Radueriel

Hoc Est Bellum 34-04

Previous Chapter                                      Next Chapter

I don’t think she’s very happy with the plan.

Tabbris’s observation in the back of my head over the ongoing ranting from the Seosten woman made me smile just a little bit. I knew that my, or rather, our current host couldn’t hear her unless the other girl would have wanted her to. Yeah, I replied, I’m kind of getting that impression too.

“They’re coming.” The announcement came from Larissa, who was standing near the door that we had come through. She turned to me then, asking, “Are you ready for this? You know what to do.”

Giving the body I was inhabiting a once-over, I checked the wound in her side. For a moment, I wondered why I hadn’t really felt any of her pain, before realizing that Tabbris had probably turned that off the second we jumped inside the woman. It wasn’t exactly shallow, but also clearly wasn’t life threatening. We’d be okay for the time being. If nothing else, it would make the next part look realistic.  

So, I gave Larissa a quick nod, adding a thumbs up. “Yup, all set.”

“Be careful, kid,” Apollo advised. “We’ll be right here, but… just be careful. Watch yourself.”

I knew what he was really saying. He was telling Tabbris and me to watch over each other, without acknowledging her existence in any way that would let anyone else know. So I gave him a thumbs up, while Tabbris used the other hand to give him another one. Two thumbs up. It was one of our signals that we’d worked out.

That was all we had time for. Larissa gave another look our way, before holding out a hand. I felt a bit of pressure against the Seosten woman’s body as Larissa lifted us up with some kind of telekinesis. A second later, we were suddenly sent flying through the air, out the open doorway, and down the corridor. I caught a brief glimpse of a lot of armed figures as we sailed a solid twenty feet before crashing to the ground, rolling end over end until we came to a dazed stop. Larissa really hadn’t held much, if anything back on that one.

“Lailah!” a voice shouted from nearby, and I blinked that way in time to see an achingly gorgeous guy with curled brown hair and the most adorable dimp- focus, Flick. The obvious Seosten man was standing there with a rifle in one hand, surrounded by more soldiers. A lot of soldiers. There were a few Seosten mixed in there, but most of them were other races. All of them were heavily armed, and they did not look happy.

Ishtien, Tabbris instantly supplied. She was quicker at looking through our host’s memories than I would have been, so there was no real delay between when I saw the man and when the name filled my head.

“Ishtien,” I made the woman’s mouth say while quickly pushing her up to her feet. “We’re under attack. They’re trying to crash the ship into the facility. We have to stop them.” It was tempting to shout or act panicked to sell it, but I had to remember that the woman I was possessing was a professional. She was a soldier who had been trusted to be the last line of defense within the reactor room, and someone like that wouldn’t just panic. So I kept her voice terse and clearly right on the edge of screaming, but still in control. It helped that being surrounded by all these guns put me pretty much in the same mindset that I was trying to portray.

“We noticed.” Ishtien’s voice was dry, right on the edge of humor as he gave us a brief look. “Who’s in there? How did they get access to the system? You were…” He paused then, and I could tell that the man was right on the edge of suspicion. I had to head that off at the pass. Luckily, I knew exactly what kind of answer to give him to do just that.

My mouth opened to say, ‘Apollo’, but instead, the word that came out was, “Lucifer!”

Sorry! Tabbris’s voice quickly put in. She would have said Lucifer, not Apollo.

She was right, of course. The real Lailah would’ve referred to him by his Seosten name, not the one he had taken on Earth. Quickly reminding her not to apologize for helping, I repeated aloud, “Lucifer. They have Lucifer. His power, he… he used it to make me–” Wincing with a show of what I hoped looked like shame, I made the woman’s hands touch the wound in her side.

Ishtien had filled in the blank by that point. Which was what I was going for. His mouth twisted a little. “He and Auriel together?”

I made Lailah nod. “She cut off our–” Tabbris quickly supplied the right word for the mind-meld. “–breven to stop me from warning you.” Reaching up, I grabbed his arm. “They mean to crash the ship into the facility and use it to destroy the security tower. We must stop them, now!”

Grimacing, the Seosten man barked an order at the soldiers surrounding him. “You heard her! Get in the room. Kill them all, go now! Get them away from the controls!”

They hopped to, rushing for the doors. As Ishtien turned his own attention that way, he put his back to me. As soon as he did that, my (or rather, Lailah’s) eyes narrowed, and I made her reach for the knife attached to her belt while focusing on the back of his neck.

Wait! The Seosten woman, who had been ranting angrily in the back of my mind, suddenly blurted. Her anger had vanished, turning into abrupt desperation, with palpable fear. Wait, please! Please, Ishtien is my friend. We grew up together. He is the only person I have left from my childhood. I–I won’t fight you. I won’t fight you. I will even allow you to kill me or imprison me. I will do anything you wish.  But please, please do not… do not kill him. There is a stun feature on the handle of the blade that will knock him out. I am begging you, human. Please do not kill my friend.

I could feel her terror, her certainty that I wouldn’t listen to her right alongside her total and complete desperation. If we had been face to face, I knew that I would have been able to see the tears in her eyes. She had been trying to seize control ever since I had possessed her. But with the knife already pulled and my focus on Ishtien’s neck, she had given up, choosing to play the last card she had left: begging. For a half second, I wondered how many of her hosts had begged her to stop whatever she was doing. And whether or not she had ever listened to them.

Lifting the woman’s hand, I flipped the button on the side of the knife, triggering the stun-prod on the hilt before smacking it into the back of the Seosten man’s neck. A jolt of purple electricity crackled across his skin, before the man collapsed to the ground with a cry that was abruptly cut off as he fell into a completely unconscious heap.

Ignoring the rush of gratitude from my host, I focused on the group of soldiers ahead of me. They hadn’t noticed their leader collapse to the floor quite yet. Mostly because they were all a bit busy, running headlong into Apollo and Larissa in their desperate attempt to get through the doorway and into that room so they could stop the ship from crashing. I could see glimpses of Larissa’s forcefield keeping them out, as well as bursts of flame from some unknown source.

It’s been a real blast, I informed Lailah, but this is where I get off. As she started to respond, I ignored her, stepping out of the body while metaphorically hitting the button that would leave her unconscious. As her body fell, I produced my staff before taking one more look at the backs of the assembled soldiers. There was a mix of younger Seosten and other Alters, of them so intent on getting into the room ahead of them that they had yet to actually notice me.

Time to change that. Gripping my staff, I took a running start, heading straight for the rear of the group. A tall (nine feet in height) musclebound figure with rock-like skin was there, taking aim with a rifle that looked like a miniature ship-mounted cannon. Larissa’s forcefield was good, but I wasn’t sure it was good enough to stand up to something like that for very long. So, he was definitely my first target.

“Hey, asshole!” I shouted over the sound of the battle. At my voice, the big guy abruptly spun back, surprise written over his gruff-looking face at the sight of both me and the two unconscious Seosten as his mouth opened to bellow a quick warning.

In that instant, I brought my staff up, triggering the charge it had been building up. At the same time, I thrust that end of the staff backward, straight into the tiny portal that I had just opened. The other end of that portal appeared directly behind the big guy’s head, and his cry of warning turned to one of pain as the blast from the newly-emerged staff struck him right there.

The force of the blow knocked the big guy’s head forward and down, even as it also launched me forward and up. I shut off the portal then, letting the full force of it propel me that way. Before the guy could recover from the blow to the back of his head, the bladed end of my staff was driven into his throat. Blood sprayed everywhere, even as my feet collided with his chest. An instant later, I kicked back away from his steadily collapsing body while yanking my staff out.

As I flipped backward, away from the falling figure, I felt the rush of pleasure from his death. But it was muted a bit, like I wasn’t really feeling the full effect of it, just enough to know it was there.

Did you do that? I quickly asked my partner while landing in a crouch with my staff in one hand.

Um. Y-yes? The response came a bit hesitantly. I didn’t know if it would work or not, but I thought it would help if you weren’t so distracted. So I um, I tried.

Grinning, I gave a slight inward nod. Keep it up, partner.

That was all I had time to say. Because as distracted as they might have been before, the rest of the small army that had assembled to attack the reactor room definitely knew I was there now. Half of them had come up short, spinning back to see the big guy collapse to the floor. I saw realization cross some of their faces, as they looked from the fallen Seosten, then to me and back again. They knew. They understood that they had been tricked. Their leaders were down, and now they were caught in the middle of the corridor between me and the other two, who had stopped playing so defensively now that the trap had been sprung. Larissa had been using little more than the forcefield to make them stay focused on her. But now that they knew I was behind them, she and Apollo were actually fighting back.

Larissa had wanted to be the one who did this part, the one who dealt with whoever the leader of the group that was sent down to deal with us was, because she wanted to be the one who was behind the Seosten while I stayed safe next to Apollo. But thanks to both Charmiene’s death and Tabbris’s expertise in using it, my possession-ability was stronger than hers. Which meant that Tabbris and I had been far more likely to able to keep control of whatever Seosten we ended up finding in that reactor room. So us doing it had just made sense. Which meant that me being the the one who ended up on the opposite side of whatever group showed up to stop us was pretty inevitable.

But it also meant that we were by ourselves, cut off from the other three and with a small army between us. At least… for the moment. There was a plan to change that much too, eventually.

A shout went up among the group, a warning cry. Then they broke apart. Some came for me, trying to deal with the threat that I presented to their rear, while the rest pushed on for the reactor, running headlong into the solid brick wall that was Larissa and Apollo.

As for me? Well, if these guys wanted to fight me so badly, I would absolutely oblige them.

Three of the soldiers stopped, their weapons coming up to take aim at me. One of the things that had been drilled into me over and over again throughout the month that I had spent at the Aelaestiam base was the ability to recognize what kind of weapons were being used at first glance. Athena had made me go through test after test, identifying the weapon and its capability with and without Tabbris’s help. And thanks to that, I immediately knew that two of the soldiers were using energy weapons, while the other held a slugthrower.

I had actually asked Athena once why the Seosten used a mixture of lasers and bullet weapons instead of focusing on the former, which would seem to be the more advanced and useful type. In response, she had explained that it was easier to put spells for various effects on bullets than it was to put them on lasers. Also, the Fomorian proclivity for making themselves and their creations immune to everything under the sun meant that it was a good idea to have a wide variety of options. It was the same reason that Heretics were so useful, really: variety and surprise was the key to beating the Fomorians. Having things that they hadn’t anticipated, and Heretics were really hard to anticipate.

As the soldiers took aim and fired, I kept right on going. I was ready for the lasers, absorbing their energy with a thought. Meanwhile, the bullet came right at my chest. Fortunately for me, Tabbris was on the job. One of the many little bits of cloth that the two of us had painstakingly spent hours enchanting instantly appeared right on my shirt. The so-called kevlar spell caught the metal slug’s momentum and slowed it down to almost nothing before it bounced off my chest as I kept running forward.

Two more steps, and I reached the nearest enemies, a guy with some kind of long metal pike and another with what amounted to a lightsaber.

That guy with the pike had reach on me, so I went for him first, baiting him into stabbing the thing right at me before quickly pivoting out of the way.

The strike came so close to hitting me as it passed that I could literally feel the blade and handle skim right through my shirt. Rather than doing the sensible thing and moving further away from it however, I let myself sink back just a little so that the handle actually did touch me just a bit. At the same time I curled my fingers a little.

Once more, my partner was right on top of things. We had gotten good enough through all of our training by that point that she interpreted my desires without me having to outright ask her. The instant my back felt that weapon, it was transported out of the enemy’s hands and into my own.

In that moment, Larissa’s telepathic voice in my head warned, Security field, get to a host! 

Right, the security field that would disintegrate anyone who wasn’t either cleared or possessing someone who was. Grimacing, I threw myself backward, colliding straight with one of the other soldiers as my item-sense let me know exactly where he was. As I crashed into the man, I literally crashed into him, possessing the guy even as we both went tumbling backward. 

Just before possessing my new (hopefully very brief) host, I had released both my own weapon, and the other guard’s pike. Before they could finish falling, I snapped both of his hands out to catch hold of them.  Holding each, I turned, hurling the pike across the hallway and into the chest of one of the guys who was trying to shoot me with a slugthrower. Again, I felt that muted sense of pleasure as Tabbris made sure that it wouldn’t overwhelm me.

On top of all that, the other girl had been constantly intercepting anything that was thrown at me. She used my item sense to keep track of where the nearest guns were pointed, and intercepted either bullets with more of those kevlar cloths, or lasers by switching on my energy-absorption. It was like having a copilot riding right alongside in my head to keep track of all that extra stuff that would have been too distracting for me to deal with. I was almost glad that my current state (possessing someone meant that my body wasn’t exactly physical, so she couldn’t do anything more with the enchanted cloths) would give her a little bit of a break, brief as it would be.

