Causality And Casualty 5-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“You know, I can’t believe that after everything we’ve been through and everything we’ve seen, all the magic, the aliens, traveling clear across the universe… I’ve still barely ever driven a car.”

Making that announcement while walking along a hard pavement in the middle of the hot Nevada sun, I looked over toward my two companions. “I’m almost eighteen and I’ve only legally driven like… once in the past year. Is that weird? That seems weird. Come to think of it, if I do turn eighteen and manage to not be horrifically murdered or enslaved by an evil necromancer, how do I get a new adult license? I don’t exactly live in Laramie Falls anymore.” 

The pair I was walking with were Sands and Sarah. As promised, the two of them had joined our little expedition group to try to fix what was going on with the whole Vegas kidnapped children situation. Mostly because adding more people to the search was the only real chance we had to track down where this Kwur guy’s spores were (and thus hopefully find this Azlee guy) before things escalated to the point of open warfare. Because Vegas going to war would just make Kwur stronger, and if he got strong enough to make one of his spores out here his primary body… things would get very bad. 

So yeah, we’d all met up again, bringing in a few reinforcements like the twins here. With the spore-detection enchantments finished, we split up into smaller groups and were essentially walking around hoping to find what we were looking for. Canvassing random streets wasn’t exactly the most elegant or quickest solution, but it was the best we had to work with right then. 

It was important enough that we weren’t even forced to be escorted by the Vegas people. We were checking in occasionally, but right now, we needed as many groups as possible combing the city to find any trace of Kwur’s influence before it was too late. So we divided Vegas up into a grid pattern and went out, mostly in trios and quads, to pound the pavement for hours.

Just in case someone around here happened to maybe recognize me from the chase through the city a couple days earlier, I was using my shifting power to disguise myself with black hair, slightly darker skin, and wider, lighter eyes. That should be enough for me to stay anonymous.

Sands was shrugging my way. “It’s not hard to get a license that’ll fool any Bystander system. Just–” Pausing, she thought about it for a second. “Actually, huh. I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do now that we’re… now that we left Crossroads.” Her face twisted a little, looking briefly annoyed at the entire situation before she sighed. “Still, shouldn’t be a big deal. I bet our mom could help us handle that. And hey, maybe you can give us lessons. Growing up on a small island doesn’t really leave much point to driving. But now there’s gotta be times when driving would be useful, right?”

Beside her, Sarah gave a short nod. She was looking away, glancing at a couple of homeless people staggering down the street across from us. They looked drunk, given the hard time they were having staying upright. “Can’t always portal everywhere,” the girl murmured absently. 

“Especially when we don’t know how to do that spell,” I agreed. Glancing at the small green stone I was holding in one hand, I watched as it flickered slightly with a very dim glow now and then, like a mostly dead flashlight straining mightily to keep going. 

“Still not solid?” Sands asked. “So it’s still just getting traces. What was the distance for a good lock, again? It’s supposed to be obvious when we’re close enough.” 

“According to Sariel,” I replied, “it should lock on if we’re anywhere within about a block of one of them. But the range could be shorter if it’s only a small spore or if they’re shielded somehow. And yeah, it should be obvious. It’s supposed to get brighter the closer we are, and turn red as soon as we get the thing right up within spitting distance or so of the main plant that the bulk of Kwur’s… you know, consciousness or whatever is in beyond the one Gehenna’s got.” Pausing, I added, “The point is, we’ll definitely notice when it goes off.” 

Unfortunately, up to this point, all we’d managed to get was this very slight flickering. Which, according to the others, meant the stone was picking up faint traces of the plant guy. But it was so faint that it could just be from an infected person passing by sometime within the past day or so. Plus, the others had picked up similar faint signs. We were trying to follow ours in a very slow and difficult hot-and-cold game. It was hard when the slight flickering came so slowly and sporadically. The trace here was just… too faint. Hopefully, one of our groups would find something stronger soon. 

Sands started to say something else, when the communication badges we wore abruptly activated. Tristan’s voice came through. He was with Vanessa and their mother at the Vestil Casino where they had been waiting to get information about that painting. “Okay, so we’re talking to these guys and they said the guy in the painting is Julius Harn. Apparently he’s some dude who used to live in the city and contributed a whole bunch of magic, money, and time to the Separation War. You know, the battle to force Heretics out of Vegas and keep them out. He was pretty big in the city up until the eighties, even served on their ruling council for a long time and helped establish a lot of their rules. Then he sorta became a recluse and ended up disappearing entirely about twenty years ago. No one around here’s seen him since then. They checked his house and it was cleaned out. No word, no notice, nothing like that. Guy just started showing up less and less before poof, totally gone.”  

“Not totally gone,” Miranda’s voice pointed out from wherever she currently was with April and Jason in their part of this search. “Since he apparently spent a lot of time in that hospital Vanessa and that Dakota girl were at, pretending to be this Doctor Folgers. Or maybe he really was a doctor and changed his identity. Whatever, that was just a few years ago, right? So he didn’t die or anything. He showed up there and helped Dakota seal off the plant at her house.”

Shiori spoke up then. She, Asenath, Columbus, and Bobbi were in their own group. “Maybe he had to take on another identity because of someone here in Vegas, one of the powerful players.” 

“We’ll ask him if we find him,” Haiden assured us. While the rest of his family was at the casino, Haiden was with Dare, Triss, and Felix. “All we know for sure is that he’s connected to Kwur through Dakota. How he connects to this Azlee Ren guy, who knows. We’re still missing things.” 

