to get out of Tabbris, Sariel was planning on restoring my mother’s memories back before she was taken back during that whole thing that split up Vanessa’s family and left Tristan banished to the Meregan world. When she found out that Mom disappeared, she knew the Seosten would be after me. So I guess she sent your mom to bring Tabbris to me pretty much right before the… the boat thing happened.”

Sands was quiet for a second, watching her mother and Tabbris with an indecisive look. Then she gave a little nod, sounding thoughtful. “Wow. Our family, your family, and Vanessa’s family are pretty connected, aren’t they? I mean, I’m still not sure exactly why Sariel knows Mom–”

“She was supposed to possess her as a child,” I announced quietly. “They wanted Sariel to infiltrate Gaia’s inner circle by installing her as a child so she could go through Crossroads training. But your mom, she um, she sort of stumbled across some bad guys when they killed someone. Bystander bad guys, I mean. They tried to kill her to shut her up, so Sariel had to show herself. She dealt with them, but Larissa got hurt pretty bad. That’s when Haiden, Vanessa and Tristan’s dad, showed up. Sariel convinced him that she wanted to save your mom, so they took her to the hospital. Then they sorta… bonded and ran away from the whole war.”

Listening to all that, Sands bit her lip hard, her brow knitting into a thoughtful frown. “So the only reason Mom wasn’t a Seosten slave that whole time is because Sariel changed her mind and switched sides. And the only reason you’re not a slave is because she had Mom bring that Tabbris girl to you. It sounds like… “ She swallowed. “It sounds like Scout and me wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Sariel. It sounds like… a lot of things would be worse if it wasn’t for her.”

“It would be.” The confirmation came from Larissa herself, as she and Tabbris moved over to where we were. The woman took a moment to embrace Sands tightly once more, closing her eyes briefly as if to focus entirely on the sensation of actually touching her daughter after all the time that they had been apart. She kept hold of her while nodding. “Pretty much everything would be worse if it wasn’t for Sariel. That’s part of why I’ve been trying to help Haiden find her. Though that might be easier now that he can actually remember her, and both of his children.”

She explained what had happened then, that Vanessa had actually managed to get through to her father by projecting herself into his mind in order to pass the message of where to find us.

“Wait, wait,” I interrupted as a thought popped in my head. “She knew exactly where we were going to be? Like, on this ship? And exactly when? How is that possible? We didn’t even know.”

“Uncle Apollo!” Tabbris chirped. She had been clinging to Larissa’s side until they got close enough to us, at which point she slipped over to stand behind me while the woman had been hugging her daughter. “He, um, he sent the message through Vanessa so they could get here.”

“Uncle Apollo,” Sands echoed flatly, eyes widening as she clutched her mom’s arm. “Does that-”

“Yeah.” I nodded. “That makes Sariel Artemis. I know, I had pretty much the same reaction. Apollo’s the one who had that code, the one that you used to send Radueriel away. He told Sariel about it, and she told Tabbris, just in case we ever got into a situation… uh, like that.”

“That was her?” Sands whistled at that. “Wow, that woman really planned ahead, didn’t she?”

“They both did,” I confirmed. “I guess it ran in the… pseudo-family. But speaking of planning ahead, if Apollo showed up to help Vanessa learn how to project herself and just happened to know exactly where we were going to be, does that mean he’s actually… I mean, he was supposed to be the god of prophecy. Is he… does he have some kind of precognitive ability?”

“Or access to someone else who is,” Larissa pointed out mildly. “But we don’t know. Sariel talked a little bit about him, but all I really know is that he was her partner for a long time. They’re not actually related, but they might as well have been. She… she felt really bad that she turned him down when he asked her to leave the Seosten. It was one of her biggest regrets.”

“So he’s been a rogue Seosten for a long time, and now he popped up out of nowhere to help us?” I gave a low whistle, shaking my head. “He’s got pretty good timing, I’ll give him that much.”

Larissa gave me a tight smile at that. “He did a lot more than just give us the timing and location. Apollo provided the spells that let us transport past the Seosten blockade and take this ship out of their range. There’s no way that we could possibly have gotten to you in time without them.”