A second later, we passed through the field. I caught a glimpse of Larissa and Apollo in unwilling hosts of their own as a red light seemed to scan over all of us. It only took a moment, and seemed utterly inconsequential. But I knew that if any of the others had been here, or if we had been caught without a host, it would have been… bad. Very bad.

Dismissing my current host once the danger was past, I jumped right back out of him, letting the man fall unconscious behind me. By that point, the guy with the laser sword was there, bringing that glowing weapon straight for my neck. I brought my staff up to intercept it, and saw a brief grin cross the green-skinned man’s face.

Back at the base, we had established that my energy absorption power wouldn’t work very well on something like that laser sword. It could make the blade flicker somewhat, but then would be overloaded quickly and I would be just as damaged or even dead as any normal person a second later. I could only absorb so much at one time, and a blade tended to stay in one place long enough to overwhelm me. So, anything worse than a glancing blow, even with my energy absorption up, would be really bad news.

And this guy clearly knew that. He knew that his laser weapon would cut straight through my regular staff like butter, then keep right on going through me the exact same way.

Except it didn’t. Because I had a little trick up my sleeve. As the lightsaber neared my weapon, I focused on the energy that I had just absorbed a few seconds earlier from those lasers, along with what Tabbris had made us absorb. For a moment, a glowing green outline surrounded my staff, just as the lightsaber connected with it. The laser sword bounced off, and I caught a glimpse of that knowing grin turning into a look of shock and confusion just before I spun the staff around. With that glowing energy surrounding it, the shaft sliced right through the man’s own neck, severing his head from his body.

Yeah, that was one of my new tricks. Not only could I hold the energy that I absorbed for a bit longer than before, but with help from Apollo over this past week, I had also figured out how to surround myself (or my weapon, in this case) with that same energy. It only lasted for a few seconds, but it was pretty damn useful. Case in point.

Unfortunately, as the beheaded guy fell, another figure appeared right where he had been. I barely had a flash of realization that he had actually been possessed before the Seosten’s fist collided with my face, knocking me back a step as a flash of pain exploded in my temple and nose.

The guy looked like he was barely older than me, maybe by a few years. I knew that wasn’t true, considering the way they aged. But still, he looked young. His long, black hair was fashioned into a tight ponytail, and he had these very pale green eyes that almost seemed white at first glance. The pupils were barely dark enough to stand out from the regular white of his eyes. If this had been a TV show, I would have taken that as a sign that the guy was blind. But he clearly wasn’t, considering the way he was focused on me, meeting my gaze. That, and I was pretty sure that blindness was something that the Seosten could and would probably fix.

He tried to follow up his first attack by snatching a dagger from his belt and driving it into my gut, but I had recovered from my surprise by that point, and managed to snap my staff up just in time to knock the blade aside with a grunt. This was followed instantly by bringing the other end of the staff up to block the subsequent punch from his other hand. But that was a feint, and his foot suddenly collided with my stomach in a blow that would have put me on the ground if I hadn’t had an increased strength and pain tolerance. As it was, I stumbled and he took quick advantage by lashing out with that knife once more. That time, I barely managed to turn aside from the more dangerous swipe, taking a cut across my shoulder and another around my bicep in rapid succession.

He was fast. Goddamn, he was so fucking fast. Even with my own slightly enhanced speed and more enhanced reflexes, I could barely try to keep up with him. The guy was clearly boosting. And he had the skill to back up that boost. It was crystal clear in that moment that surprise over my staff blocking his laser sword was the only reason I had been able to kill his host so quickly.

And speaking of that particular weapon, the man kicked his foot out and popped the handle up into his waiting hand before igniting it once more. Now he had a laser sword in one hand and a knife in the other. Fan-freaking-tastic.

Plus, not only could I not just count on my energy absorption to deal with the weapon, I also couldn’t throw up a portal to block it when he swung the thing at me. Not when it came at me lengthwise. Because while I had gotten much faster at creating the portals under pressure, we had also discovered a drawback to my small portals. While they would cut anything in half if it went through them and then the portal was shut off, the thing had to actually fit through the portal to begin with. Basically, it couldn’t be wider than the portal. It could be longer and just put the part of it that fit through, but if the object was wider than the portal, the entire thing simply passed through it as if there was nothing there. I didn’t know if it was a safety feature or what, but I couldn’t just cut something large by putting a small portal in front of it as it passed through. It would act like there was no portal at all.

So no way to instantly win just by putting a portal in front of the swinging blade. Which was going to be a bit of a pain considering how fast this guy was. Plus, there was the fact that if I focused too much on the energy blade itself, he’d sneak in a vicious stab with the regular knife. All in all, this was going to be somewhat tricky.

He danced in quickly then, the dagger in his left hand lashing out with a quick snap of his wrist, like the lunge of a snake toward my left side. I took a quick stutter step backwards, pivoting back and away on my right foot to avoid the longer reach of his energy blade as it cut through the air where my shoulder had just been. I could hear and feel the heat from the blade as it passed close to me.

With my right side to the man and his laser sword almost directly across my chest, he instantly began to snap his sword that way to cut me in half.

But (thankfully) I was faster than that. Ducking and pivoting simultaneously, I let his energy blade pass just over my back before popping up to lash out with a kick. He was kicking at me at the same time, and our legs collided in midair. I felt a flash of pain in my shin, but ignored it as much as I had ignored the cuts I’d already suffered, as well as that punch to the face. There would be time to assess injuries later. Hopefully.

The Seosten’s sword was swinging down from up high in on overhead blow. So I stepped in quickly, my staff snapping up and out to hit not the weapon itself, but the inside of his elbow in order to throw off his aim. My ultimate goal was to try to make him actually drop the sword, but I really wasn’t counting on that much. I would just settle for not being cut in half. Which was probably a pretty firm goal of almost everyone out there without something like a worm’s ability to survive that kind of thing, come to think of it.

As I stood in close to the man, my free hand suddenly snapped down seemingly of its own volition, catching hold of the man’s wrist with the knife that he’d been trying to shove into my stomach just then. Tabbris was still on top of things.

My thoughts focused on possessing the man to end this, but before I could gather myself for it, pain exploded in the front of my face once again. That time, rather than punching, the man had headbutted me, making me stagger backward and release him. Worse, I caught a brief glimpse of that glowing energy as he brought the sword spinning downward to put it through my back as I stumbled onto one knee.

A quick burst from my staff sent me into a sideways roll, right as the blade cut through the floor where I had just been. The Seosten man tried to follow up by coming after me before I could rise, but the roll had put me right where I wanted to be: next to one of the fallen soldiers. My foot kicked out, catching hold of the butt of the dead man’s laser rifle. A quick thought took it from my foot to my hands, and I fired a trio of shots at the incoming Seosten. He ducked and pivoted out of the way, moving too quick for the shots to hit him, just as I had expected.

But it bought me time and distance for what I needed to do. Which, in this case, was to point the weapon at myself and pull the trigger several times as quickly as I could. As the lasers struck me, I absorbed their energy, channeling it into my weapon while popping back to my feet. The staff began to glow once more, and I lunged at the man just in time to intercept his swinging blade with it. Now, I had a few seconds where I could actually block his weapon with mine. The fight was slightly less unfair. Slightly.

What followed was a rapid series of blocks and counters that even I couldn’t completely follow correctly. We were both attacking and countering so fast that a normal person wouldn’t have been able to follow it. Our weapons spun and collided, bouncing off each other as we both pressed for an advantage that simply wasn’t there. Spin, parry, stab, block, duck, everything was moving in fast forward. And neither of us were giving any ground at all. This guy was really good.

On the plus side, my enhanced stamina meant that I wasn’t even the least bit winded by all of this. I was pretty sure that, if it came down to it, I could beat the guy just by outlasting him. He would get tired before I did, and he would make a mistake before I did. I just had to hold on until he did.

As we broke away from each other that time, the man kept his energy blade in front of him while staring at me. He was panting a little bit, but there was also something else to his expression: a smile. He looked happy about our exchange, happy that he hadn’t already killed me.

“You,” the Seosten started, “would make a most worthy vessel to put against the Fomorians. Abandon this foolishness, and come to fight the true threat. We could do amazing work together. There is no need for us to be enemies.”

I coughed, keeping my weapon up just in case. “Yeah,” I retorted, “sorry but I don’t really see the people who enslave entire races as the good guys. I’m pretty sure you’re both complete dicks.”

“You have a simplistic view of the situation,” the guy snapped back at me. “But with any luck, you will—”

He stopped suddenly glancing down at something on his wrist before looking back up again. His voice was flat. “This will be continued,” he promised me. “I truly hope that you survive.”

Before I could ask what that was supposed to mean, the guy disappeared right in front of my eyes. Actually, they were all disappearing. All around me, the soldiers, conscious or unconscious, or even dead, were disappearing. I was left there in the corridor with just Apollo and Larissa.

“It worked?” I blurted, looking around while catching my breath.

Larissa nodded. “We stalled them long enough. The ship’s computer detected the imminent collision and destruction, so it initiated their lifepod system.”

The lifepod system. Basically, if the computer of the ship knew that it was about to be destroyed, it would take every registered being on it and teleport them to the nearest safe location. At this point, the ship was empty except for us.

“How soon until we, you know, collide?” I asked. “And I thought they’d be more alarms than this.”

“I disabled them.” That was Athena, stepping out of the other room. “And collision is imminent.” She looked toward Apollo with a gesture. “It’s time.”

The man nodded at that, pulling something from his pocket. It looked like a small metal stick with runes inscribed along it. “All right,” he replied, “everyone get in close.”

We did, getting close to him as he triggered the spell he had put on the stick. A second later, we were standing somewhere else. Well, we hadn’t really gone anywhere, technically. The place we were, which looked just like a simple white room, was just a pocket dimension located within the stick that Apollo had been holding. The stick which was still back in that ship, while it was colliding with the facility on the moon and the energy from that reactor was exploding into a wave that would destroy the protective spell that had been over it to prevent anyone from teleporting down there. We were here so that we didn’t have to sit through all that, which would have been a bit…well, dangerous, to say the least.

“Sorry,” I started then, while taking the chance to collect myself and breathe for a moment. “Sorry I wasn’t more help back there. You guys had to deal with most of them.”

The three of them looked at each other, and then Larissa’s hand was on my shoulder. “You both did extremely well,” she assured us. “You kept up remarkably.”

Apollo nodded at that while giving me a charming smile. “Trust me, kid, you fighting a full Seosten soldier to what amounted to a standstill, that’s nothing to sneeze at.” He paused then, before winking at me. “Even if he was blind.”

My mouth fell open at that, and I blurted, “He was? I mean, I thought he might be, but I dismissed it because he was fighting so well. And he seemed to look right at me. Plus, you know, I figured if there was any kind of blindness, you guys could fix it. I mean, not you guys, the Seosten.”

“In most cases,” Athena informed me, “they could. What your opponent back there possesses is a very rare genetic mutation, which allows them to see, as we do, only through the eyes of a host. It was borne of experimentation when our scientists were working on ways to prevent so many lost pregnancies.”

“So he was born blind,” I noted. “But still, couldn’t they just fix that?”

It was Apollo who answered. “They may be blind as far as you or I are concerned. But their condition allows them to see energy. They see heat, they see magical energy, electricity, things like that. They see a lot of things beyond normal sight. Hell, they can even see sound waves and concussive force in the air. So while it could be fixed, some of them choose to keep it that way, and learn to use their version of sight.”

Staring that way for a moment, I flailed. “No wonder that fight was such a pain in the ass,” I blurted out loud, my voice a high squeak, “that guy was fucking Daredevil! I deserve points for fighting fucking Daredevil!”

“And yet,” Athena pointed out then, “You didn’t simply survive your encounter, you actually performed quite admirably against him.”

“You did,” Larissa confirmed. “I was keeping an eye on you, just in case I needed to step in. But you held your own. Very impressive.”

Smiling despite myself at that while a slight blush crossed my face, I tapped the side of my head with one finger. “Couldn’t do it without my partner.”

As I felt Tabbris’s embarrassment and delight, Athena gestured. “That’s long enough, it’s time to go back before they manage to recover.”