Thinking about that for a second, I touched the badge that was hooked against the pocket of my red button-down tee-shirt before speaking. “What if Folgers-errr, I mean Julius Harn wasn’t completely safe when he locked away that plant in Dakota’s house? What if Kwur’s spore was able to worm its way into him and that’s what brought Kwur’s attention to Vegas as a good target? If Harn was such a big player for so long setting this place up, he’d know a lot about the people here, even if he was out for a couple decades. You know, cuz if Kwur’s spore was able to grow and eventually twist this guy to his own ends over the past couple years, that might explain why Vegas was targeted to begin with as soon as they had Azlee’s help to pull it off.”

Sariel agreed, her voice thoughtful as it came through the badge. “I believe you may be right. We need to find Kwur or Harn to verify, but it fits what we know. If Harn was infected at the time, even faintly, Kwur’s spore could have laid in waiting for the right time. You said that the Gehenna people told you they transfer Kwur around a lot. Perhaps this is the first time he’s been here on Earth at a time when the spore had enough control over Harn to push this ploy.”  

“So nothing’s changed, right?” That was Asenath. “We trace the spores until we find Harn, Azlee, or whoever else they lead to. Then we get answers out of them about where Mom and those kids are. And we do it before these guys manage to start this war they want so badly.” 

“Yeah, keep looking,” Sariel confirmed. “We’ll check a little bit more around here in case anyone has unofficially seen Harn since he disappeared. Then we’ll hit the streets if we don’t find anything useful. Keep checking in and let everyone know the moment any of you get a hit.” 

We agreed before signing off. Then I looked back to the twins. “Well, I guess we just keep moving then? What do you say we head over to that apartment building on the corner and take a ride up and down the elevator just for the hell of it? Maybe the traces this thing’s picking up comes from someone on one of those floors.” 

“Yeah,” Sands agreed with a long, low sigh. “And if that doesn’t work, the map says there’s a mall right down the street that might be a–” She paused then, glancing over to her sister with a frown. “Sarah? You okay?” 

In answer, Sarah looked back to us and gave a slight shake of her head. Her voice was low. Belatedly, I noticed that she had activated one of the privacy coins and held it low. “Those guys over there aren’t actually drunk,” she informed us softly. “Don’t look at them right now.” 

Thankfully, I’d already managed to stop myself from reflexively glancing that way, instead focusing on the girl herself with a confused frown as I slowly asked, “The homeless guys who were wandering around across the street? What do you mean, they’re not actually drunk?” 

Sands, who had caught herself in mid-turn and used the motion to instead scratch the back of her neck idly, nodded. “Yeah, how do you know? They looked pretty drunk to me.” 

“One at a time,” Sarah informed us. “They… stagger one at a time. One staggers and almost falls over, but the other catches him, balances him. Then they switch. They’re play-drunk.” 

Raising a hand, I pointed to the apartment building I’d mentioned before, pretending to be suggesting we go there. With my other hand, I activated the badge. “Could someone check with our hosts to find out if they have a couple watchdogs pretending to be homeless drunks keeping an eye on us? I don’t want to go anywhere with this if it turns out they’re just secret babysitters.” 

It took a moment, through which Sarah, Sands, and I pretended to debate about which way we should go next. I used the time to get a look at the men in question once more through the corner of my eye. They’d settled in an alley across the street and a little bit up from where we were, and were currently passing a bottle back and forth as they took turns swigging from it. 

Finally, Sariel’s voice came back. “They’re not official watchers. Someone back up the girls.” 

Do you need help? Tabbris’s voice came through my mind through our connection as she used the partial recall without actually coming all the way to me. I could–

No, it’s okay, Tabs, I assured her. You and December stay where you are. What you’re doing is a lot more important than a couple of maybe bad guys. Plus, we wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise. 

Sands was saying much the same to Sariel. “It’s two guys. We can at least check them out. We’ve got this.” 

While Sariel and Haiden both warned us to be careful, and Miranda checked in to say her group would head our way to play back-up, I thought about it. Then I nodded while starting to move to that apartment. “Come on, I’ve got an idea. Act like we’re going this way. Can you cover me?” 

The twins did so, both stepping up to position themselves so that the guys across the street wouldn’t see exactly what I was doing. I used that to summon a small, prepared bit of wood to one hand. With my other hand, I created a quick portal that was blocked from view by Sands’ body, activated the spell on the wood, and quickly tossed it through the portal before letting it close. The other end of the portal was on the far side of the street, near a couple mailboxes.

“You’re gonna have to guide me,” I warned the other two before focusing my attention on the spell I’d just activated. It was my Theriangelos, of course. The fox. Or Marian, as Tabbris called her. Seeing through her eyes in addition to my own, I closed mine, taking the hand that Scout offered so she could guide me while I focused mostly on controlling my little summoned friend.

Right, the fox was crouched by the garbage cans, staring at a wall with random graffiti on it. Quickly, I made her turn around and peek out from behind them. Ahead, I saw the two ‘drunk’ guys watching our group walking away from them. Their act had disappeared as soon as it became clear that we were leaving and (apparently) not paying attention. I saw one of the guys saying something, but couldn’t hear what it was even with Marian’s keen sense of hearing. She was still too far away. But I did notice that the other guy didn’t respond at all. Yet a few seconds later, the first guy nodded and said something else. He wasn’t talking to his partner. He was speaking through some kind of communication device or spell, like we had been. Either to whoever they were working for, or maybe to other partners they had to catch up with us. Whichever it was, neither seemed to be in a hurry to follow. Instead, they turned and walked back into that alley. 

After checking to make sure the coast seemed clear and that no one was watching, I sent Marian after them. The tiny fox went running silently along the sidewalk, sticking near the edge of the nearby building to be as invisible as possible. The fact that it was red brick and the fox was also reddish-brown helped with that. 

