Okay, so this shouldn’t be too hard. All we had to do was hold off an entire army of Alters with a handful of partially trained Heretic students (one of whom was a werewolf), a mechanical cougar, and two mechanical mice. Yes sir, this was going to be a walk in the park.
As we ran down the corridor together, Jazz spoke up. “You guys know what we’re doing right? I mean, you know what this is? We are basically going out there to stop an army that two adult Heretics, badass ones, I might add, decided was too much for them to deal with.”
Roxa shook her head. “We don’t have to deal with them. We just have to slow them down long enough for Haiden and Sands’ mom to get everyone out of there. We set up, and we make them fight for every inch they get. They can only send so many troops at us at once in these tunnels. So we set up and keep falling back whenever we need to. But make them earn it.”
Nodding, I looked over to Sands as we kept moving. “I know you don’t like being relegated to support, but-“
“Like I give a shit about that right now,” she interrupted. “Walls. You need walls, right?”
“Yep,” I confirmed. “Like the girl said, we gotta make them fight for every inch they get. That means you and I set up walls and mines all the way down the tunnel. We wall and mine the hell out of it. Make them take it slow. Plus, that way I can cover you from any strays that slip around. So you can focus on walling everything up.”
“Which puts the four of us on the front lines,” Roxa announced, coming to a stop as she looked toward Gidget and her two former teammates. Though could they really be called former right now?
Stopping as well, I looked toward Jazz. “Your gravity balls. They have a range and target limit, right?”
“Fifteen feet,” she confirmed, shifting from foot to foot anxiously.. “And anytime I try to target more than one person inside that fifteen feet, they fizzle pretty quickly. I can probably affect to three or four, but only for a short burst. Three orbs at once, ten minute duration, unless, like I said, I try to affect more than one person at a time. Seems like for every extra person I try to affect at the same time, the duration goes down about fifty percent.”
“Still useful,” I informed her with a little smile. “Just pick your moments. Don’t wear yourself out too quick. I know what happened back there with Isaac was pretty bad. And I know that this didn’t have to be our fight.”
“You’re right,” the black girl replied. “This wasn’t our fight. We didn’t choose it. Isaac chose it. And those Seosten bastards chose it. Not us. But you know who also didn’t choose it? The Kenkeans. They didn’t choose it, but they’re still going to get wiped out if we don’t do something. I may have been my people’s last choice to be their Heretic, but I can still choose what kind of Heretic I am. And I choose not to be the kind that could walk away from that.”
I was spared from having to try to respond to that, by Roxa gesturing to Jazz and Gordon. “Come on, guys. We need to get up there. They’re getting closer.”
Tilting my head a little, and focusing, I could hear them. It sounded like they were on fire. A lot of fire. Good, I thought a little maliciously. The more it hurt, the more it would slow them down.
Gordon had shifted his sword and shield back into their tommy gun form. He stood there, gazing down the corridor. “Good luck with those defenses,” he noted, in a voice that sounded like he was asking us to pick up some chips. “We’ll hold them as long as possible.”
Nodding, I added, “We’ll start the walls back here and work our way to you. Be careful, you guys. Just… please be careful.”
“Actually, speaking of being careful.” Roxa extended a hand to both me and Sands. “Do you mind? It’s probably best to have as many friends as we can get.”
Realizing what she wanted, we both nodded. Roxa immediately put her hands on each of us, and created a pair of stone duplicates. She could only make one duplicate per person, so the more people she had to work with, the more rock soldiers she could make.
By then, there was no more time to say any of the million things I wanted to say. We had to do this. To that end, the other four ran off, moving to head off the incoming troops. Meanwhile, I turned on my heel to look at Sands. “Let’s wall it up.”
Sands promptly reached out with her mace to smack it against the nearby wall and store that material as what it would make the walls from. “Ready.”
The two of us worked quickly. Sands made a wall from one side of the tunnel to the other, leaving a small opening for the others to slip through that could be sealed off as soon as they were through. Meanwhile, I carefully set mines all along it, on both sides. Anyone who tried to smash their way through, or slip through another way, was going to run into a surprise.
It was hard to focus, especially when I heard Gordon‘s gun and Gidget’s lasers start up off in the distance. All I wanted to do was run out there and help. It basically killed me not to be there on the front line. But no, we had our own job to do. Hard as it was, we had to make sure that the walls were up. We had to make this work. If Roxa and the others didn’t have any defenses to fall back behind so they could catch their breaths, this was all going to go very bad, very quickly.
Sands hesitated too, glancing toward me for a second before both of us pointedly turned back to focus on our work. “Funnel?” The other girl asked while moving forward a bit.