Apollo obliged. With a wave of his hand, he disabled the spell. An instant later, we were back in the same corridor we had been in before. But things had changed. The place looked half destroyed. There were dark scorch marks everywhere, along with large, jagged holes in the walls and floor that left exposed wires and pipes that all crackled occasionally with random spurts of power. Electricity sparked in the air from some of those exposed wires, and I saw several fires. There was different colored smoke everywhere, and part of the corridor was bent in the wrong direction. All in all, this place looked pretty badly damaged. And I was sure that the rest of the ship was in just as bad of shape. After all, the thing had just collided with a moon before the reactor exploded. The ship was ruined. And I had to think that it had probably done a pretty bad number on the ground itself.

I was glad that the ship’s crew had been teleported off before the impact. I didn’t want to be even partly responsible for that many horrible deaths like that, even if they were our enemies.

“Call down the others,” Athena instructed. “It’s time for the next step.”

Right, now that the protective spell was down, the rest of our little group could join us. With a nod, I touch the communication plan that I had been provided with. “Okay guys,” I announced, “we’re ready for you down here.”

Well, the others clearly hadn’t been asleep while they waited for us. Almost the exact moment that I had finished saying that, a glowing portal appeared right across from us. A second later, Haiden emerged with his weapon rest. He was joined quickly by Vanessa, Tristan, Jazz, Gordon, and Sands. They all came ready for a fight, relaxing marginally only when they saw that there were no immediate threats.

“Mom!” Showing just how worried she had been while she was stuck back on the other ship, Sands ran directly to her mother, embracing the woman tightly.

With a smile, Larissa returned the embrace, before nodding to everyone else. “All right,” she started quietly. “Looks like we’re all here.”

Roxa, with Gidget ready and alert at her side, spoke up. “I don’t know what that looked like from your guys’ end, but it was pretty fucking crazy from ours. They had a bunch of ships going and trying to stop this one. They must’ve blown half the ship off trying to knock it off course or destroy it. But nothing worked. They couldn’t blow it up in time.” A dark, feral smile appeared then. “Probably what they get for making the thing so tough to begin with.”

Tristan’s head bobbed up and down quickly as he stood there with Bobbi-Bobbi and her cannon form attached to his arm. “Yeah,” he agreed, “then it hit that tower just outside the main lab and just…” Throwing his hands (One of them covered by that enormous cannon) up and out, he made an explosion noise. “It was pretty damn cool.”

“It will also have attracted a lot of attention,” Athena pointed out. “We need to move quickly now, before Kushiel’s forces—”

“I truly don’t think-“ a new, yet familiar voice spoke up then, “—that it is Kushiel whom you should be worried about.”

Radueriel. The Seosten inventor was there at the broken entrance of the corridor. All around him were uniformed and armed soldiers. Each stood at attention in the way that made it clear that he was using his connection to them. They were all under his control. And all of them were pointing their weapons at us.

Before any of us could move, there was the sound of ripping, tearing metal. We spun back the other way, just as part of the wall behind us was being ripped off. There stood another collection of soldiers, including the giant troll that had just ripped the wall open. We were surrounded.

Then it got worse. That huge troll shapeshifted right in front of our eyes. Shrinking somewhat (but not too much) the thing took the form of a still very large, handsome man. The guy looked like a bodybuilder’s wet dream. He was a huge slab of beef, with muscles growing on muscles. He was what Conan the barbarian wished he could be. Hell, the guy looked like he could dribble Conan. He pretty much defined beefcake.

“Abaddon,” Athena spat the name while glaring that way.

Shit, right. Abaddon. Or, as we knew him on Earth, Ares. She’d told me about him. His ability allowed him to essentially take the shape and form of any previous host he’d had. He could even take on their powers that way. Anytime a form he was using was killed, he lost access to it permanently, or at least until he possessed them again. But it meant that you had to kill every single form that he had access to before killing the man himself would take. Hell, even if you killed him in his normal Seosten form, he’d just lose access to it for a time and have to take another shape until it regenerated.

Basically, Ares was a giant pain in the ass, and the fact that you had to kill him so many times before it actually ‘took’ was why he’d built up a reputation for recklessness. But, reckless as he was, the man was still incredibly dangerous. There was a reason he was known as a war god.

And now, we were caught between him and Radueriel, along with an army on both sides.

“As I said,” Radueriel smoothly announced while the soldiers around him all readied their weapons, the hum of their growing energy audible, “it is not Kushiel with whom you should be concerned right now. You should find yourselves quite busy with us.”

Apollo replied with a little shrug, “I don’t know. Two Olympians versus two Olympians and their assorted friends? Seems like this shouldn’t take too long at all.”

A chuckle came from Ares then. The big guy lifted his chin. “Who said we only brought two?”

With those words, a half dozen of the soldiers around us straightened up and a glowing figure appeared beside each of them. More Seosten.

“They may not have been bridge crew,” Radueriel noted, “but they were very much members of the Olympus. And they were also close friends of our dearly departed Charmiene. Which means that they are very much interested in having a discussion…” His hand rose then to point directly at me.

“With her.”

Previous Chapter                                      Next Chapter

Interlude 33E – Jophiel and Elisabet

Previous Chapter                                   Next Chapter

In the middle of a mostly empty warehouse, seven strange figures sat around a large table. The dim lighting from a standing lamp set near the table revealed poker chips and cards scattered across the surface, along with ashtrays, drinks, and the remnants of food. Loud, boisterous taunting and jokes filled the air as the figures continued their intense game.

None of the figures were human, and all but two appeared to be very different species from each other. The largest was an enormous, nine-foot tall Minotaur, who dwarfed even the specially-made large chair that he lounged in at the head of the table.

Continuing around the table clockwise sat a dark-furred Rakshasa; a figure that looked like a Tolkien elf with high pointed ears and and an aristocratic bearing; another who was quite similar to that, save for possessing red skin; a shark-like humanoid who was almost as large as the Minotaur; and a figure who might have been mistaken for a vampire from any who did not know him to be one of their progenitor species, an Akharu.

Finally, on the other side of the Minotaur, opposite the Rakshasa, was a small figure who technically stood only about two feet tall. With its large eyes, enormous ears, and wide mouth that stretched across its entire face, the figure looked quite similar to the Disney character of Stitch. Except, of course, for the long, flowing, cape-like appendage that was attached to his shoulders. The ‘cape’ had razor-sharp talons lining the entirety of the far end. Talons that held a incredibly deadly, paralytic poison. It was three times as long as the creature’s main body, and strong enough to hold it fully upright so that the creature could be eye-to-eye with a six-foot tall man. The cape-appendage could be used to glide long distances, and to protect the creature itself, as it was both bulletproof, and resistant to most kinds of magic.

Though they were often referred to as ‘caped-gremlins’, the creature was actually called a Larikeken. Their use of their cape-like appendages to stand taller than they actually were had led to long confusion about whether they were actually one or two species. And more than one group of Larikeken had ambushed unsuspecting enemies by hiding several of their number under one cape.

In the midst of a particularly raucous series of betting, the heavily reinforced and magically protected door at the entrance of the warehouse abruptly crumpled inward, bending almost entirely in half before it flew off to loudly clatter its way across the floor.

The Spanish woman who walked through the opening then brought the stunned poker players to their feet even faster than the crashing door already would have.

“Heretic!” the Minotaur bellowed loudly while grabbing an enormous axe that had been laid nearby. Around him, the rest of the figures all moved to attack the intruder.

It was an assault that ended exactly as soon as it had begun. With one hand, the woman snapped her fingers. At that command, a trio of three foot thick, concrete tentacles with spikes on the end erupted from the cement floor of the warehouse. Before the figures knew what was happening, the Minotaur, Rakshasa, and shark-man were fully impaled by the cement tentacles, leaving their suddenly lifeless bodies hanging there.

At the same time, the woman waved her other hand, and a wall of intense fire, tall enough to reach the ceiling, rose up before rolling across the opposite half of the room. The remaining four Alters were caught by the flames, and their screams briefly filled the air before going silent.

A dark blue, almost black aura rose around the Spanish woman, though she didn’t even break stride as she followed her own rolling flame. As the fire faded, it left behind scorched and melted concrete, a few ashes and crumbling bones from the bodies it had picked completely clean… and two distinctly glowing shapes. While both elf-like figures had been entirely incinerated, the smaller Larikeken and the Akharu were trapped within glowing blue, semi-translucent crystals. The crystals had protected them from the fire that turned their companions to ashes, yet held them prisoner. Their own screams were rendered mute against their crystal prisons.

Would you like to take the next part? Elisabet silently inquired of her Seosten partner and lover.

Yes I believe I will, the other woman replied. Seamlessly, she took over. To the outside world, there would be no change at all. The two were so perfectly in sync with each other that one could pass control to the other in mid-step and show no delay or hesitation whatsoever.

“Now then,” Jophiel used her partner’s mouth to announce while stopping directly in front of the two trapped figures. “Let’s play a game.” With those words, their fingers snapped once more, and the crystals shattered. The two figures that had been trapped within fell to the floor.

The Akharu was back on his feet in an instant, his incredible speed turning him into a blur of motion that would have been impossible for most beings of the planet to even hope to track.

Most beings, however, did not include a Crossroads Committee-level Seosten-Heretic pairing. Jophiel and Elisabet could have read an entire book in the time it took the man to lunge at them. Even as his feet pushed off and his fist swung wildly for their throat, Jophiel raised a single finger, holding their arm outstretched while remaining perfectly still. The incoming fist slammed into that single finger, and a shockwave of force reverberated throughout the room. The finger remained entirely motionless, as if nothing at all had happened. Meanwhile, the Akharu’s fist crumpled under the impact like a car slamming into a wall during a failed safety test. From the point of collision and spreading out to encompass the entire arm over the span of milliseconds, skin, muscle, and bone all turned to stone, which in turn crumbled to dust.

It would have required a dramatically slowed replay to actually see. Or, of course, the incredible reflexes and speed of the Akharu who experienced it. In the time that it would have taken most to register that their fist had been not just blocked, but broken by a single finger, his entire arm up to the shoulder had turned to stone and completely shattered. The remains lay scattered along the floor at their feet while he stared down incredulously, the pain drawing a belated scream.

“I said,” Jophiel started once more, her voice remaining perfectly even, “let’s play a game.” Lifting both hands, she summoned a handful of much smaller concrete coils from the floor to wrap around the now one-armed Akharu and his gremlin-like companion. The coils yanked both down and held them in place against their struggles while Jophiel stepped between them. The woman stood there, looking first to one, then the other, as though deciding which to start with.

She settled on the smaller figure. Lifting a foot, the woman settled it against his throat. “This is a very simple game. I will ask you a question. Lie to me, and you will suffer. For example…” She made a sharp gesture with one hand. In response, one of the caped-gremlin’s finger bones was torn from its socket. The bone ripped its way free, tearing through muscle and skin as it was ripped out, flying into the woman’s waiting hand.

Crushing the finger bone between two fingers while the figure literally under her boot screamed and howled, Jophiel gave him just a moment of that before pressing her foot down enough to cut off his wails so that she could speak over the sound of the resulting gurgling.

“You have many more bones to go before I would need to get… creative. So I suggest you answer my questions. And do recall that I will know if you are lying.”

With her point firmly established, she began with, “You and your… companions work for a man you know as Hades. You will tell me everything that you have done for him for the past year.”

Her foot lowered a bit more, making her point even clearer as she added, “Be… thorough.”

******

That may have been cathartic, Elisabet noted as they strode out of the warehouse some time later, but it was not all that informative as far as our actual problem goes.

You’re right, Jophiel agreed. But at the very least, we know more about some of Manakel’s side-projects. If need be, we have ammunition that can be used against him should he make a fuss or hold anything back during our upcoming personal discussion.

With that, the woman gestured. A portal appeared in the air, and they stepped through, leaving the warehouse, and the planet itself, behind.

The portal carried the joined pair to a small, tropical island. Ignoring the beauty around them, Jophiel focused instead on the cabin that, aside from the dock built along the shore, was the only bit of construction visible on the island.

Upon their arrival, Jophiel and Elisabet were met by a cough. Manakel, wearing his own currently most-used host, stepped into view. “You know,” the old Seosten announced flatly with his host’s voice, “that group was rather useful to me. They were no Seosten, of course. But they were punctual and dependable. Then you had to go throw your temper tantrum and–”

That was as far as he got before Elisabet crossed the distance between them. Her hand snapped out to lock around the throat of Manakel’s host, hoisting them from the ground before slamming the host’s back against the wall of the cabin hard enough to make it rattle from the force. “You were told,” she began in a voice that shook the air like thunder, “to leave the Moon children out of your schemes.

That was why Jophiel and Elisabet were furious beyond measure. The idea, the thought, that Manakel had disregarded Jophiel’s orders to keep his hands away from the children of Sariel, enraged both of them to the point that it required actual effort not to burn him and his host to the ground right where they stood. The time and work that the two of them had put into maintaining Vanessa Moon’s safety, in preventing her from ending up out in Kushiel’s torture lab, only for the girl and her brother to disappear without a trace? It positively stank of Manakel’s doing.