Actually, wait a second. Thinking about it, I wondered if I could channel my shifting powers through the Theriangelos. Some Heretic-gained powers seemed to work easily, others took a lot more practice or didn’t work at all. Focusing on the brick I could see next to the fox, I thought about shifting her fur to more fully match. After a moment of that, while still trotting along, I had her glance down. Sure enough, she was more… brick-colored. Huh, that was cool. Chameleon-fox. 

By then, Marian had reached the edge of the alley. There was a dumpster there, and I quickly sent her under it so she could peer out from relative safety. It wasn’t hard to spot our two watchers. They were nearing the far end of the alley, where there was seemingly nowhere else to go. But one of the men simply reached out, pressing his hand into one of the bricks there. It pushed inward, before there was a slow grinding noise as a doorway-section of bricks moved out of the way, admitting the two men. 

“Diagon Alleying!” I blurted through my own mouth. “They’re Diagon Alleying!” While Sands asked what the fuck that meant, I quickly directed Marian to follow. She darted out, running quickly along the ground before slipping into the doorway just before the bricks could slide back into place. Passing through the opening, the little fox emerged into what was actually a dingy, very dimly-lit concrete stairwell. But it was wide, not narrow, with a metal handrail in the middle. Ahead, the stairs led down. It was dark that way, but I could hear the footsteps of the men who had been watching us. Actually, the whole place reminded me of…

“Subway,” I said aloud. “Brick wall with a hidden door leads to some old subway entrance. But… uhhh that sounds wrong. Unless I’m really behind, Vegas doesn’t have a subway service. Hold on, let me see…”

With that, I sent Marian scampering down the stairs. On the way, I matched her fur to the color of the concrete in an attempt to blend in a bit more. The fox’s night vision was pretty good, which helped as things got even darker away from the entrance. Ahead, I could hear the men still descending, talking to each other in low voices. Before long, I was actually able to make out what they were saying. 

“—get so close in the first place?” one voice asked with obvious annoyance. 

“Some kind of detector,” the second, more patient one replied. “A spell or tech from Gehenna. Whatever it is, they’re picking up traces of the Potentate.” 

Potentate. I knew that word, it was like… king or ruler or whatever. A monarch. Were they talking about Kwur? He was (apparently) just one of that evil Dragon-Heretic guy’s minions. But that was probably good enough to be a king to most people. And I had to figure that anyone nasty enough to be one of the most dangerous and evil prisoners in the universe almost had to have the kind of ego that would make his minions call him their king, or some version of that. 

“Will they track him here?” the first voice asked while the sound of the footsteps on stairs quickened a bit. I sent Marian scampering faster, hopping from step to step to catch up. 

“No,” came the response. “Whatever means of detection they have won’t penetrate our hiding spells. The Potentate will be safe.”

A moment later, Marian reached the bottom of the stairs. Sure enough, it opened up into what looked… well, like a subway station. Seriously, there was a wide platform, a spot for the train itself straight ahead, and the entrance into the tunnel at either end. It was a subway. It looked like any other subway I’d seen in movies and stuff. Except for one thing… the plants. 

Yeah, plants. They were everywhere. I saw vines covering the walls, flowers and bushes along the floor, a couple small trees growing out of the railway tracks, and more. It was a miniature garden down here. Actually, not-so-miniature. 

“Guys, we’ve got it,” I said aloud. “We’ve got the bad guy.” 

“Flick,” Sarah’s voice cut in, sounding urgent. 

So, I opened my eyes and looked around. We were behind that apartment building from before. And we weren’t alone. A small army of heavily armed figures stood around us. They were a mix of humanoid and very, very not. All of them looked very pissed off. Which seemed at odds with the flower leis they wore, unless you knew what Kwur’s whole deal was. Yeah. These people were clearly all under his thrall, and we were surrounded by them.

“Got news for you,” Sands informed me. 

“We’ve got more than one bad guy.”

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Desperate Measures 37-01

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She was there. Avalon. I’d found Avalon. She was unconscious, but I’d found her. I found her! It was thanks in large part to Jophiel and Elisabet puppeting Doctor Therasis to keep me here long enough that I could figure it out. And I was still confused by why they would do that when they couldn’t want us to open the vault any more than any of the other Seosten leaders did. But whatever their reasoning was, whatever they expected from me later, was for later. Right now, only one thing mattered: Avalon.

She was there. She was there. This is where Manakel was hiding her, right here in the hospital. The Mesches she was surrounded by stopped any magical search from finding her while also making her protection spells end sooner. At the same time, the nearby Tabilten, with the help of the wind spell that sent their purification power through the vent, cleansed the poison out of the air so she didn’t die.

That’s what I had been thinking of back when we had gone into Manakel’s cabin and found the Mesches’ cages. When I’d found out about the poison aura, my brain had been trying to remind me about the Tabilten’s purification ability, and the fact that a hospital would be one of the most perfect places to keep someone. Particularly if some of the staff of said hospital were on your side, either through possession or other means.

The point was, Avalon was there. Right there. But now the lights had gone out, which I knew had to mean that someone, probably Manakel, knew we had found her. And I seriously doubted he would be very happy about that. He’d move her, fast. Which meant we had to get into that room even faster.   

Almost as soon as the main lights had gone out, other lights came back on. But these were different, dimmer and clearly running off some emergency power or something. Maybe they’d cut this place off from the outside world and that was a side effect? Whatever, the point was, the lights were very dim, casting a kind of eerie glow over everything, while still leaving a lot in shadows. The whole thing was creepy.

Shiori was still asking where Therasis had come from, even as I blurted, “Avalon’s in there.” I turned back to the grate, drawing back my fist before punching it. The thing didn’t budge. I hit it again, before shifting around to switch to my foot. But before I could kick the thing more than once, Shiori blurted from behind me, “Company!”

