Jokai

A Different Kind Of Hunt 31-01

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Please note, there was a mini-interlude focusing on Pace posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

“So you guys… invented a whole new spell on the fly?” Jazz asked a short while later, as we all stood in one of the side rooms, waiting to learn this so-called ‘dibs spell’. We would have done this bit in the main cargo hold, but honestly… we all felt like it was a good idea to let the Alters (those who had survived) have some more time to themselves without us intruding. They would learn the spell too, of course. Haiden and Larissa had promised to teach it to them once they had the hang of Gabriel Prosser’s simpler ‘Seosten ejection spell’. But for now, it felt best to give them privacy, after everything that had happened. They were deep in mourning.

All of them, that was, except for Karees. The old tree-man was up here with us, though he was standing out of the way. He was here to learn the spell, so that he could teach it to his people on their own time. As sad as he was, he wanted to help the others learn to protect themselves from Seosten possession even more. So he stood there, silently observing.

“Not exactly,” Haiden replied, his voice a little distracted. I knew why, of course. Vanessa still hadn’t been back in contact, and he was worried. And, well, he also needed to pass along the news about Isaac. Apparently Vanessa had told him that it might be awhile before she could manage to project herself to him again after that first time. But he was obviously still anxious.

After giving her long-time partner a brief look, Larissa explained for us. “We didn’t invent a spell. We modified and combined a couple of existing ones, and threw on a few bells and whistles.”

Haiden finally nodded, turning his attention back to us then. “We told you about Sariel.”

“She’s come up before,” Gordon confirmed simply. “She’s your… wife?”

“Miss uh, Mason said that… that this Sariel woman made the dibs effect work the first time, when she explained what it was,” Jazz put in, her voice catching a little bit as she spoke.

“That’s the one,” Haiden replied with a short nod. He was trying to sound light and casual, but there was a hitch in his voice that told me just how much he missed his wife. “But there’s something else that you should probably know before we go any further. You see, Sariel… she-”

“She’s a Seosten,” Jazz finished for him, blinking as everyone else did a double-take. “What? Was that really supposed to be a surprise? We figured it out like, two seconds after you guys first mentioned her. I mean, come on, Sariel? It’s not like these guys have a super-varied naming structure to begin with. Ends with -el. She’s either Seosten or Kryptonian, and we’re not nearly lucky enough for it to be that second one. So, she’s one of the angels. Only, like, a good guy, errr, girl. Point is, she wasn’t loyal to these slave-driving dickshits anymore.”

While the rest of us stared, the black girl went on. “Which, you know, was probably because you guys had some epic first encounter that made her change sides. Then you fell in love and ran off together, had a couple kids and everything was hunky dory until her Seosten bosses showed up again. Bad things happened and they used one of those banishment orbs to take her, you, and one of your kids out here into Seosten space while the other one was left back on Earth.”

It took Haiden a few seconds to find his voice after Jazz had finished saying all of that, as he stared incredulously at the girl along with the rest of us (aside from Gordon, who just nodded along with his teammate). Finally, the man coughed before asking, “Uh, how exactly did you…”  

“Seriously?” Jazz gave a little shrug. “You’re out here in Seosten space, so you were obviously banished here. We already knew that this Sariel was your wife from context, and they called you Mr. Moon before. Haiden Moon. I mean, it’s not a super-rare name, but there’s already Vanessa and Tristan Moon back at Crossroads, so that’s sort of a no-brainer. Plus, Vanessa supposedly had no family at all until Tristan just randomly showed up at the school partway through the year. The story was that their family was attacked by some Strangers, who set up a portal and it took the three besides Vanessa away and scattered them across the universe.

“The point is,” she finished with another shrug, “it’s not exactly a huge leap. He’s Haiden Moon, Vanessa and Tristan are Moons, they were missing their family, there’s clearly something super-special about them, and the name Sariel isn’t hard to jump to being a Seosten.”

My mouth opened and shut a couple times before I finally shrugged. “Yeah, okay, good point.”

Haiden nodded. “I suppose it goes without saying that this is another one of those things that-”

“–we can’t talk about to anyone else once we get back,” Gordon finished for him. “We know.”

“Trust us,” Jazz confirmed, “we’ll keep your secrets, we promise. Especially after… after everything that’s happened.” She stiffened a little bit at the memory, face cringing before she clearly pushed herself to continue. “We’re not gonna expose your family, Mr. Moon. We swear.”

“Like that matters,” Sands blurted before quickly correcting herself. “I mean, sorry, it does matter that we can trust you. It does. I just meant that with Isaac out there… he’s probably run all the way back to his Seosten masters by now.”

“Actually…” Haiden smiled a little. “According to Dries, it’s not that simple.” As we all looked to him, he continued. “Turns out, he was a little bit more paranoid than we were. He set up a bunch of spells to damage the ship if it was ever stolen or used against us. The kid managed to disable some of them, but not all. From what Dries managed to trigger, the Liberty Bell won’t make it all the way into civilized space. Our little friend is gonna have to find a rim world to set down on, and call for help. And since there’s not exactly a full portal network set up on most of these places, odds are that they’ll have to fly out to meet him the long way. Which gives us a chance.”

“Then it’s a chance we should take advantage of,” I put in. “We get to Isaac. But first, we learn this spell, and keep the Seosten out of our heads.” Except the ones we happen to like, I added inwardly, smiling.

Larissa returned my smile a bit knowingly, winking once before continuing. “Right. Well, the point is, Sariel created the effect and we’re not even sure exactly how she did it. But it works.”

“Yup,” Haiden agreed. “No idea what she did, but Sariel somehow threw up a big ‘no vacancy’ sign on Larissa here, which is what stops any Seosten from possessing her. It’s convenient.”  

The woman continued then, explaining, “The spells we combined and altered essentially copy the existing effect while throwing on a few extra bits that are essentially just smoke and mirrors so that if anyone uses an identify spell or something like that to try and figure out how we do it, they end up getting a bunch of extra spell parts that don’t actually do anything. That way, it should make it harder for them to actually identify how the protective part of the spell is done.”