“Well,” I announced, “sounds like I owe Sariel and Apollo a lot. I’m not sure how fast the Seosten would’ve come after me without Tabbris around, but–”

“You were fourteen,” the girl herself put in.

Blinking at the girl (it was still kind of strange to see her standing in front of me rather than as a silent voice in my head), I asked, “Err, what?”

“You were fourteen,” she repeated then. “When the first Seosten came to try and possess you, I mean.”

Okay, that derailed my thoughts a fair bit. I stared at her, mouth working. “I–they were–huh?”

The girl cringed a little, looking horribly guilty as she stammered, “I m-mean, um. I’m… I think they were trying to find out if you knew anything about why your mother disappeared. It was a woman. Not Charmiene. She came while you were sleeping and tried to possess you. When it didn’t work, she kept checking for spells around the room and stuff. I could hear her talking to someone about how your mom must’ve found a way to protect you, and that she had no idea why you weren’t with her in that case.”

My mouth opened and shut a couple times. “I… did… did they try again?”

Tabbris nodded. “A few times. They tried to use some spying spells and stuff like that, but I got rid of them. I… I’m sorry, I had to use your body to do it sometimes, I’m really, really–”

“Hey, hey, it’s okay.” I reached out, taking the girl’s arm to pull her into a hug. “You saved me, partner. Why the hell would I be mad about that?”

Tabbris started to stammer something to that, but Larissa held up a hand. “The others are on their way ba-”

In mid-sentence, the hatch slid open and Roxa stepped inside. “She’s right,” the blonde girl confirmed. “They’re coming back. The way they’re moving, I’d say you’ve got thirty seconds.”

“Right.” Nodding, I turned to hold a hand out to Tabbris, who had moved to get another brief embrace from Larissa. “Hop back in, partner.” I was stressing that word a lot, because I wanted the girl to understand how I saw her, and that I wasn’t just saying it. “Sands may be pretty great about this, but I’m pretty sure we should still keep you secret from the others.”

She did so, catching my hand before disappearing from sight. I felt the by-then familiar sensation of the Seosten girl possessing me and settling back into place. A sensation that, honestly, I was pretty sure Tabbris was purposefully making me feel as a physical indication of her presence. Either way, I was far more comfortable with her there. I may had only been consciously aware of Tabbris for a pretty short time, but being without her still felt wrong. As much as she had worked hard to keep her thoughts and feelings from influencing me too much, the fact was that we had been together for years, and her being gone made me feel incomplete. Hell, by that point, I was already accustomed to having silent conversations with her about everything we were seeing. The past two weeks had been made infinitely easier with her.

Sands was watching me closely. “You… you okay?” she asked, clearly feeling uncomfortable.

I smiled at the other girl, trying to be reassuring. “It’s still me, Sands. It’s just me, like I said before. Tabbris is here, but she’s not actually controlling me or anything. She just… helps, a lot.”

She nodded at that, just as the hatch opened once more, letting Gordon and Isaac step in. The two of them glanced around briefly, the former quietly asking, “Is everything okay up here?”

“Okay?” Sands echoed, grabbing her mother’s arm tightly before holding onto it. “My mom’s here, dude! How could things get any better? I mean, besides if we actually had a way to get back to Earth, or knew how everyone back there was doing, or weren’t being chased by an entire universe-spanning evil empire that wanted to dissect us or turn us into their personal meat puppets. Or–yeah, okay, I guess there are ways it could be a lot better. But this is pretty good!”

“Where’s Jazz?” I asked, blinking at the boys as I realized that she wasn’t coming in after them.

Isaac shrugged, nodding over his shoulder absently. “Still down with the killjoys in the hold.”

Gordon shook his head at his teammate before correcting, “She’ll be here soon, with Jokai. They’re getting everyone settled in down there. We found a room full of blankets and tarps, so they’re setting up some kind of camp.” Pausing, he added, “It’s what they’re accustomed to. And since Jazz can see through walls, she’s helping them look for anything else useful for that. Karees is there to translate.”