Sure enough, when I glanced that way, I found the girl in question in the middle of a fight with two men right in the doorway. They were dressed in orderly uniforms, but from the weapons they carried, these were no ordinary hospital workers. 

Shiori ducked the swing of one man’s sword, then lashed out with a kick into his chest as the blade embedded itself in the doorjamb. As the guy staggered backward, the other one backhanded her in the face, making her stumble back toward me. He followed it up by snapping a pistol into position, taking aim. I had to help. I couldn’t save Avalon, only to lose Shiori. I had to move. I had to move now!

My weapon had already found its way into my hands and transformed into its bow form when I had first seen Shiori fighting. As the second man brought his pistol up, I launched a hasty energy arrow, which exploded right against the man’s hand to knock it backwards and up just as he pulled the trigger. Shiori had recovered by then, and pivoted into a sidekick that sent the man stumbling into his partner.

But there were more coming. Footsteps were approaching at a run from both sides of the corridor. Worse, I could feel people coming into the room behind me, where Avalon was. We were so close. I couldn’t let them just disappear with her again.

“Shy!” I blurted then, pointing to the vent behind me. “Sand!”

Thankfully, that was enough. The other girl got to the point, instantly transforming into her sand form. At that point, the air spell blew her through with the vent and into the other room where Avalon was. I could have done it myself of course, but I let the wind do it for me. My focus was on the guys in the doorway and their arriving reinforcements.

I was trusting Shiori to stop the guys in the other room from disappearing with Avalon. Which made me twitch a little. Not because it was hard to trust her. I did. But because the thought that I would suddenly lose both of them was horrific, and very nearly paralyzed me.

But now I had to focus. I had to deal with these guys. Because getting into the other room to help Avalon and Shiori would do no good if we just had these guys right behind us.

My first action, however, wasn’t to rush into the fight. Instead, I focused on taking half a second to disable the dibs spell that had temporarily been protecting me from being possessed (absent my little partner, that was). Because if I knew Wyatt, even if he couldn’t get to me, he was perfectly aware I was in danger. And if I knew Tabbris, she would react to that news, the instant she got it, by jumping straight back to me. So yeah, disabling the dibs spell before she ended up popping up right outside of me in the line of fire felt like a good idea.

The initial two guys had recovered by that point, the first one back in the doorway. But I was already right there, my weapon shifted back into its staff form as I drove the end of it into his stomach, doubling him over before I spun it up and around to smack him across the face with it.

The momentum from that put me right in the doorway, where I could see the second man already raising his pistol once more, while four more came rushing towards the room, two from each side of the hall. Six guys. Six. If they were planning on keeping me away from Avalon, they should have brought sixty.

Snapping my staff up, I triggered a blast from the end of it, which took the man with the gun in the chest and knocked him back once more. Almost simultaneously, I pivoted to snap my weapon down, smacking it across the back of the first man’s knee while he was still recovering from being hit across the face a moment earlier. The blow knocked the man onto his back with a cry.

“Guys,” I blurted then, while continuing my pivot to face the two men who were coming from the left side of the hall. “Time to fight!”

I wasn’t talking to my opponents. Rather, I was calling for Jaq and Gus. The two mice cyberforms appeared at their spot on the staff even as I shifted it briefly to bow-form to fire a shot that exploded right in the faces of the pair of men who were coming from the left. Quickly, I shifted the weapon back to a staff while my two little buddies assumed their spots, turning the staff into its bladed form.

Turning on my heel to face the guys coming from the right, I extended my staff and triggered the button that launched the grapple. It flew at the nearest guy, tearing through his armor to pierce his chest. While he was reacting with a cry, I triggered the concussive burst on that end of the staff, releasing it. The blast sent the staff sailing down the hall to the left before it impaled one of the guys there, who were both still recovering from the concussive energy arrow I had sent into them.

Meanwhile, the guy who had been grappled through with the chest was brought careening down the hall toward me, dragged by the line attached to the moving staff. Just as he reached me, I leapt and spun into a kick that took him in the face, knocking him off the grapple and sending him flying into his partner, who had been running up behind.

While I was spinning in the air from the kick, my hand slapped down toward the grapple as it went flying past me. My fingers barely brushed the end of it, but that single touch was enough for me to use my item movement power to put the entire staff back into my hands. Which was just in time too, since as I landed in a crouch with the weapon, the man with the pistol fired a shot that narrowly missed. Seriously, the laser sailed past my cheek so close that it burned a little bit. He adjusted his pistol and was about fire again when I smacked the staff across his hand to make him drop his gun. A quick burst from the other end of my staff sent me out of my crouch and up to plant both feet into his chest, once more knocking him into the nearby wall.

That time, before he could recover, I spun and brought my stuff up and around. The bladed end cut straight through the man’s throat, while I continued the motion into a full three-hundred-and-sixty degree turn which sent the blade through his neck yet again, this time completely separating his head from his body.

As the head went bouncing along the floor, I was filled with a rush of pleasure. It wasn’t anywhere near the strongest I’d ever felt, but it was still more than a bit distracting. Which was a bad thing, since the second man who had been coming from the right had disentangled himself from his partner (the one who had taken the grapple through his chest before I kicked him in the face as he was yanked toward me), and launched himself my way while bringing an energy-sword straight for my face.

My head jerked out of the way just in time, while my foot lashed out to kick the man. Neither of which I was responsible for.

I’m here! Tabbris blurted, immediately dampening the pleasure rush so I could focus. It was mostly gone by that point anyway, but still. Every millisecond counted.

I wasn’t going to ask how she’d known to come. That much was pretty obvious. Nor was I going to explain what was going on. She could read my thoughts to work out for herself. Instead, I focused on the fight at hand.