I snorted at that despite myself. “So what you’re saying is, only a little part of the spell is actually necessary. The rest is all bells and whistles to make it look more complicated than it is.”

She nodded. “Exactly. So, let’s get started, shall we? It’s not that hard to learn how to copy the effect, but it’s still easy to mess up if you don’t do it right. So we’ll take it slow and make sure everyone understands. First up, take the object you’re going to use to trigger the spell…”

*****

“You’re… you’re really, really, really sure that you’re okay with this, guys?” I asked a little while after we had finished practicing the spell for the day. There was only so much of that we could do. At the moment, I was with Roxa, Sands, Gordon, and Jazz in one of the other rooms.

Jazz coughed at that. “You mean, are we okay with you possessing us so you can tell us what powers we ended up getting from all the killing we’ve been doing on this trip? Yeah. Might as well use every advantage we’ve got, right? If you can just scan through and tell us what we’ve got instead of going through a bunch of trial and error, that’d be great.”

It wouldn’t really be me doing it, of course. Tabbris was the one who actually knew how to scan through a person that we possessed to find out what powers they had. But, well, Jazz and Gordon didn’t need to know that right now.

My helpful little partner had already informed me of everything I had received during our trip so far. From the two soldiers that I had killed on Radueriel’s station, I’d gotten a very minor strength boost and slightly less minor boost to my balance. From the Pantler back on the other planet, I’d gotten the power to see through certain kinds of camouflage and other stealth abilities. That was how I’d spotted Jokai before. Meanwhile, I’d also killed four of the slave camp guards. From them, I’d gained a slight boost to my regeneration, that power to embed sound in an object, a resistance to being hurt by electricity, and what amounted to a slightly larger pool of energy that I used for magic, so I didn’t tire out quite as quickly. Then there was the boost to my dexterity from the young Seosten that I had killed, while of the three humanoid guards on the ship, I’d gained a boost to my pain resistance (thank God), the ability to detect poisons by smell, and I could also go without breathing for up to ten minutes if need be.

So it was useful knowledge. And now the others wanted me to share that with them, ever since Sands had brought up the idea that it was possible. So, biting my lip, I looked over to Gordon, who had been quiet throughout this little discussion. “What about you?”

“No,” he replied quickly before hesitating. “I mean… “ Pausing, the boy exhaled. “I know how that sounds. But… I just don’t… I’m not ready for that. Not yet.” For a moment, it looked like he wanted to say something else, but stopped himself. “Just… not now.”

I didn’t blame him, honestly, even if a part of me was reflexively suspicious because of what happened with Isaac. Having someone in your head, reading your every thought and able to control you, it was pretty… huge.

I’m just lucky I ended up with you, I directed inwardly to my own secret sister. Sister. Talk about a weird, extended family. Between me considering Tabbris a sister, her own connection to Vanessa and Tristan through their shared mother, Larissa being a sort-of second mother to her and thus Sands and Scout–Tabbris had a lot of people who thought of her as family. 

And that family thing included Haiden, I was pretty sure. Tabbris had actually come out of me the night before, so that she could talk with her mother’s husband. I wasn’t sure what the two of them had actually said, because I gave them privacy. But from the look on Tabbris’s face when she had returned to me, it had been a good conversation.

Shaking off those wandering thoughts, I nodded. “Okay, don’t worry. Just keep the dibs spell active then. And…”  I turned back to the others. “I guess if the rest of you are into it, I’ll see what we can find out.”

“Yeah,” Sands confirmed, extending a hand to me. “Let’s do it.”

******

Standing on the bridge of the ship the next day, I stared out at a field of asteroids that surrounded us. Straight ahead, one of the larger ones (even bigger than the ship itself) had some kind of hole cut in the side of it, covered by heavy metal doors and a visible forcefield.

As promised, I had let Jazz, Sands, and Roxa know what powers they’d ended up with. For Jazz, that was a decent strength and minor durability boost, and the ability to create these small, solid orbs that she could use to manipulate gravity within a fifteen foot radius. Each ball would last for ten minutes unless dismissed early, and she could have three of them active at any given time.

Meanwhile, Sands had gained a slight boost to her agility, a resistance to being hurt by fire, the ability to instinctively understand how to use any handheld weapon as soon as she touched it, a big boost to her strength like the one that I had gotten from killing Valentine the werewolf, as well as a boost to her reflexes, a slight increase to her energy pool for spells, and that powerful boosting ability that she had gained from killing the Seosten who had cornered me. Oh, and she could actually turn into this two-dimensional shadow-form that was cool, but she hadn’t quite gotten the hang of. 

Finally, Roxa’s kills had gained her increased strength (that was a pretty common power, as it turned out), an almost imperceptible boost to her regeneration, the ability to turn into an elastic/rubber-like form that could stretch out to twice her normal size, armored scales that she could cover her body with for even more protection, underwater breathing, ultraviolet vision, and the power to create and mentally manipulate up to several gallons-worth of this dark, oil-like liquid, which she could cause to solidify with a thought. Not to mention, she had also gained the power to touch any figure and create a stone copy of that person that would do whatever she said. The stone duplicate couldn’t use any of the original’s powers of anything, but they were pretty strong in their own right.

The point was, being able to just tell them what their powers happened to be was really useful. We’d been able to practice a little bit with them instead of waiting for the powers to just come out on their own through stress or trial and error, or whatever else made our minds suddenly realize we could use them. Sometimes it seemed completely random whether we’d somehow know what our new powers were, or have to figure them out randomly.

“So what is this place, exactly?” I asked curiously, shaking that thought off as I nodded to the view of the asteroid station on the screen. “And how did you guys find it?”