Realizing what she meant, I nodded and the two of us got to work. That time, rather than make a straight wall across, Sands created two walls, each taking up about half the width of the tunnel. They were angled inward to create a sort of triangle shape without a bottom. Or, as Sands had said, a funnel. The two diagonal walls didn’t quite meet. We left a small opening, again, for the others to get through. This way, the enemies would be pushed forward through the tunnel, straight to where Gordon could stand in that small opening and fire at them like they were in a shooting gallery. They would just keep getting packed closer together, so that he would barely have to aim. And any that tried to cheat by going through our walls, well, they run into my mines. It was simple, but effective. And to top things off, Sands added rows of spikes all along the angled walls. If too many of the troops tried to push forward, they’d end up impaling their companions. And if Gordon was shooting them from the spot we had set up, they were going to try to push forward to get at him. That, or they’d retreat. Either was good for me.
Glancing over my shoulder as Sands was finishing up with the last bit of wall, I caught a glimpse of the fighting going on. The others were barely visible at the far end of the tunnel, and I couldn’t really make out anything specific. But from the look of things, it was intense, to say the least. Gordon’s gun was shooting continually, and I could see what looked like Roxa’s rock statues essentially running straight into the line of fire coming from the intruders. In some cases, that ‘fire’ was literal. There was clearly at least one soldier there with some kind of flame control, who kept lobbing in fireballs. Thankfully, however, it looked like Jazz’s sword allowed her to control that fire as well. The burning orbs kept reversing course, flying back the way they had come.
Whatever was going on, the details were hard to make out. But it looked like they were slowly, yet steadily being pushed back. Which made sense. Better that they keep pulling backward than end up getting cut off from us. They were doing as much damage as they could while retreating. Twice, I saw Roxa’s aura flare up, and then caught a brief glimpse of Jazz and Gordon’s as well.
Sands and I moved on then, getting closer to the others. For the next fifty feet or so, the other girl made alternating diagonal walls going back and forth, with small openings between each that were only wide enough for someone barely Gordon’s size to slip through. Someone coming from the other direction would have to head diagonally through one tiny, tight space, get to the end, turn around completely and head back the other way. That, or they’d have to take their time smashing through wall after wall after wall. And once we fell back here and I set up some mines to cover our retreat, that in itself would still be dangerous.
Sands even set up a few spiked poles at various spots and at different heights. That way, anyone trying to run through who didn’t know where they were would risk, again, impaling themselves. Whatever it took to force them to go slow and take their time.
A flash of movement caught my eye then. Snapping my head that way, I saw something on the ceiling, rushing past Roxa and the others. One of the Seosten troops. The thing looked like a man-sized gecko with purple skin and bright red compound eyes. It crawled as fast along the ceiling as most people could run on the ground, crossing half the distance between us by the time I even had a chance to realize what was going on.
Somehow, I had my staff switched into its bow form before consciously noticing what I was doing. Reflex born of hours and hours of practice. With a blurted warning to Sands, I snapped the bow up into position, drawing back the energy arrow before launching it with barely a second to aim. Shooting, just like shifting the staff to the bow in the first place, was totally automatic.
And yet, even then, the gecko-Alter avoided the arrow completely. He dropped to the floor an instant before it struck the spot where he had been. The concussive force from the arrow’s impact was enough to knock him forward a step, but nothing more than that. And even as I quickly drew back another arrow, he was already raising his hands.
I threw myself to the side, but there was no incoming attack. No, it was worse. As the gecko spread his hands apart, a portal began to appear. Through it, I could see hordes of troops on the other side. This guy wasn’t attacking us, he was just getting past the others to send another part of their not-so-little army into the open space. If he managed it, Roxa, Gordon, Jazz, and Gidget would be cut off from us entirely. Plus, Sands and I would have a hell of a lot of company.
I couldn’t let that happen. A burst from my staff sent me flying that way while the portal was still growing. The gecko-man stood there as I landed within a few feet of him, but before I could get any closer, a hail of lasers erupted from the portal itself as several of the soldiers on the other side opened fire, forcing me to dive out of the way. As I hit the floor, however, the grapple line from my staff was already launching to wrap around the man’s legs so that he was yanked over to land hard on his back.
The portal, almost as large as the man himself by that point, was still connected to the man’s hands. So it went horizontal rather than vertical, hovering there in the air just above him. One of the other soldiers suddenly appeared there, his upper half poking out of the portal as he leaned through with his rifle raised.
He aimed for me, but just before the man could actually shoot, I triggered the boost from my staff before releasing it so that the weapon went flying down the tunnel back toward Sands. The grapple was still connected to the gecko-man’s legs, so he was hauled along the floor, which threw the other man’s aim off as the portal he was leaning through was suddenly moving. Lasers ate up the wall beside and around me while I rolled back to my feet.