To that end, my gaze focused sharply on the first man, the one who had been knocked onto his back by my staff. He was rolling back into a kneeling position, snapping some kind of futuristic looking rifle off his back to point at me. Right before he could actually pull the trigger, however, I thumbed the other button on my staff, sending a cloud of sand right into his face while I rolled sideways. The shot from his gun took out part of the wall where I had just been, while the man himself staggered and flailed as my sand worked its way through the cracks in his mask to reach his mouth and eyes.

The man who had come from the right with the energy sword had recovered from Tabbris making me kick him by that point, rushing up from behind me. I felt his approach and knew exactly where his blade was. Which meant I knew right when to pivot out of the way, letting his blade slash through the empty air where I had just been right before I spun my own weapon upward, severing his extended wrist.

Weapon and hand alike clattered to the floor. But before he could even understand what had just happened, I was already pivoting to put myself right beside him while my foot lashed out. The kick collided with the back of the man’s knee, and as he fell, I brought my staff up in both hands, driving the bladed end down through his chest. Another rush of pleasure would have filled me then, but Tabbris was already on the job, dampening it.

Two of the six were dead. Which became three a second later as I took advantage of the opening that the first man provided while clawing and flailing at the sand scouring his eyes and choking him. The blade of my staff went straight through the man, reducing the soldiers to half the number they had come with. And I was nowhere near done. All of the anger, the frustration, the rage, the feelings of impotence and fear that had been weighing on me since the moment that Manakel had taunted me about abducting Avalon had all come bursting out. Now I had a chance to do something about it. Now I could actually help my girl.

No one was going to stop me from doing that. No one.

Three guys left. One of whom hardly counted since he was already on the ground from being grappled through the chest, yanked down the hall, and then kicked in the face. Which left the two who had been running in from the left, the ones I had blasted in the face with the energy arrow before one of them had also been impaled with my staff.

Yeah, that one wasn’t doing so hot either. Better than the guy on the floor, but not by much. He had recovered enough to bring his pistol up, firing off a couple shots. But I trusted Tabbris, flinging myself that way just as my partner activated my energy-absorption power. The shots hit, and I snapped my staff up, empowering it with the same energy in time to intercept the laser sword that the second man had just been swinging at me.

A quick flurry of blows followed then, before I managed to slam the blade of my staff down through the man’s foot, impaling it all the way through and embedding the weapon into the floor. Letting go so my staff stayed in that vertical position, I spun on one foot to put myself behind the now-pinned man. My foot kicked the back of his other leg, collapsing it just as I brought my hands down on the back of his head. The combined effort knocked him forward and down, shoving his face onto the bladed grapple.

Four down, while the fifth and sixth guys were clutching the wounds in their chests. The nearest one, the only one still standing, took aim again and fired off several more shots.

I absorbed them all. Then my hand snapped up and I released the gathered energy right into the man’s face. He dropped, collapsing to the floor without much of a face left.

Without pausing, I snapped my gaze to the last man. He was groaning, rolling over while clutching the wound in his chest. I was pretty sure he was crying behind that helmet.

“Can you teleport out?” I demanded while already moving, my voice flat.

There was a pause before the injured man nodded.

“Then do it,” I ordered, not even breaking stride. “And think about this next time you’re supposed to come after me or the people I care about.”

Again, there was a brief pause. Then the man’s hand moved to his waist, and he was gone. I let him go. Maybe he’d get medical attention and survive. Maybe he would end up dying. Maybe he would change and decide not to come after me anymore. Maybe he would come after me even harder. Either way, whatever happened, I’d deal with it later. He wasn’t a threat right now. That was what mattered.

Threats neutralized, I started to run. Tab, Wyatt, right?

Uh huh! she blurted then. He felt all the danger you were in through the spells. He’s been telling everyone, but there’s some kind of shield around the hospital. They’re working on taking it down, but it’s gonna take time. I… I couldn’t just leave you alone like that.

Smiling a little despite myself, I nodded inwardly. Thanks, partner.

I was focused on finding the room where Avalon and Shiori were. Sprinting around the corner, I let the Blemmye power to find any location that I knew about keep me going the right way. Before long, I could feel Shiori and Avalon both, so they were definitely close. There were also a handful of bodies lying motionless, as well as one very close to Shiori. The two kept merging and falling back in my senses, clearly indicating that they were fighting. I had to get in there.

But how?  Where?

There! Wait! Tabbris blurted in my head, bringing me to a stop. Before I could say or ask anything, she brought my hand up with the field-engraver, scrawling some kind of quick counter-spell before triggering it.

There. There was a door right there. A spell of some sort had been hiding it, but thanks to Tabbris, I could now see it. The door was open, and I caught a glimpse of Shiori as the girl impaled her opponent through the chest with what was apparently his own sword before letting him fall.

“Shy!’ I threw myself that way, giving a quick glance around at the four bodies that littered the floor. “Are you okay?”

She was panting, but nodded. “Y-yeah. But Avalon…” She looked that way, toward the unconscious girl.

“We’ll get her out of here,” I promised. “Fast, before more of those guys come.” Still out loud, I added, “Tabbris.” Shiori gave me a brief look at that, but quickly understood as I continued with, “Any defensive spells?”

Uh huh. The answer came, and then I was on my knees, hurriedly scrawling counter spells to disable the magic that was keeping Avalon unconscious and imprisoned. Thank God I had Tabbris here, because there was no way I would have known enough about how to disable all those spells.

She moved quickly, and soon the last of the spells were disabled, freeing Avalon (though she was still unconscious). In that moment, I wanted almost nothing more than to grab the girl, pull her up, and hold onto her as tightly as I could.

Instead, I focused on taking an already-prepared bit of wood from my pocket, speaking aloud for Shiori’s benefit. “Tabs, use Marian. Get to the others and warn them. Tell them to get up, because the Seosten will be after them by now too. Go, go!”