Haiden, standing beside me, explained, “We’re pretty sure it was some kind of mining facility first. Then pirates took it over. We cleared them out a couple years ago, and we’ve been storing stuff here whenever we need to since then. Haven’t had any problems yet. It’s isolated, private, and we’ve fixed up the defenses enough that it should discourage anyone that gets close enough to check it out, at least long enough for us to get the alert and come back here.”

Larissa looked over toward Karees, who stood at the back of the room, staring at the image on the screen. “Between what’s already on the station and what you’re taking from this ship, there’s enough supplies for all your people to hold out for at least a couple months if you’re smart about rationing. We’ll be back here long before then. And if we’re not, there’s a couple emergency portals to get down to the nearest habitable planet. It won’t be as safe as this is, but it’s something. And we’ll work out a more permanent solution as soon as possible, I promise.”

The ancient Relukun audibly swallowed. I saw his eyes dampen as he spoke simply. “It… it is freedom,” he announced carefully, taking a moment to choose each word. “It is everything.”

Smiling, Haiden put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed a little while nodding to Karees. “Right. Let’s get on down to the cargo bay and have your people set up the portals to get over there so they can look around their brand new home, then.”  

So, we did. It wasn’t hard for the Alters who were capable of it to set up the portals, since they could actually see where they were going this time. They had a couple of them established within about ten minutes to make the hop over to the asteroid station, and the rest of the group had collected all the supplies that they were going to take over with them.

The… bodies and pieces of the bodies were gone. All of them except for Professor Katarin had been given burials at space by the rest of their people, each receiving their own small funeral.

As for Katarin, we were keeping what was left of his body in storage, because we… well, we were hoping that there would be a way to bring him with us. He deserved to be buried on Earth, with and by the people who cared about him and whose lives he had touched. They deserved to have the chance to say goodbye. It was the least we could do. It was literally all we could do.

Jazz, who was standing near Jokai, looked to him. “You’ll be safe here. Well, at least as safe as you can be. You and your people, Isaac won’t be able to hurt you again. Not anymore.”

But instead of agreeing, Jokai shook his head at that. “I go,” the chameleon-Alter announced with a determined look. He pointed back to the door that led up to the bridge, before forming his hands into the same bird-like motion he had made the other day. “Fly.”

“Oh, but… Jokai,” Larissa started with a quick headshake. “We’re going somewhere dangerous. We–” She paused before switching into Latin, telling him that we were going after Isaac.

“Vērō!” Jokai agreed emphatically before switching back to his slow, uncertain English. I was pretty sure that he wanted the rest of us to understand. And he wanted to practice, even if it was hard. “I-” He pointed to himself, then made a few other accompanying gestures to make his words clearer. “-go and… flying to help… to take all to I-zack. To fight I-zack. I… not fight. I not strong. Not good. But fly good. Fly… take to I-zack. Taking to others… all fight. They fight. I fly. I take. Take to I-zack, stay fly so all fight. I fly. They fight. I help. Not strong. Not fight. Fly. Help.”

“You’re wrong.” That was Jazz. “You’re wrong about not being strong. You weren’t trained to fight. You were trained to be a slave. But you escaped. You got away, and instead of staying out of it, instead of staying safe, you want to play taxi for us, for all these guys, just to go after Isaac for what he did. He could kill you and–” She looked away, biting her lip before finishing with a soft, “You are strong, Jokai. You’re strong in a way that Isaac will never, ever understand.”

I saw Larissa smile just a little then, before the woman cleared her throat, “Jokai, if you’re sure about coming along, we’d love to have your help. You’ve definitely earned the right to be here.”

He seemed to get the basic idea of what she was saying, but Larissa translated that for him anyway, just to make sure. Once she did, he gave a firm nod. “I fly,” he repeated. “I help.”

“In that case,” Jazz hurriedly put in, “I think he deserves to wear actual clothes instead of that loin cloth.”

Larissa nodded in agreement, along with the rest of us. “Of course,” the woman answered. “There’s some utility jumpsuits in one of these rooms around here. We’ll find something that fits. And whatever doesn’t can go over with the rest of them so they can divvy them up.”  

“Well,” Haiden started then. “Now that that’s decided, let’s help the rest of these guys get settled into their new place for the time being. And then it’ll be time for us to go psycho-hunting.”

“You’re really gonna have to be more specific than that,” I pointed out dryly. “Because with the year I’ve had, saying we’re looking for a psycho only narrows it down to like, a dozen people.”

The man snorted. “Believe it or not, I know what you mean. Heretics have a way of racking up enemies, somehow. Couldn’t be all the holier than thou genocide, or anything.” He glanced sidelong at me then. “Though you do seem to be going above and beyond, in a lot of ways.”

“I like to overachieve,” I replied. “Can’t be lazy when it comes to collecting mortal enemies.”

Shaking his head, Haiden offered, “Don’t worry, we’re about to wipe one of those off your list. Isaac’s biggest advantage was that we didn’t know he was a threat. Now that we do… he’s thrown that away. So when we find him, we’ll take him down, and we’ll make him talk.”

The sentiment was shared by everyone else, and we made our way back to the bridge once Karees and the others had transferred over to the station. I really wanted to stay with them longer, help them get settled in and just… spend time with the people and get to know them. But there wasn’t time. We had no idea how long it would take Isaac to get a hold of someone and negotiate to tell them what he knew. Or if they would just possess him and take it.  

Either way, we didn’t have time to sit around with Karees and his people, no matter how much I desperately wanted to. Hell, what I really wanted to do was go home and see my dad, and Avalon, and Shiori, and Wyatt, and Koren, and… well, everyone. But I couldn’t do that either.

Seriously, fuck Isaac and fuck the Seosten Empire. Also, fuck the Fomorians while I was at it. Not because they were responsible for any of this specifically, but generally speaking it felt like a good idea to add them into a list like that just on principle.

Once Jokai had taken his place at the pilot’s seat on the bridge, I asked, “How long is it going to take to get to where Isaac had to land the Bell?”