I wanted to ask the boy about where he’d gotten the incredibly strong cold immunity or whatever it was that had let him simply tank that ice orb back on the planet. But somehow, now didn’t seem like the right time for it. Instead, I just nodded. “I guess they might as well get comfortable. I mean, what exactly are we gonna do once we actually get to Professor Katarin and Mr. Moon?”

“Get you all home,” Larissa replied flatly. “Your orb wasn’t broken, so it should be possible to reprogram it to send you back. Trust me, Haiden and I have done a lot of research on them over the years. I’m pretty sure we know those things as well as the people who made them.”

“You know we don’t actually have those now, right?” Isaac cut in. “I mean sure, we had them before. But they disappeared as soon as we got sent to this complete ass-end of the universe.”

Larissa nodded. “Yes, Isaac. They would have been left back on Earth. And if I know Gaia at all, she has them. We just need to wait for Vanessa to contact Haiden again, and pass instructions back through her about how to reprogram the orbs to summon all of you guys back to Earth.”

“Wait, no.” Sands turned, her eyes widening at that. “Us? What about you? You’re coming back with us. Mom, you have to come back with us. You have to come back with me, and see Scout. I mean, I know Dad is a–I know what Dad did before, but you… you can’t just stay out here!”

“Oh, baby.” Larissa reached out, pulling her daughter up against her in a tight embrace. I could see tears in her eyes. “I’d never… I…” She breathed out, hugging Sands even closer. “I can’t abandon Haiden, or Sariel. I’d be a slave if it wasn’t for her. Sarah would be dead if it wasn’t for her. She saved Sarah from the Fomorian. She saved me from the Fomorian and from being a Seosten puppet. I can’t just walk away from her now. I can’t just abandon her, or her husband. Haiden’s still looking for her. Whatever’s going on with Sariel, wherever she is… I think it’s bad.”

Mama… I heard Tabbris whisper in my head. She sounded sadder than I had ever heard her. No wonder the two of us were so in sync. We both desperately wanted to save our mothers from completely impossible situations, while they were being held prisoner by sadistic monsters.

Don’t worry, I assured the girl. Like I said, we’ll help your mom. You and me, partners.

Larissa continued. “She never told me the whole story about her situation, about where or how she was imprisoned. But from what we’ve found out, from what we know, it’s…” She swallowed hard. “I love you, baby. My Sandy-witch. But they need me too. I can’t walk away from that. But I promise, that doesn’t…”  She cringed visibly then. “That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to–”

“Mom.” Sands lifted her chin, her voice hoarse from all the emotions she was clearly feeling. “I know. I’m not… I’m not gonna accuse you of abandoning us or anything. I’m not about to… to scream and throw a fit. You’re right. Sariel’s done a lot for you. And… and for Scout…. Sarah. She’s done a lot for everyone, and now she’s in trouble. She’s in really deep trouble and she can’t help herself. So,” she gave a shrug. “Let’s help her. Let’s go get her back. Together.”

Larissa’s mouth opened, but it was Isaac who spoke up. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute. What’re you trying to sign us up for now, exactly? Cuz I think we are about done with our quota of impossible heroics. Have you seen all those now-former slaves in our cargo hold? Big damn heroes time is over. We are clocked out and it’s time for us to get the hell out of this place.”

“Then you can go!” Sands snapped sharply at the boy, her glare making me glad that the girl didn’t actually have laser eyes or anything. “No one said they couldn’t send you back when the time comes. You don’t want to be a part of this, then don’t be a part of it. But shut up about it.”

“Sandy.” Larissa’s voice was gentle as she took her daughter’s hand. “The boy’s right, this shouldn’t be your problem. You already have a lot to deal with, and you’re students. You’re–”

“We’re not just going to walk away,” I put in. “Sands is right, we owe Sariel too much for that. Maybe we won’t be much help compared to you guys, but we can still help, even if it’s just a bit.”

Gordon, who had been quiet through the entire exchange to that point, finally spoke. “Maybe the best thing to do would be to make sure that there is a way back, and then go from that point.”  