“And,” Manakel announced in his own voice then, having stepped out of his host after taking the time to leave the figure in question unconscious, “I’ve done precisely that. I had nothing to do with Sariel’s spawn going wherever it is that they went. A fact that I could have told you without your unnecessary… visit to my employees.”

“Why,” Elisabet asked for the two of them, “should we believe a word that comes from your mouth on this subject? You already tried to go behind my back once when I denied your petition to take the boy when he first reappeared.” She released Manakel’s slumbering host, letting the figure drop to the ground. “An insult, I remind you, that I have not forgotten. Nor will it go unanswered in its time, I assure you.”  

Briefly, Jophiel pondered how the proud Seosten would react to the knowledge that it was Elisabet, the human, and not her who was currently threatening him. It was, she had to admit, a rather amusing thought.

“Jophiel,” Manakel started with his trademark faux joviality and camaraderie. “Please. I’ve already admitted that that was a… an overzealous mistake. Please. Listen, I know we have had our… disagreements, of late. But I promise you, I know nothing about the disappearances of Sariel’s hybrid children. Now, I won’t pretend that I don’t still want them. But in this case, I’m as in the dark as you. A fact that you in particular could have ascertained even from my employees without using such violent means. Good help is hard enough to find without my own allies killing them. Especially an ally whose gift makes such permanent measures entirely unnecessary.”

He was referring, of course, to Jophiel’s Olympian gift, the power that she had gained from her own enhancements. In her case, that allowed her to look at anyone she could see and apply any particular emotional feeling they felt for any other person to herself. She could make a person love her as much as they loved their own wife, or their mother. It made acquiring information much easier at times.

But in this case, the disappearance of the twins had left both of them as angry as they had ever been. They had not been in the mood to make things easy.

Allow me, Jophiel gently advised her partner.  Stepping away from the man’s host, she gave the figure a pointed look before returning her gaze to him. “Somehow, I think you may know more than you’re saying. The twins did, after all, disappear from Crossroads grounds.”

“And yet,” Manakel easily replied, “what I said holds true. You know everything that I do about what happened to those children. Unless Sinclaire is holding her cards particularly close to her chest, everyone there is equally clueless. It seems that no one on either side has the faintest idea where Sariel’s spawn have scampered off to. It–” He chuckled a little. “It’s really almost amusing, if you stop and think about it. Here we’ve all been fighting over the two of them almost since their existence was revealed, and now… poof. They’ve disappeared.”

“I’m not laughing,” Jophiel informed the man flatly. “If what you’re saying is true… then who took them? That implies that some other force has the ability to pluck people straight from Crossroads without our being able to either stop them, or find any trace afterward. Speaking plainly, I would prefer that it be you stepping out of line.”

Accepting that with a faint nod, Manakel offered, “Have you tried speaking with Amitiel on the subject? He could know more.”

Despite the situation, Jophiel found herself giving the man a tight-lipped smile. “This wouldn’t be your way of sniffing for clues to Amitiel’s current host or mission, would it?”

Amitiel, known to the ancient Greek humans as Hermes, and to the Romans as Mercury, was one of the most stealth-minded Seosten among all of the Olympians. His ability to remain undetected despite intensive efforts to locate him surpassed even Sariel when she had been loyal, and he often engaged in long-term undercover assignments that could take him out of contact for years, or even decades in certain situations.

Jophiel and Elisabet knew who he was, as part of the Seosten woman’s position as head of Crossroads operations. As did her counterpart who had been embedded in Eden’s Garden, Cahethal/Demeter. Yet, Jophiel was fairly certain that they were the only ones on Earth who were aware of his current host and what he was doing. And that list didn’t get much longer even when the rest of the universe was brought in.

Manakel’s smile was unabashed. “You can hardly blame me for trying, can you? He is, after all, insufferable about his little secrets. It would be nice to put one over on him for once.”

“You’ll have to play your games on your own time,” Jophiel informed him. “Or, you could find out where Sariel’s children are so that I don’t rip your heart from your chest and force you to use it as your next culinary experiment.”

“I assure you,” Manakel replied, “if I come across any information as to their whereabouts, I will be very certain to inform you immediately.”

“See that you do.” Pausing after that, Jophiel looked to the man. “And as far as Kushiel and Puriel’s child goes, have you found her yet?”

Manakel’s head shook once, the annoyance that he had to answer that in the negative as well clear in his expression before he masked it. “No. And you know that they hate it when you call her that.”

“She does,” Jophiel corrected him. “Puriel is the only reason the girl isn’t still in one of her mother’s labs. Or that her existence is known to us at all.”

Manakel chuckled, his voice dark. “You’re not suggesting that the old captain actually cares for a Lie?”

“I am suggesting,” Jophiel retorted, “no more or less than I have outright stated. Without Puriel’s personal intervention, the Lie would not have been made available for this mission. And speaking of this mission, you seem to be presenting more problems than you are solutions since your arrival. Your spy, the Isaac monster, has gone dark. You lost the pixie. You lost the Lie. And now Sariel’s children have vanished. Tell me, Lord of the Underworld, what have you accomplished here, precisely? Do feel free to embellish. I’d like a reason not to spend my afternoon explaining to Metatron why it was necessary to remove you from your position.”

“You want to know everything I’ve been doing,” Manakel guessed, lifting his chin. “That’s why you went to one of my mercenary groups, to double-check what I’m about to tell you.”

Jophiel gave him a humorless smile. “The only thing you’re wrong about is the assumption that I only went to one of your mercenary bands. News of the others simply hasn’t reached you yet. And, it won’t. I’d prefer you not know which lies are safe to keep and which I already know about.”

With a simple wave, she summoned two comfortable chairs, perching herself in one before reaching down. By the time her hand was low enough, there was already a small table there with a glass of iced tea waiting.

“So please, start at the beginning. Perhaps we’ll find out if any of your manipulations could have led to the Moon children disappearing.”

She continued in a tone that was no less dangerous than it had been upon on her arrival, her disdain for the man patently obvious. “And if I might offer you the same advice I gave to one of your people back there…

“Be thorough.”

******

And that was no more helpful than anything else we’ve done today, Jophiel noted later, as the joined pair stood at the edge of a waterfall somewhere deep in the middle of the Crossroads Island jungle. Their fist tightened. If something happened to those children…

It wasn’t just about their long-running, subtle efforts to convince their leadership of the benefits behind a true Seosten-Human partnership. They had also grown to genuinely care for Vanessa Moon in the time that they had been secretly protecting her from being abducted for testing, even if the girl herself remained completely unaware of their existence. They were proud of her accomplishments, despite the fact that she would have seen them as enemies of her and her family. The thought that she and her twin might be under the ‘care’ of that unhinged…

Elisabet interrupted her thoughts. You know what we must check next, my beautiful sianame.

Groaning inwardly, Jophiel lamented, I have no desire to see that place again.

You and I both, Elisabet agreed. But if she has ignored higher orders and taken them anyway…

With a sigh, Jophiel agreed. Turning their hand intangible, she reached into their body to retrieve the key from its place on their rib cage. Was a wave of their hand, she created a simple door there and they’re in front of them. Activating the key, she used it and they stepped through.

*******

Even for someone as powerful and connected as Jophiel was, gaining access to Kushiel’s lab was no simple matter. There were politics involved, and layers of secrets as to its location. Days came and went while she and Elisabet alternated between Earth and Seosten space working their way through everything necessary for them to get there for what she called an inspection. And each day that went by convinced them more and more that Kushiel had somehow bypassed the chain of command to take those children.

Finally, after Jophiel and Elisabet had long-since passed the point of patience, their request was granted. Going through a series of at least seven portals and various security measures, they eventually  found themselves standing in a banquet room with three figures waiting.

“Kushiel,” Jophiel started while focusing on the lone female figure, who sat at the head of the table. “Was there a reunion that I was not invited to?“

Kushiel’s companions both looked to one another. Radueriel, who had been Hephaestus on Earth, stood. His voice was amicable. “Reunion is perhaps a most apt word for it, my lovely fake wife.”

“Yup,” Abbadon/Ares confirmed. Radueriel’s own true lover, despite Lucifer’s stories, rose alongside his husband. The tallest and most physically imposing of the Olympians, Abbadon stood a solid seven feet, two inches tall. His body was solid muscle that would have made the most roided up bodybuilder back on Earth weep from inadequacy. “One great big reunion.”

Watching the three of them carefully, Jophiel asked, “What, precisely, does that mean?”

Even as she asked that, an alarm began to blare from nearby, while a voice from an intercom spoke of arriving unknown spaceships. In response to that, a shark-like smile spread across Kushiel’s face.

“It means, my dear, that you should stick around for awhile.

“Our company has arrived.”

Previous Chapter                        Next Chapter

 

A Different Kind Of Hunt 31-07

Previous Chapter                                       Next Chapter

Nimue?! Athena? What–what–

Honestly, I wasn’t entirely sure whether the stammering came from Tabbris or myself. Maybe both. I could feel the other girl’s surprise. She had known that the woman we were looking at was Athena/Auriel, but apparently the Nimue part of it was a surprise even to her. Either it was something that Sariel hadn’t known, or she just hadn’t passed that info on to her daughter.

But I had to say this much. I had completely forgotten about the pain in my gradually healing hand.

“Leave, Duriel,” the woman spoke flatly, her eyes never leaving the other Seosten even as even more soldiers flooded into the room and began to spread out, bringing their weapons up. “Now.”

Head tilting a bit at that, Radueriel gave a slight, humorless smile. I could see the danger behind his calculating eyes. “What’s wrong, old friend? Are you still looking for another decent protege after… wait.” His chin lifted slightly. “Remind me of what happened to the old one, again?”

Even as the man finished speaking, clearly aiming to strike a nerve, his swarm of nanobots finished a long arc around and dove right for the brown-haired woman from above and slightly behind. My mouth opened to blurt a warning, but she was already raising one hand. I saw a small remote clutched in her fingers, and as her thumb pressed the button, a shimmering blue energy field appeared around her. The field expanded outward in every direction, and as it struck the incoming nanobots, they all dropped like flies that had been electrocuted in one of those bug zappers. In seconds, the entire swarm had been destroyed.

Dropping the remote carelessly to the floor, the woman announced flatly, her voice utterly unimpressed. “Your toys grow as tiresome as your plays at civility.”

“Hm. Maybe,” the other Seosten allowed with the slightest incline of his chin. “You are aware, however, that the pinpoint cannons of my ship are capable of–”

“Very little,” she interrupted, “considering it will take even your people at least another hour to undo the damage that I did to them before coming down here.” She arched an eyebrow then. “Did you believe that I took the body of one of your soldiers simply because I enjoyed the uniform?” Her voice turned a little bit darker then. “Do you truly think that I would not have prepared for this? You insult me, Duriel, and yourself. I am taking the girl out of here. If you stand in my way, you will regret it… briefly.”

“That would be an impressive threat, Thena,” Radueriel returned, “if I was standing against you… alone.”

The shock and confusion that I felt about this situation froze then, along with every other thought I had, at what I witnessed next. As Radueriel gave a sharp whistle, his assortment of troops suddenly straightened unnaturally for a brief second. They all shifted simultaneously, making it clear that his implants had taken them over, just like up on the station. This wasn’t a group of random, disparate mooks anymore. Now, it was dozens of bodies all being controlled by one mind, a mind with millennia of experience and apparently a frankly bullshit ability to multitask.

“Miss Felicity,” the woman spoke, making my eyes widen as she extended a hand back toward me. “Possess me.”

“Err, wh-what?” I blurted, staring at her.

“There is no time to debate or discuss,” she replied sharply. “I must know that you are safe. The easiest way for me to be certain of that is if you possess me. I know that you are capable of it.”

My mouth opened and shut. Then I looked to the soldiers who were starting to move. With a quick nod and a blurted curse, I grabbed the woman’s offered hand. Tabbris!

Then I was seeing through the Seosten woman’s eyes. I felt… nothing. She had everything closed off. There was absolutely no chance of me taking over, or even getting to a single thought that she didn’t want me to get to. She was entirely too strong. It would be like me trying to redirect the course of an ocean liner by blowing on it. 

Hold on, I heard her voice warn me. We will speak after.

By that point, that unnaturally unified horde of armed and armored soldiers was falling in on the woman (Auriel? Athena? Nimue?) like a tidal wave. And she moved to meet it, giving Tabbris and me front row seats. 