“Thirty-two hours,” Larissa replied without needing to look at anything. “But the planet he made it to isn’t on any trading network, and it’s about a week from the nearest Seosten base that we know of. So we might still make it there before anyone he could get a message to.”

Sands’ head shook at that as she looked to her mother. “Somehow,” she replied, “I don’t think we’re actually that lucky.”

I had a feeling that she was going to be proven right. Still, as the ship set out on course, I couldn’t help but cross my fingers and offer a silent wish that it would end up being that easy.

“So we’ve got about a day and a half,” Haiden announced then. Turning away from the front viewscreen to look at us, the man continued, “Sounds like enough time to get some training in.”

Part of me felt a sharp pang at that. Training. It’s what Katarin would have wanted us to do, what he would have made us do. Still, I forced that feeling down and nodded. “Sure, let’s train.”

Roxa folded her arms. “Might as well, though to tell you guys the truth…

“The only train I’m really interested in right now is the one I want to run over Isaac with.”

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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’s 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 let 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 Charmeine’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 Charmeine’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 Charmeine. 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 have 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, who had wandered in, 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 finished straightening up. The ship came alive around us. I felt a slight vibration beneath our feet as the engines came online. Jokai himself was babbling something excitedly while gripping what looked like a steering yoke to turn it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Three–” Radueriel’s voice droned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… M… mommy?” Sands whispered.

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Uprising 29-08

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Well, if all those Seosten slaves/prisoners that we had just liberated were nervous about their situation before, a massive werelion running right into the middle of their impromptu camp while a Heretic armed with a mace rode on her back probably wasn’t exactly helping matters any.

Sands and I had just run for the past twenty minutes to catch up with these guys. Not that it was hard to find them, I just let the other girl hold my little mouse buddy so he could direct her to where his brother was (She’d been smart enough to hand Jaq over to the others so that we could find them later). Then I just shifted into my lion form, let her climb on, and took off.

The place where Roxa, Isaac, Gordon, and Jazz had stopped with the rest of the slaves turned out to be a large clearing that was sort of half covered from the sky by a rocky outcropping. Most of the former slaves were catching their breath, some lying on the ground and gasping for air while others simply bent to grab their knees. They all looked ragged, worn, tired, and scared.

As we came into view, however, all of those exhausted former prisoners were suddenly back on their feet. They looked ready to scatter and flee into the woods until Roxa came running down from atop the rock, calling, “Wait, wait, it’s okay! They’re with us! Gordon, tell them!”

But before the boy could say anything, as he too came down from the rock outcropping, one of the prisoners spoke up. His words were hesitant and a little slow, but understandable English. “We… have understanding of your speaking. We have… very hard trying to learn what they are called ‘trade language’ for if we are ever to be away from the masters.”

Lifting my currently furry head while Sands clambered off me, I looked at the man who had spoken. It was a Relukun, like the one I had killed to get my wood-traveling power. This one looked twisted and ancient, like a gnarled old tree that was about to fall over. Nonetheless, he was standing on his own two feet, and there was a smile somewhere in the wrinkled, wooden countenance. “It was a lost hoping,” he murmured, “but we did not stop it. Or stop learning.”

I think I like him, Tabbris whispered. Can we say hi? Um. When we can talk again. Please?

Trust me, I think I like him too, I replied before turning toward Sands as the girl held my clothes up to me. Taking them in my mouth, I looked over at Roxa. She was already gesturing for me to follow her over to a spot where I could safely change. In the background as I trotted after the werewolf-Heretic, I heard Sands telling them what little she knew about what had happened.

As she led me out of the way, Roxa quietly explained, “They’ve been using some magic and powers that they have to hide where we are and erase our trail. It probably won’t stop the Seosten forever, but it’ll slow them down, hopefully long enough for us to get out of here. There’s a few of them making some kind of portal thing now that’s supposed to take us up to one of the ships. We could’ve gone further, but the further we ran down here, the longer it would’ve been before they could start making the portals. I figured this would be far enough.”

I gave the other girl a nod with the lion’s head. She had a point. This wasn’t as far away as most might’ve considered safe. But as big as this forest was, it would still take the Seosten some time to search enough of it. Especially if these guys were using magic to try and keep them away. I had no doubt that the wannabe angels would eventually break through that sort of thing. But in the short-term, maybe it would be enough. It was going to have to be enough.

Changing and dressing quickly (an act that was made infinitely faster and easier since I could just touch an article of clothing, focus on it, and have it appear on my body where I wanted it), I made my way back out to where everyone else was. Sands was there, holding my staff out for me to take. Gus had been reunited with his brother, and the two mice were perched in the middle of the staff. I let them climb up on my shoulders, giving them a little attention before finally looking around the clearing.

Wow. There were a lot of Alters here. More than I could easily count during a quick scan. They were of all shapes and sizes. The majority, of course, were vaguely humanoid. But there were also a few that definitely weren’t. I saw a couple that basically looked like slime-creatures with tentacles, one six-legged bear-man with long rabbit-like ears, and even a few much smaller figures that looked like squirrels mixed with lawn gnomes. Not to mention several centaurs and centaur-like beings that stood near the back of the area, nervously pawing at the ground.

So yeah, there were a lot of people. And all of them were staring at me. Not glancing, not looking back and forth between all of us. They were openly staring directly at me, while not making a sound. Some of them looked scared, but the majority simply looked somehow… awed.

Roxa moved next to me, quietly whispering, “A few of the ones that can fly stayed back long enough to see what happened. They… saw what you did, that you could possess the Seosten.”

Oh. That explained why they were staring. Flushing self-consciously, I cleared my throat before raising my voice to speak up. “Uh, guys, we should really get out of here. The Seosten aren’t gonna give up. We stopped them from contacting Radueriel, but that won’t last forever. Before long, he’s gonna get the message about what happened, and when he does, we’re completely screwed if we’re still here. They’ll send the ships back here to scour the place top to bottom. They’ll probably burn the whole planet at this point to stop us from getting away.”