By the time the guard leaning through the portal had twisted back toward me and brought his gun into line, I was up. And as his finger tightened on the trigger, my hand lashed out, launching a small, metal object. Jaq. I had liberated him from the staff before launching it down the tunnel.
And now, I threw the little mouse-cyberform like a baseball. In mid-flight, he changed shape, going from animal to a sharp, deadly blade an instant before he was embedded deep in the gecko-man’s head. .
He died instantly. Which meant that his portal vanished with the other figure still halfway out, slicing him in half and sending my aura flaring up as I was filled with the pleasure from both soldiers’ deaths.
Sands, by that point, had finished with the next set of walls. She jogged up, snatching my staff off the ground from near the bodies before tossing it to me as I joined her.
“Thanks,” I muttered, extending the empty end of the staff down toward the blade that was stuck in the gecko-man’s head. Jaq shifted once more before returning to his spot on the weapon.
Sands opened her mouth before suddenly shoving me aside, just before some kind of electrified grappling hook thing with a manacle on the end shot through the space where I had just been. A quick glance over my shoulder showed some kind of bug-like Alter in silver armor flying above us. He started to retract the grapple back into his extended gauntlet.
Before it could disappear entirely, however, I grabbed on and let it carry me up toward the man. Halfway up, the bug-figure stopped retracting the grapple. But it was too late. I used a quick burst from my staff to propel myself the rest of the way, even as he recoiled.
Then I was inside him. Not in the ‘splatter him to pieces’ kind of way. I was possessing him. Pivoting in the air, I threw the electrified grapple gun down toward Sands. It could be useful. Then I blurted inwardly, Tabbris!
She knew. The bug man fell unconscious, and I sprang free of him, landing in a crouch next to the other girl.
By that point, as the two of us turned the other way, Roxa and the others were on their way. They’d been fighting a slow retreat the whole time, and now they were close enough for us to actually see what was going on. Roxa shouted something before Gidget flew up in her hoverboard form to fire a dazzling display of lasers at the incoming swarm of soldiers. Using that as cover, the others broke and turned to sprint back to us.
“You good?” I asked as they reached us, Roxa and Gidget landing an instant behind the other two.
“Peachy!” Jazz shouted back. She was bleeding heavily from one arm, and her face was bruised. But she looked more alive than I had seen her in quite some time. Maybe ever.
Together, we made our way back slowly through the defenses that Sands and I had erected. Between all of us, we must have taken out twenty or more of the damn guys. But it wasn’t enough. They just kept coming. Mine after mine, wall after wall, they were an inexorable tide. But we were slowing them down.
“It’s done!” The words finally came from Sands, as she held that red ball in one hand. “They’ve got them all through! We’ve gotta go!”
It was just in time, too. We were at our last layer of defenses, the first wall that Sands had made. And now it was our turn.
But as our hands collectively found each of our badges and we blurted, ‘Dorothy’ together, nothing happened. Nothing at all. Glancing to the others, I tried again. We all did. Still, nothing.
Then something did happen. But it was nothing good. The sound of a steady, violent droning, like an angry swarm of insects, filled the air. Together, we turned back the other way, just in time to see the wall completely disintegrate. And not just the wall, but my mines as well. They just… fizzled, absorbed by what appeared to be a massive swarm of tiny bits of buzzing metal. The same buzzing metal that had just devoured Sands’ wall.
“Hello, children,” Radueriel spoke calmly, standing there with his troops arrayed behind him. Dozens of rifles and other weapons were leveled at us, ready to put us down the second we so much as breathed wrong. “I’d like you to meet my own offspring. Or as close as I will ever get.” He raised a hand, as the swarm buzzed down and around him. “My nanites are glorious creatures. So very helpful. Particularly in matters such as… jamming those teleportation spells you happen to be wearing.”
He looked like he was going to say something else then, before pausing to consider. Then he just offered us a little shrug, speaking simply. “Take th–”
As the man was in mid-sentence, one of the soldiers, clearly overly eager, lunged for us. In his haste, however, the man slipped and hit the floor hard. That, in turn, tripped up a couple other soldiers, while more of them blinked back to see what was going on, thereby taking their weapons off of us. It was an opening. A brief one, but an opening nonetheless.
We took it. Spinning back, the six of us hauled ass toward the other room. The soldiers were already reacting, firing a few shots after us. But it was too late. Sands erected a quick wall to block the shots for those precious handful of seconds while we ran. Go. Go. We had to move.
“They’re holding the portal!” Sands called as we scrambled. “We can get out that way!”