There were, at a glance, around thirty soldiers. About half of them raced to attack the woman directly, while the other half stayed back, snapping rifles up into place as they took aim. Without a second of hesitation, they started firing lasers right into the thick of the melee. As a group, they were so unified that the ones who were fighting at range could shoot as much as they wanted to and never worry about actually hitting one of the others any more than the average person worried about smacking their own arms against each other when picking up a plate.  

Fifteen lasers coming in from almost every direction, and fifteen more closing to melee. All of them armed with weapons and powers, and so perfectly coordinated that they behaved more like a single body. No one could hope to stand in a fight against something like that, could they?

A hulking, muscular lizard-man about eight feet tall reached her/us first. He had a thick, spiked club tail that he swung up and around like a mace while simultaneously slamming down an almost absurdly enormous sword that was shaped a bit like a meat cleaver, only with a blade part on both sides instead of just one. The double-bladed cleaver was practically the size of a motorcycle, and whistled as it was brought overhead before swinging toward the ground. Clearly the idea there was that his heavy tail knocked his opponents into the path of the blade.

At the same time, a smaller figure with oily black, smooth skin, about six feet tall and very thin, leapt toward the woman from her right-hand side while thrusting out with some kind of laser-spear where the bladed tip was made of glowing blue energy. And from her left-hand side came an armored and masked figure with a stun-baton of some kind that crackled with electricity.

Swinging spiked club tail coming in from the right, with the black figure leaping over that tail, spear outstretched. Massive giant’s cleaver coming down from above. Stun baton clearly powerful enough to put most beings on the ground with a single touch coming from the left. Not to mention the steady stream of incoming lasers. And all of this with no portal, no doorway, no exit. There was nowhere to go. There was no way to retreat.

Athena didn’t even hesitate. Nor did she reach for her weapon. That dragon-hilted sword remained firmly sheathed while she leapt forward. As the spiked club tail passed directly beneath her leaping figure, the woman’s right foot kicked out in mid-air, finding the passing tail just long enough to push off. The motion simultaneously knocked the tail back the other way while she turned in the air right near the big lizard’s face. His massive cleaver slammed into the ground, its sheer size forcing the masked figure with the stun baton to pull back a half step.

Meanwhile, the sleek, black soldier was thrusting that spear through the space that Athena had been in an instant earlier, before she had spun. Still in both mid-air and mid-turn, she smoothly stripped the spear from the man’s grasp as it was thrust right past her face.

With the exact same motion, as her hands snapped up to take that spear, the woman tilted her arm just slightly. An instant later, once the spear was in her hands, there was a distinct shink sound as a blade slid into place from her elbow, pointed outward. The woman’s continued spin then sent the extended elbow-blade right through the big lizard’s throat in a single, smooth slice.

He started to fall backward, collapsing even as Athena’s spin carried her back around to face the figure with the baton. He had only taken a single step back to avoid that descending cleaver. It was barely a second worth of hesitation, if that. But it was enough. The woman’s hand released the spear that she had stolen an instant earlier, sending it through his eye all the way up to the last couple inches of the shaft before that figure started to drop as well.

By that point, the black figure who had lost his spear had stopped, barely avoiding the heavy, double-bladed cleaver, one side of which had literally been driven partway into the floor. He skidded to a halt, his face barely an inch from the upraised part of the weapon.

And then the still-swinging club-tail from the falling lizard-man collided with him, and the soldier was instantly knocked forward to impale himself on the cleaver.

One, two, three, all killed in less time than it took to actually count the numbers aloud. Hell, it was only because of my enhanced reflexes that I could even start to process what was happening. It was beyond insane.

OhmyGodohmyGodohmyGodohmyGod!

It took me a second to realize that both Tabbris and I had been chanting/ranting those three words over and over again throughout that entire sequence. I resolved to calm down, pay attention, and stop freaking out.

Lasers were incoming that entire time. But if the woman cared, she didn’t show it. She always seemed to just know where to be to avoid every last one of them. As the firepower concentrated on where she landed once the first three figures were dead, Athena dropped into a roll. It carried her under a dozen criss-crossing laser beams before she popped back up next to the stun-baton. Her foot kicked out then, launching the weapon end over end before it collided with the face of one of the soldiers who was shooting. With a cry, the man recoiled, gun swinging wildly just as he pulled the trigger reflexively. Three quick shots came, one of which missed everything. But the other two took out two more of the shooting guards before the effect of taking the stun baton to the face made the man start to collapse limply to the ground.

Three more down, just like that. All she had done was kick an electrified stick, basically, and it had taken out another trio of soldiers. Six of the thirty were down and it seemed like I’d barely had a chance to breathe. Hell, it seemed like I’d barely had time to have blinked. 

OhmyGodohmyGodohmyGodohmyGod!

Whelp, so much for not freaking out.

How?! Tabbris squeaked inside my head. How, how, how?!

I don’t know! I shot back. I’m pretty sure she’s playing with cheat codes, though!

More of the soldiers reached the woman then. The nearest grabbed for her from behind, trying to snatch hold of her arm, while the next one swung a laser-axe from her left side. Athena, meanwhile, smoothly stepped back closer to the man who was trying to grab her while simultaneously turning. Her hand caught his extended wrist, and she yanked him forward while that elbow-blade of hers was driven into his stomach. At the same time, that laser-axe cut clean through the man’s arm, severing it cleanly a few inches down from the shoulder.

Pivoting to let the literally disarmed and disemboweled soldier drop to the floor, Athena swung that severed arm, smacking the axe-wielding guard across the front of his helmet with the stump-end. Blood was smeared across the faceplate, briefly obscuring the man’s vision.

Two more laser shots came in, and Athena’s left arm snapped up even as the armor on it shifted to some kind of mirrored plate. The lasers struck it, rebounding off. One hit the ceiling harmlessly, while the other was ricocheted right back into the face of the soldier who had fired it, pitching him over backward with a quarter-sized hole in the middle of his forehead. An instant later, the woman spun, her other arm lashing out to catch another incoming laser. That one cut through the throat of yet another guard who had been rushing toward her, dropping him.

As he collapsed, his sword fell from his grasp, only to be very briefly caught by Athena. She gave the weapon a casual-looking underhand flick backward without even looking. The sword flew straight into the chest of the man whose helmet had been obscured by blood.

Disemboweled guard, reflected laser to the head, another to the throat, sword to the chest. Four more soldiers were dead. Seven, eight, nine, ten. Maybe that many seconds had passed.

Goddess of War, my ass, I informed Tabbris then. More like Goddess Of Five Hundred Guys Just Shit Themselves Because She Walked Into The Room.

Tabbris disagreed with a half-hysterical, I don’t think they’d have time to

If possible, Athena moved even faster then. Another laser shot was reflected back into its owner’s eye. As he fell, she caught the arm of a man who was swinging a sword at her before pivoting to drive his weapon into the stomach of another guard who was coming at her from the opposite direction. Then she stepped aside, catching the now-impaled soldier by the back of his helmet before shoving it forward to slam hard into the face of the man who had accidentally skewered him. As that man reeled, she snatched a pistol sidearm from the belt of the impaled man, shooting him through the top of the head before turning it onto the man who was reeling.

Then she pivoted once more, hurling that sidearm an instant before her foot lashed out to kick the handle of the sword that had impaled the previous man. The thrown pistol flew into the helmet of another shooter so hard that the faceplate cracked. He recoiled, gun dropping from his hand. Even as the rifle started to fall, however, the sword that Athena had kicked went through the trigger guard an instant before spearing its way through the man himself. The rifle was caught on the blade, hanging there while the guard started to pitch over backward. As he was started to fall, the Seosten woman leapt that way. Her hand found the rifle that was trapped against his chest by the sword that was impaling him, and she pulled the trigger several times. Three more soldiers, two of them with guns and the other wielding a big hammer, went down.

Guards eleven through eighteen were dealt with, leaving six melee guards and six ranged.

Those six ranged guards had all opened up on the woman, but she was still holding the impaled guard up by the gun that had been trapped against his chest. The incoming lasers were all hitting him instead, as she rotated to use his body as a shield against each shot. Finally, completing her three hundred and sixty degree turn, Athena gave her human (or whatever Alter he was, rather) shield a heave to crash face-first into the next nearest soldier who had been shooting at her. He collapsed backward, crashing to the floor from the force of the body hitting him.

Even as he fell, however, Athena was suddenly there, sidestepping another pair of shots from other troops while her hand caught the falling man’s rifle. She pulled the trigger before it was even fully in her hands, nailing a swordsman who had been running up at her from behind. Then, once the rifle was actually in her grasp, she flipped it around to shoot its owner in the face a second after he finished falling to the floor from having the other body thrown at him.

Ten soldiers left, five of each. And by that point, Tabbris and I were reduced to simply watching what was happening in stunned silence.

One of those who remained was coming at the woman with this massive halberd. Even as he went to thrust it at her, however, Athena sidestepped and spun. The rifle flipped around in her hand until she was holding it by the barrel. A second later, the butt of the rifle slammed into the man’s throat hard enough to collapse it. She held it there, hitting the trigger with a quick snap of her hand to send a shot into the face of another gunman.

As the halberd-wielding soldier fell from the blow to his trachea, the Seosten woman  gave his long weapon a kick that sent it through one of the ranged soldiers. The halberd struck the man so hard that he was literally lifted off the floor and sent back a solid twenty feet before being impaled against the wall.

Seven left. Three shooters, four melee.

Two swordsmen came at her together, one from each side. They attacked the woman in perfect unison. But it wasn’t perfect enough. Athena’s arm snapped up, smacking one of the blades aside before she caught the arm of the second man. I heard the snap of his bone breaking as the woman forced his arm to bend the wrong way around. The sword fell from his limp grasp, only to find itself embedded in the second soldier’s eye socket from a quick, contemptuously casual toss from the woman.

As he was collapsing with the sword sticking through his eye and out the back of his head, Athena kept hold of the first man’s now-broken arm. She kept pivoting, avoiding several more shots from the few gunmen that were left before abruptly catching the man whose arm she was holding by the back of his neck. With a slight grunt, she gave him a heave downward… straight toward the man who had the sword through his chest trapping the gun there, the one she had previously thrown at the other man. Now, the sword-impaled man was lying on his stomach, with the sword sticking almost straight up in the air.

With that simple shove, Athena forced the soldier whose arm she had broken down, impaling his throat on that blade that was sticking up. He was stuck there, like a head on a pike with the body still attached.

The three remaining gunmen were all spreading out, sending a continuous stream of laserfire at the woman while the two melee soldiers (one armed with a pair of electrified axes while the other had a shield and sword) tried to hit her from both sides.

It didn’t work. As the swordsman swung, the Seosten woman darted forward, ducking under his blade before popping up inside his guard. She pivoted, catching his other arm while putting her back to his chest. With a simple yank, she forced the man’s shield into position just as two more lasers nailed it. The shots ricocheted off, striking the guy with the axes.

As that man fell, she shoved the swordsman away from her while giving a quick spin-kick that sent one of the falling man’s axes right into the forehead of one of the gunmen. In the same motion, she stripped the shield from the other man’s arm, continuing her spin before nailing him in the throat with the sharp edge of his own shield. Blood sprayed, and the man fell.

Just two gunmen left. Both of them opened fire from either side, but Athena dove into a roll while hurling that shield. As it was flying, she came up to one knee, having stripped another sidearm from one of the fallen guards that she had rolled past. She took aim and fired at the shield itself. The shot rebounded off of it, striking one of the two gunmen in the face an instant before the flung shield severed the head of the other one.

Thirty. Thirty soldiers were dead in the span of I doubted even that many seconds. And from the look of her as she straightened up, Athena hadn’t even broken a sweat doing it.

She hadn’t even drawn her sword.

The woman turned toward Radueriel then, who was standing near the entrance. For a moment, the two of them just stared at one another. No one moved. No one spoke.

And then Athena’s hand moved to her sword. She had just touched it, just barely put her hand on the hilt, when Radueriel hit something on his cybernetic arm. An instant later, he was engulfed by a portal of some kind and disappeared, leaving the two of us alone with the bodies of all those soldiers.

Once it seemed safe, I sent myself out of the woman. Stumbling a little, I spun around to stare at the woman’s back. While I was silent, my shock seemed somehow deafening. Even Tabbris remained quiet, neither of us saying a word.

Slowly, Athena turned. She looked to me. “Felicity Chambers,” she announced.

“We need to talk.”

Previous Chapter                                       Next Chapter

A Different Kind Of Hunt 31-06

Previous Chapter                                      Next Chapter

Okay, so this shouldn’t be too hard. All we had to do was hold off an entire army of Alters with a handful of partially trained Heretic students (one of whom was a werewolf), a mechanical cougar, and two mechanical mice. Yes sir, this was going to be a walk in the park.