The elderly, gnarled Relukun who had spoken up before moved forward. He had Jokai with him, and was murmuring something to the chameleon-like being. After a moment, Jokai turned and started talking to the other Alters in Latin, while the old tree-man came to where we were.

“Our peoples,” he started, “they have started the spells which will take all to the starboats. But it will… take more minutes to finish such spells. They are doing the working as fast as they able.”

“They’re up on the overlook,” Gordon informed me, gesturing that way. “Apparently, the spell needs a clear look straight at the sky in order to work properly. I just asked them, and they said it’s going to take at least another twenty minutes to get it set up. If they don’t do it just right, the spell could just fling everyone into the middle of space instead of sending us onto the ships.”  

Isaac blanched noticeably at that little nugget. “Uh, yeah, tell ‘em to take their time and do it right, then. I withdraw any and all complaints I might have made about how long it was taking.”

Nodding slowly, I looked to the Relukun. “Do you think they–” Pausing, I frowned before hesitantly asking, “I’m sorry, could you tell us what we should call you, sir? I’m Flick.”

“Oh, right.” Roxa quickly lifted her hand to gesture that way. “Flick, this is Karees. He’s basically the leader of these guys, since he’s been here the longest. He spent eighty years here on the planet. Before that, he was in a few other slave camps. He’s the one who convinced them to listen to Jokai and the others when they were trying to convince them to leave the camp.”

Smiling a little at that, I nodded. “Thanks. And it’s really good to meet you, Karees. I’m glad you managed to convince the others to take a chance with us. And now I just hope you didn’t misplace that trust and we manage to get out of here without getting everyone captured again.”

The Relukun shook his head at that. “Whether one way or some other,” he announced solemnly, “we will no longer be Seosten prisoners. Our people here will be their slaves for no more again.”

Swallowing, I lifted my chin, deciding to focus on the part about getting everyone out rather than the implication of what the former prisoners would do if it looked like they were about to be captured. “The ships that Jokai was talking about, it sounds like your people are using a spell to send us up to them? Won’t the other Seosten think of that and be up there waiting for us?”

Karees smiled at me. “We have thinking of that,” he answered easily. “Before leaving prison place, some of us did went to wipe away and break spell transports. They will have to be remaking them. It will take them as far time as it is taking us to be making them up again.”

“Right.” I nodded gratefully at that. “Good to know. So we might just beat them up there after a–wait, aren’t there guards on there already? And a crew? I mean, they’re mining ships, right?”

It took the tree-man a moment to process what I’d said before he answered. “They are being not used right now. There is guards and crew, but only very few, just enough to keep ship stable.”

“A skeleton crew then,” Isaac put in. “Possibly made out of actual skeletons, for all we know.”

Ignoring the boy, I murmured, “So we should be able to take one then. Will all your people fit on one of the ships? And can you guys fly the thing, because we haven’t covered that class yet.”

“Jokai,” Karees replied with a nod toward the younger man, who was apparently trying to comfort some of the more frightened people. None of them could really stop staring at us, but a few were doing so with looks that made it clear that they thought we might be just as bad as the people they had just escaped from. They were beaten down, oppressed, and rightfully suspicious of anyone who came claiming to offer some kind of help. Especially when that help came from people they only recognized as Heretics.  I just hoped we could change their minds.

“He and his… shackle-mates,” Karees continued, “were taught to work the ships under guard.”

“Shackle-mates,” Jazz echoed, having approached while we were talking. “Does that mean they were imprisoned in the same cell together or something? Or that they had work detail together?”

Karees nodded his ancient, gnarled head, looking a bit like a tree that was bowing against powerful wind. “It is both,” he replied. “Jokai and his shackle-mates were lived together, trained together, worked together.” His face twisted a bit as he finished quietly. “They were… friends.”

Catching his look, and the phrasing that he used, I hesitantly asked, “Were? You say that like…”

“Jokai’s shackle-mates were killed,” the Relukun confirmed. “During one training mission, when Jokai was taken for other things. The Seosten who trained them to handle ships insisted that they should mine area they should not. Ship was damaged very badly. Seosten blamed prisoners, and Jokai’s shackle-mates were executed.” His face twisted a little in grief once more before the old man quietly added, “That is why Jokai ran away, why he risked escaping. He chose to rather be dead than be slave anymore, and took one chance at escaping there.”

I cringed at that, but it was Jazz who spoke up. “You mean they killed his friends just because they did what the Seosten told them to and it went wrong? But that’s–that’s…” She worked her mouth, standing there staring at Karees for a moment while apparently unable to find words.

“It’s wrong,” I finished for her. “That’s why we have to get the rest of them out of here. Right?”

The other girl didn’t say anything at first. She just kept staring at Karees for a few seconds. Then her eyes moved to look at the other Alters. I watched as her gaze passed over them, almost as if she was seeing them, really seeing them, for the first time. Her eyes seemed to widen as she took in the sight in total silence before finally looking back to me. “Yeah,” she replied softly, voice cracking a little bit even on that single word. Then she dropped her gaze, staring at the ground.

I wasn’t going to push any further than that. I’d seen her reaction. That was enough. Instead, I looked over to the others. “So basically, we just have hope that we get up to those ships before our friends back there either get up there themselves, or manage to contact Radueriel.”

“How much damage did you do to their communications?” Gordon asked then. “The Alters who stayed behind to watch what happened, they were saying that you broke them pretty badly.”

I nodded at that. “Yeah, I shot them up pretty bad. Hopefully they won’t be able to patch them together too soon. Guess we should just be glad they don’t have anyone who can make the jump out to Radueriel’s station instantly. Or that they’re not–” As the next thought came to me, I frowned abruptly. “Wait, why exactly wouldn’t they just go to that building we came out of when we got here, the one with the portal directly onto the station, or any of the other portals?”

Karees answered. “When our peoples destroyed spells that would take Seosten masters to the starboats, they also did the same for spells that would take them to other places on world. They will be having to go on feet or with the volucercarrus. But either will not be immediate as spell.”   