My hands moved out of my own control, activating the theriangelos spell and turning the magicked bit of wood into my fox. For a second, I had the familiar moment of disorientation as I could see and hear through the fox as well. Then Tabbris shut down that part of my perception, taking it over for herself.

The fox went running out of the room, off to warn the others. Which left Shiori and me to get to Avalon. The two of us moved that way quickly, and again, it was all I could do not to get too distracted. Avalon. Valley. She was right there. Really her this time. I wanted to hold her even more than before.

I did hold her. In that case, however, it meant picking her limp form up and off the floor. “We need to go,” I told Shiori in a somewhat shaky voice. Focus, Flick. Focus on keeping Valley alive, and on getting the hell out of this hospital.

I held the unconscious Avalon tight against my chest, and together, we sprinted back into hallway. Unfortunately, we got there just in time to find out more guards had arrived. A hell of a lot of more guards. There were well over a dozen coming down the whole corridor at us from one direction. Immediately, we spun the other way and started running. I could hear them shouting, and a few shots went sailing past or around us.

We ran. With guards hot on our heels, the two (or three… or four, all depending on how you counted) of us booked it, running fast and hard for the end of the hall, where a pair of elevators stood. Shiori extended a hand as we moved, using her metal-manipulation power to force the doors open. There was no elevator there. But we didn’t have time to wait for it. Not with these guys right behind us.

Instead, with a brief glance toward one another, Shiori and I both went right for the open elevator shaft. Together, with Avalon held tight to my chest, we leapt through the open doors.

Shots flooded the area around us, ricocheting off every surface above while we plummeted down through the dark shaft.

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Field Trip 28-07

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Please note, there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Davis posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen it yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

“So, let me get this straight,” Isaac spoke about an hour later. “You’re seeing us through your eyes and through that thing’s eyes?” With one hand, he was pointing at me. And with the other, he was pointing at my newly-created fox as she perched on a rock in the corner of the cave.

From where she was standing, Jazz shook her head and muttered, “I can’t believe you know how to cast the theriangelos spell. Do you have any idea how long I’ve wanted to use that? I never really wanted to be a Heretic, but one thing I did want was magic. Especially that spell.”

Sands was nodding (which, considering she was a little bit behind me, I could see through the eyes of my fox, but not my own eyes). “Tell me about it. Scout and me, we used to talk about what kind of animal we thought we could get once we learned the spell. She um.” Sands swallowed hard. “When we were little, Scout really wanted to get a penguin.” A slightly choked laugh escaped the girl then, and my fox could see the dampness in her eyes. “I tried to tell her that wouldn’t be a cool animal for spying or fighting, but she didn’t care. She just likes penguins.”

“I’ll teach it to you guys,” I promised. “It’ll just take a few days. But yeah, you should learn it.” Biting my lip then, I turned to look over my shoulder at the other girl. “And you’ll see her again, Sands. We’re going to survive this long enough for Gaia and the others to find a way to pull us back.”

She didn’t respond for a moment. Instead, the girl just looked back at me in silence that dragged on almost uncomfortably before glancing away with a muttered, “Yeah. So let’s survive.”

I don’t think she believes you, Tabbris whispered in my head, confirming what I already knew.

Yeah, I thought back to her, so we’ll just have to prove her wrong. Aloud, I cleared my throat while looking to Isaac. “Anyway, yeah, it’s a little weird, seeing through two different sets of eyes at once. It, uh, takes some getting used to. And it can give you a nasty headache if you do it for too long. I made myself throw up once. So, mostly I like to close my eyes and just see through hers when I’m using her.” To demonstrate, I did just that, letting my eyes close and focusing on the fox. At a thought, she hopped down from the rock and moved to sniff a bit at Isaac’s shoes.

The boy looked a little uncomfortable for some reason as he took a step back while clearing his throat. “Uh, so you use that fox to scout out the area around here, huh? What are we supposed to do in the meantime? You know, besides become world champion thumb twiddlers?”

“There’s a lot more we need to know,” Jazz pointed out, looking at the fox. “You want us to believe all the stuff you’re talking about with these Seosten and all that, we need more details.”

I nodded once without opening my eyes. The fox’s head did the same, and I saw the others give a brief double-take between both of us. “You’ll get them. Trust me. But right now, we need to know what’s around us. We’re gonna need water and food. And we need to know if this area’s safe enough, because Radueriel and his people are definitely going to be searching for us.”

“Come on,” Sands gestured for the others to go with her to the other side of the cave. “Roxa and me can tell you about most of it while Flick scouts things out. Then she can fill in the blanks.”

Gordon straightened a little, giving my fox a brief glance. I saw the boy open his mouth before hesitating. It looked like he was about to say something, but stopped himself. It was one of the first times I could ever remember him actually looking hesitant or unsure. Whatever he had been about to say, it seemed like it was something important. In the end, however, he just followed the others to the other side of the cave while giving me a brief glance on his way.

Um. Do you think he’s okay? Tabbris sounded worried, and I wondered how much of my noticing Gordon’s look was myself and how much was the Seosten girl. He, um, he looked like-

Like he wanted to say something, I agreed. I dunno. He’s been taking in a lot. They all have, but the others seem more… shaken by it? Isaac’s just making jokes like he usually does, but I can tell there’s something off about him too. And Jazz is really freaking out. But Gordon… it’s almost like this isn’t that much of a surprise to him. But I can’t tell how much of that is just Gordon being Gordon, and how much of it is him knowing more than we thought he knew. He’s hard to read.

Either way, I was gonna have to worry about it later. For the moment, everything I’d already said was true. We really did need to have food and water, and we did need to find if there were any Seosten search teams anywhere nearby. Everything else was going to have to wait for, for now.