“Yeah,” Sands agreed, giving her mother a look, “and also make sure that you have a way back too. Gaia reverse engineered the Meregan portal thing just by waving her hand before. Even if these are different, she’s gotta have a way to use the banish-whosits to pull you back with us.”

Larissa gave her daughter a little smile, reaching out to stroke her hair. “You have grown up so much,” she murmured. “I…” Her eyes blinked rapidly before the woman shook her head. “I’m sorry I missed so much. I just–” Choking a little, she looked away, pulling Sands close to her. “Yes, we’ll talk about it when the time comes, and decide exactly what to do then. You’re not little children anymore, so I won’t treat you like it. But you are my child. I love you, Sandoval.”

“Mommy.” Sands’ voice was a choked whisper, and she grabbed onto her mother again, losing herself in another hug. I had a feeling that was going to happen a lot. And I couldn’t really blame her at all. Hell, if it was my mother, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t let go for days, if not months.

Kissing the top of her daughter’s head reverently, Larissa paused like that for a few seconds before a slight frown knit her brow. Opening her eyes then, she carefully asked, “What did you mean when you said that you know what your dad did before? What exactly do you know?” As she spoke, the woman glanced briefly in my direction, her expression unreadable.

“Uh.” Coughing, I gestured. “Maybe we should go meet up with Jazz and Jokai, huh? This is kind of a private conversation, and we might be able to help down there. The sooner we get everything sorted out, the sooner we can get this show on the road and get out of here.”

Roxa quickly agreed, and we walked out with Isaac and Gordon so that Sands could talk privately with her mother about that situation. I was sure that Larissa would want to talk to me about it too (and meet with Tabbris again). But for the moment, it was best to leave them alone.

“So what’s in these side rooms?” I asked as the four of us walked back down the corridor, glancing at the hatches lining either side. “Did you have a chance to look yet?”

“Mostly crew quarters, the kitchen, some kind of exercise room, that kind of thing,” Gordon explained. “There aren’t enough beds for all of those guys, and apparently if they don’t all get a bed, none of them are willing to take one. When we left, they were trying to convince the elderly to take the beds, but it wasn’t going very well.”

Sighing, I opened my mouth to say something about that. Before I could, however, a voice caught my attention. We came around the corner to find Jazz, Jokai, and Karees. The three of them were sorting through a couple metal crates that they seemed to have pulled out of a nearby room.

“A bird can fly,” Jazz spoke slowly, enunciating carefully.

At first, I thought she was giving some kind of code that I wasn’t familiar with. But then Karees carefully spoke a few words in Latin, which Tabbris translated as meaning the exact same thing. Subsequently, Jazz repeated those words, getting the pronunciation just slightly wrong before Karees corrected her. She said it right the second time, looking toward Jokai as she said the words in Latin, then English, then Latin again.

Jokai, for his part, said it in Latin, then very slowly enunciated, “A… bard… cane… fly.”

Jazz giggled, nodding. “Close, uh, what was… paene? Close. Paene. Bird. Brrrduh. Bird. Can. Caaahhhnuh. Can.”

Jokai was slowly nodding. “A… brrrrduh… canuh… fly. A bird… can… fly.” He put his hands side by side in the shape of wings, flapping his fingers demonstratively.

“You know,” Isaac spoke up then, interrupting them. “You could just learn Latin from a book.”

Jazz gave a guilty start, stepping away from Jokai and Karees before coughing. “I–what’s going on?”

“It’s okay,” I insisted, giving Isaac a dirty look for a moment. “We were just giving Sands and her mom some space and figured we’d see if you needed any more help.”

“Oh, um.” Jazz gestured over her shoulder. “They’re about to send some people up to take the cots and stuff down for the elderly or sick to use. We managed to convince them to do that much, but they still refuse to use the rooms themselves. They just want to stay together in the cargo hold.”

Roxa nodded beside me. “It’s gonna take them a while to stop thinking like slaves.”