“That’s what they call those hover-bike things,” Roxa put in before I could ask. “Volucercarrus.”

The Relukun nodded once more. “For quicker, some have taken to call them v-carrus at times.”

“V-carrus,” I echoed, sounding it out for myself. “Almost sounds like vicars.” Looking up at that, I smiled despite myself. “I think I like that one. Vicars. Easier to remember than volcanocarass.”

“Okay, one,” Sands put in. “Volcano-car-ass is not hard to remember. But volucercarrus is.”

“So vicar it is,” I replied with a thumbs up. “The vicars, how long will it take them to get there?”

Gordon was the one who answered. “It took us four days hiking. Figure something like five miles an hour, hiking twelve hours a day, that’s sixty miles. Four days would make it two hundred and forty. I was talking to some of the other prisoners, and it sounds like the v-carrus can do about three hundred miles an hour. But that’s over open ground, not through trees and hills. Even if they sent someone immediately, it’ll probably still take them most of an hour to get there.”

“They were focused on me first,” I murmured thoughtfully. “So the earliest they would’ve sent them was when I took off, which was about…” I looked at the watch on my wrist. “Forty minutes ago. You said it’ll take twenty minutes to finish the portal spells, and that’s about how soon any vicars they sent could make it to Radueriel.” Hissing a little, I shook my head. “It’s gonna be really close. Really, really close. We’ve gotta get up there, take over the ship, and book it.”

“Book it?” Karees was staring at me with obvious confusion. “You wish to record these events?”

Forcing myself not to giggle to avoid making the guy feel bad, I shook my head. “Sorry, I mean ‘go’, we need to go very quickly as soon as we get up on that ship, before Radueriel shows up.”

“Our people will ‘book it’ as soon as we can,” he announced in a deeply solemn voice before reaching out to touch my arm with his wooden hand. “We thank you, for everything you have been doing. Some of ours may not know if you are to be trusted. But we know what you have done, what you have risked to free us. That is not something that we will just lose our minds of.”

Swallowing a little, I met the man’s gaze as he squeezed my arm. “I promise,” I started while moving my other hand to rest on his arm, “we’re not done. We’re getting everyone out of here.”

True to his word, it wasn’t that much longer before the Alters up on the outcropping called down. From Tabbris’s translation, they were saying that the spells were ready, but that we had to hurry.

“Don’t have to tell me twice,” I muttered before realizing that none of the Alters down here were moving. Instead, they were all still staring at me. There were a few whispers going around, but for the most part, everyone seemed to be waiting to see what I was going to do.

Karees spoke up from behind me. “They have seen what you do. They have seen your power, seen you do what the Seosten do to the Seosten. They have seen you master the masters.”

“I’m not–” Stopping myself, I breathed out. “I just got lucky and managed to kill one of their really powerful people, that’s all. If Charmeine hadn’t left herself open like th–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“–fucked!”

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Uprising 29-05

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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 an unmasked figure who looked 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 if 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 Charmeine 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 as 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 turned 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 had 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. They’re 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 sought the source of the alert. Lights were coming on everywhere throughout the camp.

“What the fuck?” Roxa blurted. She snapped her head around to look 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 of 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 Charmeine bitch, means they could take us all out all by themselves without any help anyway.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go be heroes.”

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Uprising 29-03

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“What do you mean, what are we gonna do about it?” Isaac demanded fifteen minutes later, once he and the others had caught up and we’d had a chance to explain the situation. Looking around at all of us, the boy added, “I mean, hey, don’t get me wrong. Sucks for them. But there aren’t enough words in the English language to describe how much this isn’t our problem.”

Sands gave him a thoroughly disgusted look at that. “Oh, right, real empathetic there, Isaac.”

“It’s not about being empathetic,” the boy shot back. “It’s about being realistic. Look, the only reason those Seosten freaks haven’t dropped an entire army on top of us already is that they don’t know we’re here, right? We’re alive and free because they have no idea where we are. We try to get involved in this and how do you think it’ll go? Cuz I can tell you. The skies will open up and they will drop a veritable shit-ton of troops down on our heads. And they won’t stop coming after us until we’re either dead, or their obedient little puppet-slaves. I told you, I feel for the guy. But if we get involved, we won’t be helping anyone. We’ll just be a bunch of meatsuit puppets.”

Sighing under my breath, I looked over to where the chameleon-guy was. He’d pushed his back up against the nearby tree, and his eyes were darting around fearfully as he watched our every move. So far, he hadn’t reacted to anything we said, so I was pretty sure he didn’t understand English. Which was just going to end up making this even more complicated than it already was.

Roxa spoke up, having moved away to transform back into her human self. “So we just, what, ignore the guy? Walk away from him and pretend we never saw him? Is that what you suggest?”  

“Well, we can’t exactly do that either, can we?” Isaac pointed out then. “He runs out of here, and you really think he won’t sell us out to the first Seosten guard he sees to save his own skin?”

Roxa’s retort was sharp as her eyes blazed at that. “So what, you wanna take him prisoner? Or did you want to do something else, Isaac, something a little more permanent than that, maybe?”

“Look, you can take him prisoner if you want,” the boy quickly replied while shaking his head. “I’m not some bloodthirsty monster, I’m being pragmatic. If we get involved, we are all going to die or be enslaved. If we let him go and he tells them where we’re hiding, we are all going to die or be enslaved. Do you want that to happen? Because I don’t. I like myself in charge of myself.”

Roxa gave him a dirty look. “But you’re fine with just leaving a bunch of innocent people out there to be enslaved and experimented on, as long as it’s not you? That’s just fucking swell?”

“I never said it was swell!” he retorted. “I said we couldn’t do anything about it. I told you, if we get involved, we’ll save maybe a few of them, and then the Seosten will drop down on us with the fury of a thousand suns. Everyone we saved will be dead or enslaved again, and so will we. You really wanna risk your life just to get these people a few fucking minutes of freedom?”