So I focused on my fox. Seeing through her eyes, I sent the little magically conjured animal out of the cave. She easily slipped through the bush covering the opening, back out into the narrow, foliage-covered canyon. There, I made her sit and simply listen for a few long seconds. Animals. I could hear what I thought were animals, and smell them. But other than that, there was silence. If there was a Seosten search team nearby, they weren’t making a lot of noise.

I had to get out of the canyon, to where I could actually see better and get the lay of the land. To that end, I made the fox start looking around, hunting for a quick way to climb up. Meanwhile, I silently asked, I’ve gotta ask you something, Tabbris. You said you’ve been getting rid of any spells that Fossor has been trying to put on me. You did the same thing with the Seosten, right? They weren’t just trying to figure out why I was immune to possession, they also wanted to know why none of their spells were working. That was you. It was all you, the whole time.

I felt her embarrassment, and uncertainty. Um. Uh… uh huh. I was trying to be subtle about it at first, like… make it look like they just messed up the spell or something. But they kept trying, so I thought if I just undid all the spells, they might think someone like Gaia or Mr. Prosser was doing it. Except, uh, I guess Charmiene figured out that there weren’t any Heretics going near you before the spells were broken. So she must’ve decided you were doing it somehow.

Or that it was happening automatically, I agreed, smiling a little to myself. That must’ve confused the hell out of them. But, I added pointedly, how did you do it? You’re… well, you’re awesome. That’s for sure. But how could you possibly just erase the spells that a three thousand year old Seosten and an ancient necromancer put on me like that? It seems really impressive.

Now I really felt her embarrassment. Oh. Um. It’s.. uh, easier to break things than to make them. It’s like how… how it can take a long time and a lot of skill to make a vase, but you can break it really easily? It’s a little tricky to do it to a spell without setting it off, but um, it’s easier to break them than to make them. Mama showed me some tricks, cuz she knew they’d come after you.

Still smiling, I replied, Downplay it all you want, I still get the feeling that you and Wyatt would be an amazing team. You’ve been working with magic and spell-countering since you were tiny. If you two worked together, you could probably figure out a spell to do anything.

There was silence from the other girl for a few long seconds before she tentatively asked, You really think we’ll get back to Earth? The banishment orbs are really powerful. Remember the problems the Meregan had with Tristan? And they’re not even behind the same magic wall that S-Seosten space is. Remember, Uncle Haiden and Aunt Larissa have been out here for years.

We’ll make it back, I promised her. Just like we’re gonna find your mom, and the others. The biggest advantage the Seosten have is people not knowing about them, Tabbris. That’s something else you have in common with your people. Secrecy, that’s their biggest thing. It’s how they’ve gotten away with so much. We’ve got Gaia, Wyatt, Gabriel, and probably a lot more working to get us out of here. Trust them. All we have to do is stay alive and free long enough.

By that point, my fox had found a narrow path against the wall of the canyon to climb up and out. As she clambered onto solid ground, I made her look around slowly, taking everything in.

The forest didn’t look that different than one that we could’ve found back on Earth. The trees were a bit bigger (but not as big as the ones at Eden’s Garden), and the leaves were more of a blueish-purple color while the bark itself was closer to red. And I saw a bunch of roughly waist-high bushes with a mixture of orange, yellow, and red leaves. But overall, it looked like a normal forest. In the distance, I saw an animal standing between two trees, munching on a few of those leaves. It looked kind of like a zebra, except it had a really long neck like a giraffe and it was red and a dull orange instead of black and white, to better blend into the trees and bushes.

There were also a couple birds flying overhead. As I turned the fox’s head to look up, I saw them passing by. They looked like oversized parrots. Seriously, the brightly colored birds were as big as vultures. As I watched, one dove to grab something out of a tree. I couldn’t see what it was, but the thing struggled for a few seconds before going still in the giant parrot’s talons as it was crushed to death. Apparently these things ate a lot more than just nuts, fruit, and insects.

Right, focus, Flick. Pausing then, I thought, Hey, was that me thinking that, or you telling me?

You, Tabbris quickly answered. It was you. Um, and maybe just a little me. I mean, you thought it too. I was mostly thinking about how I hope Marian doesn’t have to fight one of those things.

Marian? I echoed before realizing what she was talking about. Oh, the fox. Why Marian?

Again, I felt her embarrassment. You know, like Maid Marian. In the Disney cartoon Robin Hood.

I barely resisted a chuckle at that. I knew I loved that movie a little too much for just one person. Dad used to say I was almost obsessed with watching it. That was you too, wasn’t it?

That time, her embarrassment turned to what felt more like… almost shame. I’m sorry, she hurriedly apologized. I’m sorry, I was little and I was scared. I was… I w-was still new to everything after I woke up, and when you watched that movie, I felt… a little better. But I–

Tabbris, I interrupted, It’s okay. I get it, trust me. You were a kid, you’re still a kid. But back then, you were barely more than a toddler. You were scared and alone, and the movie made you feel better. You wanted to see it so much that it rubbed off and made me want to see it too.

There was silence for a few seconds then before she replied, Mostly it was after… after Aunt Larissa didn’t show up. Mama’s message said that she’d… she’d visit me once I woke up, that she’d help teach me some things so I wouldn’t… so I wouldn’t be alone all of the time. But…

I winced. But she never showed up. She never showed, and you didn’t know why until we found Scout and Sands. Did you know who they were, who their mother was, when we first met them?

Uh huh, Tabbris answered quickly. Some of the messages Mama left were about Aunt Larissa and her family. I… I didn’t know what happened to her until they told us. Until they told you.