As we ran down the corridor together, Jazz spoke up. “You guys know what we’re doing right? I mean, you know what this is? We are basically going out there to stop an army that two adult Heretics, badass ones, I might add, decided was too much for them to deal with.”

Roxa shook her head. “We don’t have to deal with them. We just have to slow them down long enough for Haiden and Sands’ mom to get everyone out of there. We set up, and we make them fight for every inch they get. They can only send so many troops at us at once in these tunnels. So we set up and keep falling back whenever we need to. But make them earn it.”

Nodding, I looked over to Sands as we kept moving. “I know you don’t like being relegated to support, but-“

“Like I give a shit about that right now,” she interrupted. “Walls. You need walls, right?”

“Yep,” I confirmed. “Like the girl said, we gotta make them fight for every inch they get. That means you and I set up walls and mines all the way down the tunnel. We wall and mine the hell out of it. Make them take it slow. Plus, that way I can cover you from any strays that slip around. So you can focus on walling everything up.”

“Which puts the four of us on the front lines,” Roxa announced, coming to a stop as she looked toward Gidget and her two former teammates. Though could they really be called former right now?

Stopping as well, I looked toward Jazz. “Your gravity balls. They have a range and target limit, right?”

“Fifteen feet,” she confirmed, shifting from foot to foot anxiously.. “And anytime I try to target more than one person inside that fifteen feet, they fizzle pretty quickly. I can probably affect to three or four, but only for a short burst. Three orbs at once, ten minute duration, unless, like I said, I try to affect more than one person at a time. Seems like for every extra person I try to affect at the same time, the duration goes down about fifty percent.”

“Still useful,” I informed her with a little smile. “Just pick your moments. Don’t wear yourself out too quick. I know what happened back there with Isaac was pretty bad. And I know that this didn’t have to be our fight.”

“You’re right,” the black girl replied. “This wasn’t our fight. We didn’t choose it. Isaac chose it. And those Seosten bastards chose it. Not us. But you know who also didn’t choose it? The Kenkeans. They didn’t choose it, but there still going to get wiped out if we don’t do something. I may have been my people’s last choice to be their Heretic, but I can still choose what kind of Heretic I am. And I choose not to be the kind that could walk away from that.”

I was spared from having to try to respond to that, by Roxa gesturing to Jazz and Gordon. “Come on, guys. We need to get up there. They’re getting closer.”

Tilting my head a little, and focusing, I could hear them. It sounded like they were on fire. A lot of fire. Good, I thought a little maliciously. The more it hurt, the more it would slow them down.

Gordon had shifted his sword and shield back into their tommy gun form. He stood there, gazing down the corridor. “Good luck with those defenses,”  he noted, in a voice that sounded like he was asking us to pick up some chips. “We’ll hold them as long as possible.”

Nodding, I added, “We’ll start the walls back here and work our way to you. Be careful, you guys. Just… please be careful.”

“Actually, speaking of being careful.” Roxa extended a hand to both me and Sands. “Do you mind? It’s probably best to have as many friends as we can get.”

Realizing what she wanted, we both nodded. Roxa immediately put her hands on each of us, and created a pair of stone duplicates. She could only make one duplicate per person, so the more people she had to work with, the more rock soldiers she could make.

By then, there was no more time to say any of the million things I wanted to say. We had to do this. To that end, the other four ran off, moving to head off the incoming troops. Meanwhile, I turned on my heel to look at Sands. “Let’s wall it up.”

Sands promptly reached out with her mace to smack it against the nearby wall and store that material as what it would make the walls from. “Ready.”

The two of us worked quickly. Sands made a wall from one side of the tunnel to the other, leaving a small opening for the others to slip through that could be sealed off as soon as they were through. Meanwhile, I carefully set mines all along it, on both sides. Anyone who tried to smash their way through, or slip through another way, was going to run into a surprise.

It was hard to focus, especially when I heard Gordon‘s gun and Gidget’s lasers start up off in the distance. All I wanted to do was run out there and help. It basically killed me not to be there on the front line. But no, we had our own job to do. Hard as it was, we had to make sure that the walls were up. We had to make this work. If Roxa and the others didn’t have any defenses to fall back behind so they could catch their breaths, this was all going to go very bad, very quickly.

Sands hesitated too, glancing toward me for a second before both of us pointedly turned back to focus on our work. “Funnel?” The other girl asked while moving forward a bit.

Realizing what she meant, I nodded and the two of us got to work. That time, rather than make a straight wall across, Sands created two walls, each taking up about half the width of the tunnel. They were angled inward to create a sort of triangle shape without a bottom. Or, as Sands had said, a funnel. The two diagonal walls didn’t quite meet. We left a small opening, again, for the others to get through. This way, the enemies would be pushed forward through the tunnel, straight to where Gordon could stand in that small opening and fire at them like they were in a shooting gallery. They would just keep getting packed closer together, so that he would barely have to aim. And any that tried to cheat by going through our walls, well, they run into my mines. It was simple, but effective. And to top things off, Sands added rows of spikes all along the angled walls. If too many of the troops tried to push forward, they’d end up impaling their companions. And if Gordon was shooting them from the spot we had set up, they were going to try to push forward to get at him. That, or they’d retreat. Either was good for me.

Glancing over my shoulder as Sands was finishing up with the last bit of wall, I caught a glimpse of the fighting going on. The others were barely visible at the far end of the tunnel, and I couldn’t really make out anything specific. But from the look of things, it was intense, to say the least. Gordon’s gun was shooting continually, and I could see what looked like Roxa’s rock statues essentially running straight into the line of fire coming from the intruders. In some cases, that ‘fire’ was literal. There was clearly at least one soldier there with some kind of flame control, who kept lobbing in fireballs. Thankfully, however, it looked like Jazz’s sword allowed her to control that fire as well. The burning orbs kept reversing course, flying back the way they had come.

Whatever was going on, the details were hard to make out. But it looked like they were slowly, yet steadily being pushed back. Which made sense. Better that they keep pulling backward than end up getting cut off from us. They were doing as much damage as they could while retreating. Twice, I saw Roxa’s aura flare up, and then caught a brief glimpse of Jazz and Gordon’s as well.

Sands and I moved on then, getting closer to the others. For the next fifty feet or so, the other girl made alternating diagonal walls going back and forth, with small openings between each that were only wide enough for someone barely Gordon’s size to slip through. Someone coming from the other direction would have to head diagonally through one tiny, tight space, get to the end, turn around completely and head back the other way. That, or they’d have to take their time smashing through wall after wall after wall. And once we fell back here and I set up some mines to cover our retreat, that in itself would still be dangerous.

Sands even set up a few spiked poles at various spots and at different heights. That way, anyone trying to run through who didn’t know where they were would risk, again, impaling themselves. Whatever it took to force them to go slow and take their time.

A flash of movement caught my eye then. Snapping my head that way, I saw something on the ceiling, rushing past Roxa and the others. One of the Seosten troops. The thing looked like a man-sized gecko with purple skin and bright red compound eyes. It crawled as fast along the ceiling as most people could run on the ground, crossing half the distance between us by the time I even had a chance to realize what was going on.

Somehow, I had my staff switched into its bow form before consciously noticing what I was doing. Reflex born of hours and hours of practice. With a blurted warning to Sands, I snapped the bow up into position, drawing back the energy arrow before launching it with barely a second to aim. Shooting, just like shifting the staff to the bow in the first place, was totally automatic.

And yet, even then, the gecko-Alter avoided the arrow completely. He dropped to the floor an instant before it struck the spot where he had been. The concussive force from the arrow’s impact was enough to knock him forward a step, but nothing more than that. And even as I quickly drew back another arrow, he was already raising his hands.

I threw myself to the side, but there was no incoming attack. No, it was worse. As the gecko spread his hands apart, a portal began to appear. Through it, I could see hordes of troops on the other side. This guy wasn’t attacking us, he was just getting past the others to send another part of their not-so-little army into the open space. If he managed it, Roxa, Gordon, Jazz, and Gidget would be cut off from us entirely. Plus, Sands and I would have a hell of a lot of company.

I couldn’t let that happen. A burst from my staff sent me flying that way while the portal was still growing. The gecko-man stood there as I landed within a few feet of him, but before I could get any closer, a hail of lasers erupted from the portal itself as several of the soldiers on the other side opened fire, forcing me to dive out of the way. As I hit the floor, however, the grapple line from my staff was already launching to wrap around the man’s legs so that he was yanked over to land hard on his back.

The portal, almost as large as the man himself by that point, was still connected to the man’s hands. So it went horizontal rather than vertical, hovering there in the air just above him. One of the other soldiers suddenly appeared there, his upper half poking out of the portal as he leaned through with his rifle raised.

He aimed for me, but just before the man could actually shoot, I triggered the boost from my staff before releasing it so that the weapon went flying down the tunnel back toward Sands. The grapple was still connected to the gecko-man’s legs, so he was hauled along the floor, which threw the other man’s aim off as the portal he was leaning through was suddenly moving. Lasers ate up the wall beside and around me while I rolled back to my feet.

By the time the guard leaning through the portal had twisted back toward me and brought his gun into line, I was up. And as his finger tightened on the trigger, my hand lashed out, launching a small, metal object. Jaq. I had liberated him from the staff before launching it down the tunnel.

And now, I threw the little mouse-cyberform like a baseball. In mid-flight, he changed shape, going from animal to a sharp, deadly blade an instant before he was embedded deep in the gecko-man’s head. .

He died instantly. Which meant that his portal vanished with the other figure still halfway out, slicing him in half and sending my aura flaring up as I was filled with the pleasure from both soldiers’ deaths.

Sands, by that point, had finished with the next set of walls. She jogged up, snatching my staff off the ground from near the bodies before tossing it to me as I joined her.

“Thanks,” I muttered, extending the empty end of the staff down toward the blade that was stuck in the gecko-man’s head. Jaq shifted once more before returning to his spot on the weapon.

Sands opened her mouth before suddenly shoving me aside, just before some kind of electrified grappling hook thing with a manacle on the end shot through the space where I had just been. A quick glance over my shoulder showed some kind of bug-like Alter in silver armor flying above us. He started to retract the grapple back into his extended gauntlet.

Before it could disappear entirely, however, I grabbed on and let it carry me up toward the man. Halfway up, the bug-figure stopped retracting the grapple. But it was too late. I used a quick burst from my staff to propel myself the rest of the way, even as he recoiled.

Then I was inside him. Not in the ‘splatter him to pieces’ kind of way. I was possessing him. Pivoting in the air, I threw the electrified grapple gun down toward Sands. It could be useful. Then I blurted inwardly, Tabbris!

She knew. The bug man fell unconscious, and I sprang free of him, landing in a crouch next to the other girl.

By that point, as the two of us turned the other way, Roxa and the others were on their way. They’d been fighting a slow retreat the whole time, and now they were close enough for us to actually see what was going on. Roxa shouted something before Gidget flew up in her hoverboard form to fire a dazzling display of lasers at the incoming swarm of soldiers. Using that as cover, the others broke and turned to sprint back to us.

“You good?” I asked as they reached us, Roxa and Gidget landing an instant behind the other two.

“Peachy!” Jazz shouted back. She was bleeding heavily from one arm, and her face was bruised. But she looked more alive than I had seen her in quite some time. Maybe ever.

Together, we made our way back slowly through the defenses that Sands and I had erected. Between all of us, we must have taken out twenty or more of the damn guys. But it wasn’t enough. They just kept coming. Mine after mine, wall after wall, they were an inexorable tide. But we were slowing them down.

“It’s done!” The words finally came from Sands, as she held that red ball in one hand. “They’ve got them all through! We’ve gotta go!”

It was just in time, too. We were at our last layer of defenses, the first wall that Sands had made. And now it was our turn.

But as our hands collectively found each of our badges and we blurted, ‘Dorothy’ together, nothing happened. Nothing at all. Glancing to the others, I tried again. We all did. Still, nothing.

Then something did happen. But it was nothing good. The sound of a steady, violent droning, like an angry swarm of insects, filled the air. Together, we turned back the other way, just in time to see the wall completely disintegrate. And not just the wall, but my mines as well. They just… fizzled, absorbed by what appeared to be a massive swarm of tiny bits of buzzing metal. The same buzzing metal that had just devoured Sands’ wall.

“Hello, children,” Raduriel spoke calmly, standing there with his troops arrayed behind him. Dozens of rifles and other weapons were leveled at us, ready to put us down the second we so much as breathed wrong. “I’d like you to meet my own offspring. Or as close as I will ever get.” He raised a hand, as the swarm buzzed down and around him. “My nanites are glorious creatures. So very helpful. Particularly in matters such as… jamming those teleportation spells you happen to be wearing.”