Nearby, Isaac grinned at Jazz. “Hey, I bet you and Gordon here can really sympathize with this whole ‘free the slaves’ movement, huh?”

The other girl and Gordon exchanged looks before Jazz replied in a flat, purposefully obtuse voice, “Well, sure, being on a team with you is pretty hard sometimes, but we soldier on.”

Before Isaac could say anything else, I quickly changed the subject. “If we’re ever gonna get to that rendezvous, we should probably let Jokai get the ship going.” I silently asked Tabbris to translate what I’d just said for the chameleon-man himself.

He agreed, and I started walking back to the bridge with him while the others helped get the bedding and other supplies taken down to the cargo hold. We talked a little bit on the way there, mostly about his friends from this ship who had been murdered by the Seosten who blamed them for his own orders. After a bit of back-and-forth, I realized that the piece of shit in question had actually been the Seosten who was killed by Sands back when she saved me from his ambush.

Good. I was glad that we could be certain that he was dead. And from his reaction when I told him, Jokai was pretty happy about it as well.

So happy, in fact, that as we stepped onto the bridge to find Sands and her mother there, he immediately moved to tearfully thank her. A thoroughly embarrassed Sands (once his words were translated) just mumbled about how she had just been trying to help me. Jokai kept insisting that he wanted to do something in return for her, and Sands finally asked him to show her what he did to fly the ship.

Once I had translated that with a little help from Tabbris, Jokai gave an immediate agreement before quickly ushering her over to the main controls so he could get started.

Isaac spoke up then, his eyes on Larissa. “Hey, what’s stopping any of those Seosten creeps from just teleporting onto this ship the same way you did?”

“First,” the woman replied, “I knew exactly where the ship was at the time, precise coordinates. And second, most ships are warded against people teleporting directly onto it. This one’s not because, well, it’s just a mining ship. But the one that Haiden and I… liberated, for example. We put so many wards on that thing that even we can’t get on it with the shields up. We’ll just have to teach you guys how to ward this ship the same way, to be safe.”

“Speaking of spells,” I put in then, “Since our Alter friends down in the cargo bay are all together, and we have a couple days, we can teach them the anti-possession spell. I–” Realizing something, I spun to look at Larissa. “Err, do you use that spell, the one that Gabriel Prosser taught us that drives out a Seosten if they’re possessing the person it’s used on?”

The woman’s response was a little smile. “Well, not exactly. You see, during our last… encounter with the Fomorian back on Earth, Sariel managed to do something that makes me look and feel like I’m possessed, even though I’m not.”

She went on to explain about what she and Haiden had apparently taken to calling the ‘dibs spell’, which essentially did exactly what she had just said, made her register as being possessed whenever anyone tried to possess her. Even better, between the two of them they had managed to find a way to duplicate that effect onto first Haiden, then Professor Katarin. The initial effect was still centered between Larissa and Sariel, but Haiden and Katarin copied the effect to render themselves immune to being possessed as well.

When she finished, I had to stare at her along with everyone else, all of us shocked. “Um. Does that mean…”

“We’ll teach it to you, and to the others,” she confirmed. “Better to have redundancies and teach everyone as many different ‘screw the Seosten’ spells as we can.”

Well, that was going to be… super-fucking useful. Nodding rapidly and eagerly to that, I spoke up. “Good, great. Awesome. Sounds like something to get extra credit on.”

Larissa started to move with her daughter then, only to pause and look back at me. “Felicity,” she started carefully, “I do have one question. These people keep going on about how you can do what the Seosten do to them, how you can possess the Seosten and control them. How is that possible? Even the younger Seosten have a pretty good defense against that. You would’ve had to absorb the powers of… of dozens of them to even have a shot at it.”

“Dozens,” I replied hesitantly, giving the woman an awkward shrug. “Or maybe just one really, really, really old one?” When she continued to stare at me, I coughed. “Yeah…

“Maybe I should start from the beginning.”

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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 finishes 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, 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 Charmiene hadn’t left herself open like th–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“–fucked!”

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Uprising 29-05

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s finish this.”

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Uprising 29-04

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go be heroes.”

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