Oh God. So she had been left for years without anyone to talk to, without anyone who even knew that she existed. With Larissa gone and no way to contact, or be contacted by, her mother, Tabbris had had absolutely no one. And she spent years like that, hiding inside me, trying not to control me to the point that she felt guilty because her desire to watch a kid’s movie might’ve influenced me to watch it. Where did we even start with making her feel better about any of it?

Well, first thing’s first. You didn’t do anything wrong, I insisted. It’s okay if you wanted to watch a silly movie. I’m pretty sure little sisters have done a lot more than you did when it comes to forcing people to watch the movie they want to watch, okay? I’m not mad, Tabbris. It’s okay.

I had to keep exploring. We still needed food and water, and everything else. Sending the fox–Marian to the nearest tree, I tilted her head to look up. As far as I knew, foxes didn’t generally climb trees. But this was a special case, and I was particularly motivated.

After judging where the branches were, I turned Marian around and had her run back a few yards before crouching like a runner at a starting gate. Hearing the imaginary pistol, I made her dart forward. I ran straight at the tree, leaping from a few feet out. Crashing against the tree partway up, I dug in with the fox’s hindlegs, scrambling to push off while using the claws in her forepaws to hold on and pull up toward the lowest branch that looked like it could hold her.

It probably looked really awkward for more than one reason, not the least of which was the fact that it was my brain directing the fox. But she made it up, then I had her jump from branch to branch in order to get higher. The whole time, I tried not to think about those big parrot things. If one of them came screeching down out of the sky to grab my fox-self, I might need new pants. And I was pretty sure there wasn’t a mall anywhere nearby to take care of that little problem.

Actually, I realized then, that reminds me of another question. When you popped out of me, you were wearing a blue… what was that, a bodysuit? Where’d that come from? I mean, I kinda doubt you just had it on when you, um, arrived back when you were that little.

To my surprise, Tabbris corrected, Actually, I did. It’s Seosten clothing. It um, it grows with you. It was really little when I was, and when I got bigger… it did too. It’s self-cleaning, and I think it’s supposed to be bulletproof, fireproof, and… some other things. At least, that’s what Mama said.

Oh. I paused then, considering that for a second. That’s really cool. I could use something like that. But I do think we need to get you some other clothes when we get a chance.

I felt the Seosten girl’s curiosity then. She hesitated before slowly asking, Other clothes?

Sure, I confirmed slyly before adding, After all, I’m pretty sure it’d be easy to find a couple of those Robin Hood shirts in the Disney store. And you’d look really snazzy in them.

I felt the girl’s delight at the thought, even as I made myself focus on what Marian was seeing now that the little fox had reached the top of the tree. Peering out, I took in the sight.

The forest stretched on for miles in every direction. I saw a river not too far away, with what looked like fish jumping in it. That solved our water and food problem, for the moment at least.  It was like this whole area, or maybe the planet itself, was some kind of nature preserve. Which might make sense. If it was meant to provide water, even air and other resources for space stations, they might deliberately keep it as undeveloped and natural as possible.

One thing that definitely wasn’t natural, however, was the thing flying over the top of the forest way off in the distance. It was far enough away that I could barely make it out, but it looked like a spaceship of some kind. The thing looked like it was about the size of a C-130 jet, and it was flying very slowly a few hundred feet above the treetops. As I watched through Marian’s eyes, it flew steadily along a straight path for awhile before moving out of sight. A minute or two later, it came back from the other direction and just a little bit closer.

They’re scanning, I realized. That’s why they didn’t send search teams to scour the woods. They’re using that ship to slowly scan the whole area for us. Actually, they’re probably using more than one of the things. They’ll find us that way.

No, they won’t, Tabbris corrected. I know a spell you can put on the cave to hide from their scanners. I can um, I can teach you, and you can just say that Gaia taught it to you?

I found myself nodding a little bit, both my own head and the fox’s. Good idea. Let me bring her in and we’ll get started before that thing gets any closer.

Bringing Marian back into the cave, I opened my eyes to find the others watching. Sands spoke up. “Did you find anything?”

“Food and water,” I replied. “And the ship that’s flying over the forest scanning for us.”

That definitely got everyone’s attention. Eyes widening, Jazz demanded, “A ship that’s scanning for us? What are we supposed to do, keep running? There’s probably more than one.”

I nodded. “That’s what–” I stopped myself from saying we at the last second. “–I thought. But don’t worry, Gaia taught me some other spells, like how to hide from scans like that. I need to put a spell on the cave, so we’ll have to stay inside while they’re going overhead. Once they move on, we’ll deal with the food situation.”

“It’s pretty lucky that Gaia taught you all this,” Gordon observed. “Is she the one who taught you the spell you used to get rid of that cyborg and all his troops?”

“Or was it Gabriel?” Roxa quickly put in with a brief glance toward me. Clearly, she was giving me an out so I didn’t have to reveal Tabbris.  

Her former teammates all looked at her then, Jazz blurted, “Gabriel?”

I nodded. “Gabriel Prosser. And let’s just say that thing we used against Radueriel won’t work a second time. It was a one-shot deal, for emergencies.”

There. I didn’t actually say that Gabriel had been the one to teach me the word. I just confirmed his name and then told the truth about the thing being one-time use. So it wasn’t… technically lying. But I also wasn’t going to tell them about Tabbris. There was way too much that could go wrong if they knew about her.

“Prosser.” Jazz’s voice was awed. “You’ve met Gabriel Prosser? How? Why?”

Biting my lip, I hesitated before moving over to the nearby cave wall while reaching for the field-engraver in my pocket. “Let me get this spell started so we’re safe,” I replied. “Then… we’re on another planet.”

“Uh, yeah? What’s your point?” Isaac asked.

“My point,” I replied easily, “is that we’re not within range of the Seosten’s memory spell. Which means I can tell you about my mother. And about the rebellion.”

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