He looked like he was going to say something else then, before pausing to consider. Then he just offered us a little shrug, speaking simply. “Take th–”

As the man was in mid-sentence, one of the soldiers, clearly overly eager, lunged for us. In his haste, however, the man slipped and hit the floor hard. That, in turn, tripped up a couple other soldiers, while more of them blinked back to see what was going on, thereby taking their weapons off of us. It was an opening. A brief one, but an opening nonetheless.

We took it. Spinning back, the six of us hauled ass toward the other room. The soldiers were already reacting, firing a few shots after us. But it was too late. Sands erected a quick wall to block the shots for those precious handful of seconds while we ran. Go. Go. We had to move.

“They’re holding the portal!” Sands called as we scrambled. “We can get out that way!”

Together, we sprinted back into that chamber with Radueriel, his soldiers, and his swarm of nanobots or whatever they were hot on our heels. My endurance was, as always, amazing. Yet I could feel the drain creeping up on me, after that fight with Isaac. And if I was starting to feel it a bit, the others had to be dying. But we couldn’t stop. We couldn’t even slow down. My lungs were screaming, my legs hurt, and I really wanted a drink of water. It was those seemingly little things that I didn’t really think about when imagining how something like this would go. The thirst from a long fight, the cramp in my side, the fact that I kinda needed to pee, it all seemed inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Yet it added up.

The glowing red portal was right there, leading up to the ship. I saw Haiden and Larissa on either side of it, waving us through. Sands hit it first, disappearing the second she passed through. Gordon, two steps behind her, was next, followed by Roxa and Gidget. Only Jazz and I were left.

The droning of the swarm had grown deafeningly loud by that point. The nanites were on top of us. But instead of attacking, they flew around and over the two of us, straight toward where Haiden and Larissa were.

Between the two of them, the adult Heretics killed what was likely millions of the tiny machines within a handful of seconds. Anything that got near them was incinerated. While our powers weren’t enough to take a decent number of the little bastards down, theirs were.

But the nanites weren’t actually attacking them. Not exactly. No, they went for the portal. Larissa and Haiden got rid of most of them, but I saw a few reach the portal. They didn’t go through it, as I feared they might. Instead, they started to explode around it. They looked like tiny fireworks. And as the nanites exploded, the portal suddenly expanded. It grew dramatically, doubling in size in an instant, as if the exploding nanites had suddenly filled it with energy.

Haiden and Larissa were both engulfed by the portal, disappearing. It was a move I didn’t understand, until the portal began to shrink just as suddenly as it had grown. The nanites had overloaded it and now, after briefly growing, the portal was collapsing. It would be gone in seconds. And we were too far away to get to it in time. Seeing that, I slowed.  

“Flick!” Jazz shouted from beside me, noticing the instant that I fell behind. She turned toward me, even as I snapped my staff up into position. “Wh–”

I triggered the kinetic charge on my staff. Not behind myself, but in front. The burst slammed into Jazz, picking the other girl up and hurling her forward. With a cry of surprise, she went flying through the portal an instant before it finished collapsing.

I’d done it without thinking. Without even considering any of my actions. My only impulse had been to get Jazz to safety. Now that she was, I spun back the other way as the sound of footsteps reached me. My fist swung wildly.

Radueriel caught it easily. His hand stopped mine, and there was a sudden blinding pain as he simply squeezed, snapping pretty much every bone in my fingers, and cracking a few more in my hand. I hit the floor with a cry, dropping to my knees while the ancient Olympian Seosten simply stood there with my fist caught in his grip.

Flick! Tabbris blurted inside my head, sounding panicked.

Whatever happens, I shot back to her, do not reveal yourself. You hear me, Tab? Do not reveal yourself, no matter what.

“Interesting,” Raduriel remarked calmly, the casualness of his tone at odds with the force with which he was gripping my hand. “I do hope that you weren’t expecting them to come back for you. I’m afraid that the shield against such intrusions is now fully in place. There will be no interruptions.

“Still,” he added thoughtfully, “I’m certain that we can find… appropriate accommodations for you, Miss–”

“Let the girl go.” The new voice came from beside me, and both Radueriel and I turned slightly. It was the soldier from before, the one who had tripped. He stood there, staring intently at the man who was holding my fist in his unrelentingly crushing grip.

“Let her go,” the soldier repeated flatly.

Raduriel stared at him for a brief second. His mouth opened. “You–”

That was as far as he got before the soldier abruptly lashed out. His fist was a blur that I could barely process before it slammed into Raduriel’s chest. The powerful Seosten was hurtled away from me, finally releasing my hand as he flew backward to crash into several of his soldiers.

The guard who had intervened, meanwhile, collapsed. He fell to the floor in a heap, while a second figure, the one who had been possessing him, stood there in his place.

She wasn’t tall, standing an inch shorter than I was. Her brown hair was cut in a short, layered crop that barely reached her neck. Her eyes were slate gray, and she had the same high cheekbone, aristocratic look that I had come to expect from the Seosten. For clothes, she wore a pair of black leggings with what looked like intricate golden flame patterns running down to her boots, which themselves were almost entirely gold. Sheathed at her waist was a sword, whose hilt was shaped like a dragon. Set where it was, the head of the dragon appeared to be the source of the decorative flames that were running down her legs.

She wore a chainmail-like top, that was black with a golden design etched into the chest. It was the outline of a bird in flight. An owl, I realized a bit belatedly.

Oh, my God, Tabbris suddenly blurted in my head. It’s–

“You.” Raduriel had picked himself up, his eyes narrowed. Surrounded by dozens of his men, he still looked a little off-balance, a little nervous. “Involving yourself personally in this situation? That seems odd for you, Auriel. Or do you prefer Athena now? Or does your preference lie in another identity entirely? Such as, for example…

“Nimue.”

Previous Chapter                                      Next Chapter

Uprising 29-09

Previous Chapter                                    Next Chapter

A pair of strong hands caught both of my arms from either side as the portal winked out and the blast from my staff faded. Roxa was on one side, holding my right arm with both of hers, while Gordon had caught my left. A bit to the side, the Alter that I had pulled through with me went stumbling until Jazz caught him to stop the man from falling. It had been close, but we’d made it.

Made it, apparently, to an enormous room of some kind. As the others released me, I took a look around. The place was as long as three football fields set end to end, and equally wide. The floor was black grating, with some kind of red fluid running a foot or so below it, and there were tubes filled with a glowing orange fluid that served as a light source running along the floor about every ten feet. The walls were a dark red, almost black color, with more orange tube lights that ran along near the bottom and along the ceiling. Scattered here and there were huge metal crates about the size of shipping containers, with weird alien symbols all over them. One was open, revealing that it was about half full of glittering silver and blue minerals of some kind.

Right, minerals. Mining. We were on a mining ship. I remembered that. This room must have been some kind of cargo bay or something, where they held whatever they dug out.

“Pardons,” Karees spoke hesitantly, interrupting my examination of the enormous room. When my attention turned that way, I saw that all of the Alters that we’d just brought with us were staring at me. Just like they had been down on the planet below. “We are not out of the danger,” he intoned carefully, clearly trying to take the time to pick the right words. “There are the defenses and violent ones on this ship to protect it from what we are doing now. And the masters will come. It is not… intentions to be harmful rude bad, but if we are all to escape-”

I nodded quickly. “Right, um, where’s the–” Looking around, I spotted the doorway on the far side of the room. “There. Okay, Karees, keep your people here. We’ll deal with the defenses.”  

Jokai spoke up, raising his hand as he said something in Latin while looking earnestly to me.

He says he’s going with you, because he can fly the ship, Tabbris translated, sounding a little shaky herself from everything we had just witnessed back on the planet below. Because there won’t be time to come get him and get all the way to the bridge before the Seosten show up.

Biting my lip, I translated that for the others before nodding. “Okay, come on.” With a quick gesture, I pivoted to head for the doors. “Guys, we need to get to that bridge right now.”

We ran. Roxa, Gidget and I took the lead, with Jokai behind us. Sands and Isaac ran along either side of him, with Jazz and Gordon bringing up the rear. Whatever else happened, we had to keep Jokai safe. Because he was right, he was the only one who knew how to fly this thing.

“It’s a fucking escort mission,” Isaac muttered from behind me. “I hate fucking escort missions.”

I wasn’t going to dignify that with a response. Instead, I just kept going. The doorway from the big cargo bay led out into a corridor. Instead of the grated floor, this one was solid, a dark blue material that looked and felt almost like marble under our feet. The walls, meanwhile, were pure white, with blue trim about a third of the way up, and more of those pipes with glowing liquid for lights near the top. These were white rather than orange, leaving the corridor itself pretty bright.

It was a long corridor, that curved at the far end. All along the way, there were little hatches that led who knew where. But Jokai, who was the only one who actually knew where we were going, kept pointing forward. So we didn’t slow. There wasn’t time to check all the hatches. Not now.

“Flick, left!” Sands shouted. My eyes were already snapping that way, as my object sense registered something appearing there, just in time to see a small ball-like turret finish popping out of the ceiling. Its twin-laser cannons were just twisting around to face us as the other girl shot a ball of webbing at it that clogged the barrels. Before the thing could blast them free, I finished switching my staff into its bow form and drew back an energy arrow. It flew straight at the turret, blowing the thing off the ceiling with a screech of tearing metal.

A second turret had appeared along the right-hand side in that time. But that one was dealt with by Isaac’s trio of floating drones, which essentially ganged up on the thing to blow it away.

Finally, a third turret had popped out of the floor. This one was larger than the other two, more like something that would be manned by someone. Its twin cannons were as long as actual rifle barrels, and the thing was powering up to send a couple shots straight through us.

Or rather, it would have, if Gidget hadn’t thrown herself straight at the damn thing. She knocked it bodily off target, so that the twin laser blasts went up into the ceiling rather than hit any of us. With a snarl, the mechanical cougar bit down on the nearest barrel, snapping it off the turret after shaking her head back and forth like a dog worrying a bone. The barrel crumpled under her teeth before she tossed it aside. Then the second barrel was subsequently demolished under a couple hard slams from her front paws as she jumped up and down on it.

“Good girl!” Roxa called, taking a knee to give Gidget a tiny bit of the affection she deserved.

“Can you send those things ahead to scout?” I asked Isaac once the dust had settled and we were sure that none of us had been hit. “Make sure we’re not about to run into a better ambush.”

He made a face at the question. I got the impression that he didn’t like the idea of sending his weapon so far away from himself when he might need it. “Why can’t the big metal cat go?”

My mouth opened to snap at that, but I stopped myself. I understood his reluctance to send his weapon away, even if he wasn’t exactly that diplomatic about it. “Because your drones are faster, smaller targets, and they can fly,” I pointed out as patiently as possible. “And you can send two of them ahead to scout while keeping one back so it can communicate with them.”

For a moment, I thought that he was going to argue with that and waste even more time, as the boy stared at me long and hard. But in the end, his flat expression melted into a wide grin. “Great,” he abruptly replied as if there was nothing wrong, “just as long as there’s a reason.”

Two of the drones flew forward then, and we kept going. There were several more areas with turret defenses that popped out. But we were ready for them each time. As we continued through what turned out to be a literal maze of corridors, Jokai never hesitated. He seemed to know exactly where we were going, immediately pointing each time we came to an intersection.

Jazz spoke up after the fourth such area, grimacing as she gave a violent shake of her head. “You know, in the interest of avoiding certain cliches, I’m just gonna say that this has been the perfect amount of difficult. Yessiree Bob, all these random automated guns are exactly what I expected to find on this ship, and we are barely making it thr-oh son of a bitch.”

That last part came as a group of figures abruptly popped out of seemingly nowhere. They had clearly been invisible or something, because they were suddenly all around us. There were nine of them, six fairly humanoid in appearance and wearing a blue version of the black armor that we had seen previously, with white accents. The other three were larger and wore no armor, one of them looking like an oversized gorilla with massive arms and fists that were several times bigger than my head. Finally, the last two looked like crocodiles, except they had dozens of legs and a pair of long, scaled arms with nasty claws on the end of their hands. They were all pissed.

The nearest two guards snapped their guns up, even as I caught hold of Jokai’s arm and dove to the side. There was a squeal from the weapons, and a pair of orange energy blasts sailed through the air where we had just been. They collided with the wall, leaving a scorch mark.

In the background, I saw the trio of drones attacking one of the other guards, even as Sands webbed one of the gorilla-thing’s massive fists to the floor. Meanwhile, Gidget was leaping on a crocodile-monster, while Roxa lunged at the other one with a pants-wetting snarl.