Taking a step that way, Roxa spoke in a low, yet powerful voice as she met the boy’s gaze. “Let me make one thing perfectly clear to you. I would risk my life to give one person one minute of freedom. And then I’d do it again for another minute. And again for another minute. I would put my life on the line every second, every minute, every hour of every single goddamn day if it gave one of these innocent people the freedom that they deserve for as long as I managed to survive. So, you wanna know if I’d really risk my life to save them right now? Fuck yes.”

Isaac started to say something then, but was interrupted as Jazz moved past him. She was stepping over by the terrified Alter. Seeing her moving that way, I almost moved to intercept her.

Wait, don’t. Tabbris’s voice in my head cut in. She sounded hesitant. I don’t think she’s um… y-you know, I don’t think she’s gonna do anything bad. We should give her a chance.

I wasn’t sure about that, but I listened to my partner. Still, I kept a close, wary eye on the girl. From the corner of my eye, I saw Roxa doing the same. She looked tense, squinting that way.

By that point, Jazz had taken a knee in front of the man. He was busy trying to push himself back even further into the tree. I was pretty sure he would’ve phased through it if he could have. As it was, he stared at the girl in front of him as if she was a snake that had coiled up and started hissing. The poor guy wasn’t just afraid of us, he was pretty much completely petrified.

“He could be lying.” Jazz’s voice was soft, hesitant. She sounded like she knew this wasn’t going to go over well at all, but still had to say it. “It could be a trap, you know? What if they sent a bunch of these… people out to all these different areas with some sob story to trick us into going where they can grab us, just because they know that you guys think they’re innocent?”

I could see Roxa gearing up again, but before she could launch into another tirade, I stepped that way to put a hand on her arm. “Wait,” I muttered before looking to Jazz. “Just go with me on this. For right now, pretend he’s telling the truth. Just pretend you believe him, hypothetically. If he was telling the truth, and this isn’t some kind of trap, then what do you think we should do?”

Jazz’s mouth opened and shut. I saw the conflict in her eyes before her head shook. “If it wasn’t a trap? I mean, if it’s not a trap? That’s not–I mean… I mean there isn’t any way to know if it’s–”

“Hypothetically, Jazz,” I cut in. “You can do that much, can’t you? If there was a way to be absolutely certain that this isn’t a trap, then what would you choose? Isaac says it’s too dangerous. Roxa says she wants to go in and try anyway. But I wanna know what you say.”

Jazz’s mouth opened and shut a couple times, and she made a noise in the back of her throat. Her eyes darted to the man, back to me, then to the man again while she swallowed. “I… I don’t… I don’t know,” she finally managed while shaking her head rapidly. “I’m sorry, I just–I just don’t know, okay? I…He’s not, he’s not what I…” Turning back to him, she stared openly while he cringed and whimpered, clearly having absolutely no idea what we were talking about. Hell, he probably thought we were discussing which one of us would get to kill him. Or worse.

After staring at that whimpering, terrified figure for a few long seconds, Jazz finally spoke again.  Her soft, weak voice was barely audible, even as close as I was. “He’s not what I expected.”

Sands spoke before Roxa or I could. “You expected a monster.” Stepping over, she gave the Alter a brief look before focusing on the girl herself. “Because that’s what we’re supposed to do, right? We’re supposed to slay monsters and demons. That’s what we grew up learning about. That’s what they told us, that we were the last line of defense against some unrelenting horde of evil creatures, that we were going to save the innocents. We were supposed to be heroes.”

She took a step back, giving a slightly bitter smile as her head shook slowly. “Well, you know what? I’m pretty sure that being a hero is about doing the right thing.” Her eyes flicked toward Isaac. “No matter how dangerous it is.” Then she looked to Jazz. “No matter how hard it is.”

I nodded, biting my lip before the words came, almost of their own volition. “Maybe fuck Crossroads,” I announced, drawing everyone’s attention. “Maybe fuck our teachers. Maybe fuck everyone who ever said how this was supposed to go. Maybe right now, right here is where we decide what we’re going to do. Maybe right now is when we decide who we are. Maybe right now is when we decide what the right thing is for us. No teachers. No rules. No training wheels or safety lines. Nobody’s looking over our shoulders and nobody’s going to tell you what to do. I’m certainly not. It’s your choice. You decide. There’s a bunch of people out there who are being tortured, enslaved, worked to death or experimented on until they just wish they were dead.

“But Isaac’s right,” I continued slowly, purposefully. “If we let them know that we’re still around, things are gonna get bad. They will come after us and it will not be fun. We might lose. We might die. We might end up in just as bad a situation as the people that we’re trying to help are in. Maybe even worse. So you guys tell me, what is the right thing to do in that situation? We can keep hiding, and let these people suffer. Or we can step out and do something about it.”    

Roxa was the first one to speak after I had finished, her voice firm. “Do something about it.”

Sands was already nodding, fists clenched tightly as she agreed, “Do something about it.”

Jazz let out a long, low sigh then. She was still looking at the ground, fists pressed against the dirt as she hung her head. “I don’t know,” she whispered. “I don’t know how I feel about… about any of this. I want to–I…” Her head shook, and she repeated, “I don’t know. But I…” Finally, she lifted her head to look at at Roxa. “I do know that I’m not going to let you go into something dangerous like that without me. I don’t know how I feel about it, but if you’re going, I’m going.”

“Well shit.” Isaac mumbled under his breath. He lifted his gaze to the sky while muttering something inaudible, then heaved a long, heavy sigh. “What the hell. You all wanna be suicidal, I guess I don’t really have much of a choice, do I? I’m screwed if I just stay out here on my own, and there’s no way dear old roomie’s gonna leave you all flapping in the breeze.” He was obviously trying to sound light, but I could see that the boy wasn’t happy about this whole thing.