Together, we sprinted back into that chamber with Radueriel, his soldiers, and his swarm of nanobots or whatever they were hot on our heels. My endurance was, as always, amazing. Yet I could feel the drain creeping up on me, after that fight with Isaac. And if I was starting to feel it a bit, the others had to be dying. But we couldn’t stop. We couldn’t even slow down. My lungs were screaming, my legs hurt, and I really wanted a drink of water. It was those seemingly little things that I didn’t really think about when imagining how something like this would go. The thirst from a long fight, the cramp in my side, the fact that I kinda needed to pee, it all seemed inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Yet it added up.
The glowing red portal was right there, leading up to the ship. I saw Haiden and Larissa on either side of it, waving us through. Sands hit it first, disappearing the second she passed through. Gordon, two steps behind her, was next, followed by Roxa and Gidget. Only Jazz and I were left.
The droning of the swarm had grown deafeningly loud by that point. The nanites were on top of us. But instead of attacking, they flew around and over the two of us, straight toward where Haiden and Larissa were.
Between the two of them, the adult Heretics killed what was likely millions of the tiny machines within a handful of seconds. Anything that got near them was incinerated. While our powers weren’t enough to take a decent number of the little bastards down, theirs were.
But the nanites weren’t actually attacking them. Not exactly. No, they went for the portal. Larissa and Haiden got rid of most of them, but I saw a few reach the portal. They didn’t go through it, as I feared they might. Instead, they started to explode around it. They looked like tiny fireworks. And as the nanites exploded, the portal suddenly expanded. It grew dramatically, doubling in size in an instant, as if the exploding nanites had suddenly filled it with energy.
Haiden and Larissa were both engulfed by the portal, disappearing. It was a move I didn’t understand, until the portal began to shrink just as suddenly as it had grown. The nanites had overloaded it and now, after briefly growing, the portal was collapsing. It would be gone in seconds. And we were too far away to get to it in time. Seeing that, I slowed.
“Flick!” Jazz shouted from beside me, noticing the instant that I fell behind. She turned toward me, even as I snapped my staff up into position. “Wh–”
I triggered the kinetic charge on my staff. Not behind myself, but in front. The burst slammed into Jazz, picking the other girl up and hurling her forward. With a cry of surprise, she went flying through the portal an instant before it finished collapsing.
I’d done it without thinking. Without even considering any of my actions. My only impulse had been to get Jazz to safety. Now that she was, I spun back the other way as the sound of footsteps reached me. My fist swung wildly.
Radueriel caught it easily. His hand stopped mine, and there was a sudden blinding pain as he simply squeezed, snapping pretty much every bone in my fingers, and cracking a few more in my hand. I hit the floor with a cry, dropping to my knees while the ancient Olympian Seosten simply stood there with my fist caught in his grip.
Flick! Tabbris blurted inside my head, sounding panicked.
Whatever happens, I shot back to her, do not reveal yourself. You hear me, Tab? Do not reveal yourself, no matter what.
“Interesting,” Raduriel remarked calmly, the casualness of his tone at odds with the force with which he was gripping my hand. “I do hope that you weren’t expecting them to come back for you. I’m afraid that the shield against such intrusions is now fully in place. There will be no interruptions.
“Still,” he added thoughtfully, “I’m certain that we can find… appropriate accommodations for you, Miss–”
“Let the girl go.” The new voice came from beside me, and both Radueriel and I turned slightly. It was the soldier from before, the one who had tripped. He stood there, staring intently at the man who was holding my fist in his unrelentingly crushing grip.
“Let her go,” the soldier repeated flatly.
Raduriel stared at him for a brief second. His mouth opened. “You–”
That was as far as he got before the soldier abruptly lashed out. His fist was a blur that I could barely process before it slammed into Raduriel’s chest. The powerful Seosten was hurtled away from me, finally releasing my hand as he flew backward to crash into several of his soldiers.
The guard who had intervened, meanwhile, collapsed. He fell to the floor in a heap, while a second figure, the one who had been possessing him, stood there in his place.
She wasn’t tall, standing an inch shorter than I was. Her brown hair was cut in a short, layered crop that barely reached her neck. Her eyes were slate gray, and she had the same high cheekbone, aristocratic look that I had come to expect from the Seosten. For clothes, she wore a pair of black leggings with what looked like intricate golden flame patterns running down to her boots, which themselves were almost entirely gold. Sheathed at her waist was a sword, whose hilt was shaped like a dragon. Set where it was, the head of the dragon appeared to be the source of the decorative flames that were running down her legs.
She wore a chainmail-like top, that was black with a golden design etched into the chest. It was the outline of a bird in flight. An owl, I realized a bit belatedly.
Oh, my God, Tabbris suddenly blurted in my head. It’s–
“You.” Raduriel had picked himself up, his eyes narrowed. Surrounded by dozens of his men, he still looked a little off-balance, a little nervous. “Involving yourself personally in this situation? That seems odd for you, Auriel. Or do you prefer Athena now? Or does your preference lie in another identity entirely? Such as, for example…