Smiling faintly then, Roxa looked over at me. “I guess, aside from Gordon, that just leaves you, technically.” Her chin lifted a little as she gave me a significant look before slowly asking, “What do you say?”  

Except she wasn’t just talking to me, I realized. Roxa knew that there were technically two votes right here. That’s why she was making a point of the question. How about it, partner? I asked inwardly. This puts you in danger too. Maybe more than us. If they figure out that you’re here…

In Tabbris’s case, there was no hesitation at all. They’re all in trouble. We can help them.

“I guess that settles it then,” I announced out loud, trying to smile encouragingly even as my heart tried to beat its way out of my chest at the very idea of what we were about to attempt.

“Unless Gordon has some really convincing argument, we’re doing this.”

“Yeah, you know what?” Isaac announced then. “Call me crazy, but something tells me that Captain Logical isn’t gonna be so logical when it comes to this. It’s just a feeling.”

I didn’t know if he was right or not. Gordon did tend to be logical about everything. But then again, he’d been acting a little differently now and then, whenever the subject of the Seosten conspiracy about Alters came up. Maybe he was like Sands, pissed off that he’d been lied to for so long. Or maybe it was something more than that. I just didn’t know.

But something told me, whatever his deal was, it would come up before this field trip was over.

******

It took some convincing to get our new chameleon-like friend to come with us. We had to convince him that we weren’t just marching him back to Radueriel. Or rather, Tabbris did. She used my voice, carefully telling the man that we weren’t possessed, and we weren’t part of Seosten military. She/I told him we were going to help, but he had to get back to our camp.

So we stopped by to grab the two pantlers that we’d managed to kill, and Roxa and I each dragged one while the others kept their eyes open for anything bad.

Gordon was already standing at the base of the tree when we arrived. Clearly he’d seen us coming and climbed down to meet us. As we approached, the dark-skinned boy stepped out, keeping his voice low and even as he looked straight at our companion. “Who’s this?”

“It’s–” I paused, squinting before looking toward the man. His eyes were darting around constantly, watching for any kind of attack. Any time one of us spoke, he flinched noticeably like he expected to be hit. Or worse. The poor guy was still completely pants-wettingly terrified of us.  

Could you ask him what his name is? I sent inwardly. Anything we’re supposed to call him.

My mouth moved then, as Tabbris spoke through me. Just like when we had been speaking in front of the others aside from Roxa, she spoke slowly and hesitantly, taking a few seconds now and then as if thinking about the right word. She didn’t have to, obviously. But it would be more convincing that it was actually me talking if I wasn’t rattling it off like it was my first language.

Still, after only about a sentence or so into it, Isaac interrupted. “Hey, how do you even know how to speak this gibberish anyway? That something you learned from that Prosser guy too?”

Before I could reply, Gordon actually spoke up. “It’s just Latin,” he announced flatly. “She’s better at it than me, but I can follow some of it, enough words here and there to get the basic gist.”

“Why do they speak La–” Jazz started, then stopped herself. “Never mind, I don’t wanna know.”

Biting my lip, I turned my attention back to the Alter, urging Tabbris to go on. She did, apparently asking the man what his name was as gently as possible, trying not to scare him even more.

His eyes darted back and forth between us. I could tell that he was trying to decide whether giving us that much information was a good idea or not. Finally, he either realized that we weren’t going to do anything bad with it, or figured that we’d hurt him more if he didn’t talk. He started to hesitantly speak, his voice so quiet that I had to lean in closer to hear him better. Which, of course, made him stutter more, head ducking as if I was about to literally eat him.

Jokai, Tabbris announced. He says his name is Jokai. But I think he’s afraid that we’re gonna… um, take his name and use it to find everyone he cares about and… you know, make an example out of them. I tried to tell him that it’s safe, but he’s–um. They’ve been tricked before. That’s kind of the whole Seosten thing. I could hear the disgust in her voice. That’s how they um, how they stop rebellions before they get off the ground. They possess people and infiltrate the slave camps, find out who’s talking about rebelling and… and make examples out of them.

Okay, I was wrong. Apparently I could feel worse about this whole situation. Biting my lip and trying not to sigh too much, I looked back to the others. “His name is Jokai.” For Gordon, I went on to tell him the rest of it, that Jokai came from a slave labor camp, that he had run away and we’d… found him. Then I told him about the conversation we’d had before coming back here.

“So uh, that’s what we’re up to,” I finally finished with a little shrug. “That leaves it up to you. I mean, I’m sure Isaac would stay with you if you guys wanna sit this out. He didn’t want to be by himself, but if you…” Biting my lip, I trailed off and just looked to him. “It’s up to you. In or out?”

Gordon wasn’t looking at me. His eyes were on the trembling Alter, something utterly unreadable on his face. He stayed like that for a few seconds before lifting his chin and exhaling. When he finally spoke, it was obviously through a thick lump in his throat. “In.”

“That’s all of us.” Taking a breath, I turned to look at the Alter, Jokai. Tell him we’re gonna help get his people out of the prison camp. Or try to, at least.

Once more, my lips moved as the Seosten girl took over briefly. There was a short back and forth between ‘me’ and Jokai, and the more ‘I’ said, the more confused he looked. He kept repeating a phrase that I took to essentially mean, ‘what the hell are you talking about?’

Finally, however, he reached out to clutch my arm, all four of his eyes widening as he blurted a single word: sacramentum. His voice was a shaky, desperate plea, as if he was both afraid and ashamed that he was actually starting to believe any of this, but couldn’t help himself.

He’s asking if you promise, Tabbris informed me quietly. Actually, it’s more like he’s asking if you swear that you’re telling the truth, that you’re going to try. It’s an oath.

I relayed that to the others. While Isaac rolled his eyes and Jazz looked uncertain, Gordon was already nodding. “Vero,” he announced after considering his words briefly. “Sacramentum.”

After watching the others briefly, I nodded to our new friend. “Sacramentum. We’ll help your people, Jokai.

“I swear.”  

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