Right, the others were doing their part. But I had to keep Jokai safe. And I knew how. Straightening up in front of the guards, I kept myself between them and the former prisoner. “Oh, no, lasers!” I blurted rather unconvincingly, holding my arms out to either side. “Please, whatever you do, don’t shoot me with your lase–”

They shot me with their lasers. Both of the guards that I was facing opened up, firing several more orange blasts directly into my chest and stomach. Blasts which did precisely diddly squat, thanks to Doxer’s power and the fact that I was ready for them. The energy absorption gift that I had inherited from that son of a bitch meant that the lasers barely tickled. I felt their power like a heat in the pit of my stomach, and a tingling in my arms that I needed to get rid of.

So I did. Throwing my hands out, I pictured the energy leaving me. The shots flew back the way they had come, sending the thoroughly surprised guards to the floor with a pair of screams. A second later, I felt the familiar wave of pleasure that made me gasp.

Unfortunately, it was a really bad time for something like that to happen. Another of the guards had come at me with some kind of black metal blade. He had clearly timed his attack for the moment when the Heretic killgasm should have left me unable to defend myself.  

Except, I wasn’t the only one piloting this particular body. While I was briefly distracted by the rush of pleasure, my hand jerked up to snap my staff into place to block the man’s descending sword smacking it aside. The guard seemed completely surprised by my quick reaction, stumbling a bit as he tried to recover. Too late, my staff spun around, and crashed into the side of the man’s head to send him crashing to the floor.

Recovered by that point, I blurted, Thanks, Tab! Then I brought my foot down on the guard’s back while spinning my staff up and around into position. With a grunt, I drove the bladed end down through his neck, turning his cry into a gurgle that was quickly cut off as yet another wave of pleasure filled me.  

That was three of the six humanoid guards down. And as I quickly looked up, my searching gaze found Jazz practically laying atop the body of another one, her sword driven through his head as her aura flared up around her and she panted from the effort. Meanwhile, Isaac and his drones had just dealt with the fifth guard, while Gordon was finishing off the sixth and final humanoid figure with his tommy gun.

That left the three non-humanoid guards. First, there were the two crocodiles, one of which was being torn apart by a vicious Gidget. The thing kept trying to bite her, but she barely seemed to notice, basically throwing herself into its mouth and taking it apart from the inside.

The other crocodile, meanwhile, wasn’t faring any better against Roxa. She had half-shifted into her wolf-form, fur covering over her skin while her face had bulged out. The body of the crocodile was torn open around the stomach, its internal… parts spilling out while Roxa herself kept ripping into it mercilessly.

Which left the gorilla. With a roar, the thing tore its oversized hands free of the webbing that had held it down. It beat its chest twice, then lunged for Sands.

The other girl… suddenly wasn’t there. Oh, she was there, but not in the spot where she had been standing. Sands was abruptly moving almost fast enough to be a blur. She twisted away from the outstretched gorilla hands, spinning to the side before slamming her mace into his face. She connected with enough force to snap the big furry monster’s head backward with a cry. Without pausing, she leapt up, smacking him again before dropping to run behind him. Her mace crashed into the back of the gorilla’s left leg, before she was suddenly around to his right.

Sands wasn’t quite a blur. I could follow every motion she made. But she was faster, much faster than she should have been. Which was especially devastating in these close quarters. And, unless I missed my guess, she was stronger than she should have been as well.

Oh! It’s the boost, Tabbris whispered. That um, that S-Seosten she killed, she got his boost power. She can make herself several times faster and stronger than she should have been, for a short time. She, uh, she probably doesn’t even know how she’s doing it.

Whether Sands knew how she was doing it or not, she was definitely using it. As the gorilla reeled backward and stumbled to one knee, she was back in front of it again. Her mace swept upward, conjuring a metal wall up to about chest-height (her chest, not the gorilla’s). Then she leapt up and over it, landing on the gorilla’s back. I just barely had time to see that there were spikes in the wall before Sands’ forceful collision with her opponent’s back drove it crashing down, literally impaling its neck on the spikes in the wall. Even that didn’t kill the thing, though it did slow it down an awful lot.

And Sands wasn’t done yet. Still crouching on the gorilla’s back, she made a sweeping motion with her mace that made the metal wall she had created extend itself up and around the monster, trapping it by the neck and one arm. It was like the thing was locked in some kind of medieval stocks. It heaved and growled, struggling to break its way free. But before the metal could do more than groan a little, Sands was moving. She launched herself up off the monster’s back, turned in mid-air, and came down with her mace outstretched. There was one last, almost pitiful howl from the thing before the blow landed. Then it was over. The force of the blow against the gorilla’s trapped head had… separated it.

Sands was on the floor, mace lying beside her as her aura flared up once again. She was gasping for pleasure. But there wasn’t time to wait. I grabbed the girl, pulling her to her feet while Roxa picked up the mace. Then we were running once more, with Jokai right behind us. The former slave was babbling something that Tabbris quietly translated as awe for what we had just done. I mostly tuned it out, focusing on where we were going. There would be time to deal with what we’d just done later. For the moment, every passing second was another second where Radueriel could show up. And as well as we were doing with the mooks, I had no doubt that we would be completely screwed if we had to fight him directly.

We hadn’t gone much further before reaching a pair of circular doors, which slid apart as we approached, granting entrance to a room that was immediately obvious as the bridge. Straight ahead was a floor to ceiling window or possibly just a viewing screen of some kind that showed the starfield beyond, with the planet taking up the bottom third. The room itself was shaped like a crescent, or a slightly widened letter C. The screen took up the open space between the two points of the C, while the doorway where we were standing was opposite it, right in the middle of the C’s curve.

In the middle of the room there were three rugged-looking seats, with control panels in front of them. Meanwhile, the walls of the bridge were lined with an assortment of computers and screens, with a several more chairs scattered here and there.

“Jokai, can you get us out of here?!” I blurted, looking to him quickly.

In response, the former slave spoke a single word that was clearly an agreement before darting straight for the middle seat. He practically dove into it, hitting a few buttons before he had even finishes straightening up. The ship came alive around us. I felt a slight vibration beneath our feet as the engines came online. Jokai himself was babbling something excitedly while gripping what looked like a steering yoke to turn it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Three–” Radueriel’s voice droned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… M… mommy?” Sands whispered.

Previous Chapter                                    Next Chapter

Mini-Interlude 43 – Geta

Previous Chapter                             Next Chapter

December 26th, 211 AD

Enough was enough. Caesar Publius Septimius Geta Augustus strode determinedly down the grand hallway of the imperial palace. An assortment of his closest bodyguards accompanied him, their presence a constant reminder that he was not safe even within his own home.

Not safe. Never safe. He was the leader of the most powerful empire the world had ever known, and he wasn’t safe in his own home.

Co-leader, Geta reminded himself then. His power was shared with his older brother, though ‘shared’ was a poor term as well. A better word would have been ‘split’. Their power and authority was split, just like this palace. For the past year, ever since their father had died, Geta and Caracalla had split their authority, their power, even the palace itself. Caracalla dwelled in one half of the palace, while Geta dwelt in the other half. Any doorways that would have linked the two sides had been walled up or otherwise blocked.

And even that wasn’t enough. Despite their separation, Caracalla had still attempted to have Geta killed more than once over these past months. They both kept their bodyguards with them at all times, neither ate any food that hadn’t been tested for poison, and Geta wasn’t sure about his elder brother, but he for one had not had a full night’s sleep in longer than he could remember.

Their conflict wasn’t exactly new, of course. In the years leading up to their father’s death, Geta and Caracalla had often been nearly at each other’s throats. Caracalla was named Caesar by their father when he was only seven, and Geta was six. Geta himself was subsequently also named as Caesar three years later. In that same year, however, Carcalla had been granted the title of Augustus. At the age of ten, he had been allowed to run the empire alongside their father.

The siblings’ rivalry and bickering had only worsened as they grew up, with Caracalla being the more athletic and outgoing between them, while Geta was more devoted to his studies and to enjoying the finer things that their station afforded them. He sought always to impress their father with the breadth of his knowledge and understanding of the empire, even as Caracalla continuously allowed his temper and impulsiveness to get him into trouble.

With the death of their father, Geta had become Caracalla’s co-emperor, despite his older brother’s early attempts to ignore that fact.

The two brothers had tried to settle the situation by literally splitting the entire empire in half. Under their tense agreement, Caracalla would remain in Rome and rule the western half of the empire, while Geta would take his people east, to Alexandria, and rule that half.

But the deal was not to be. Their mother, Julia Domna, had used the authority and power that she still held to block it from happening. Geta still didn’t understand why his mother had refused to allow he and his brother to divide the empire that way, and all attempts to change her mind had been fruitless.

Thus, the tensions between the two brothers had continued to worsen by the day, even by the hour. It was a situation that could not continue. And it wouldn’t. Geta was tired. His men were tired. It was time for things to stop. And he knew that Caracalla felt the same way, or at least similarly. His brother had called for a meeting, a private meeting where they would attempt to do what neither their mother nor their now-late father had been able to make them do: reconcile.

Geta wasn’t that foolish, of course. His brother had been caught attempting to have him killed only days earlier. He’d increased his guards when the plot was uncovered, and Caracalla appeared to have backed off.

Then this invitation had come. An invitation to meet in their mother’s quarters, allowing her to act as intermediary, so that the two of them could finally work out their differences.

That was the only reason that Geta was entertaining the notion: the presence of their mother. Even Caracalla respected her. With Julia Domna present, there was a chance, however slight, that his brother would behave himself.

Outside of the entrance (from this side, at least) into his mother’s room, Geta nodded to the men. With a gesture, he ordered them to stay put. Then he raised a hand to knock.

She answered the door, ushering her son inside with a brief look to his bodyguards before shutting it. “You are prepared to make peace with your brother?”

He nodded once. “Our feud has carried on for too long, mother. If Caracalla will make a genuine peace, I will accept it.”

Her eyes studied him for a moment, as though judging his sincerity (which was insulting, considering the fact that Caracalla should have been the one to prove himself), before she nodded. Turning, Julia led him across her quarters, just as a knock came at the other door.

“That will be your brother,” the woman announced. “Wait here for a moment.” She patted his shoulder, striding that way to let the other man in.

But it was not Caracalla who slammed the door open then, even before Julia could reach it. No, it was several armed men. Geta’s brother had yet again proven himself untrustworthy, ambushing him in their mother’s own quarters.

Julia herself was knocked backward, head hitting a nearby wall before she slumped to the floor. Geta barely had time to see her fall before the centurions were almost on top of him. Their swords were already driving for his chest. There would clearly be no peace talks. Caracalla meant to end their rivalry in a far more permanent way.

But Geta was no weakling, even if he lacked his brother’s taste for open warfare. As the first of the centurions reached him, the man stepped forward. He sidestepped the thrusting blade, catching the soldier’s wrist and twisting it while catching hold of the man’s arm with his other hand. Spinning, he tore the sword from the centurion’s grip while hurling him bodily into the next man. A single, lightning-quick slash of his blade took both men’s heads from their shoulders in a spray of blood.

That left two more men. Both retreated back a step, surprised by their target’s quick action. Yet they were too slow. Geta leapt after them, throwing his liberated sword through the leg of the nearest. As the man collapsed, Geta caught his sword as it fell from his hand. He drove his knee into the slumping man’s face, knocking him onto his back with the sword still stuck through his leg.

The other man was turning to retreat when Geta drove the new sword into his back. He released the blade, letting the man fall while turning back just long enough to pull his own sword from its place at his belt. A simple swipe of the blade finished the man who had fallen with the sword in his knee.

Geta had just moved to check on his mother, when the sound of his brother’s voice reached him through the broken door. “–if you are correct, it hardly matters when–”

He couldn’t hear more, but if his brother was there… if his brother was there, then Geta was going to end this. He was going to end it now.  Rising, he strode for the doorway, blade in hand.

At the doorway, he stopped, peeking through to make sure his brother was thoroughly distracted by whoever he was talking to.

That glimpse, that single peek, changed everything forever. Because as Geta peered around the corner of the doorway, he did indeed see his sibling there. But he also saw someone else, something else.

The man, if he could be called that, who stood next to Caracalla could never be mistaken as human. It was just under five feet in height, with some kind of black and dark blue bug-like exoskeleton, four legs spaced evenly apart to the front and back, and four arms on either side spread from its waist up to its shoulders. Its head resembled a fly, with enormous compound eyes, and similar mouth parts.

The sight was so shocking, that it brought Geta up short. As he stared, the fly… creature made a clicking noise before hissing the words, “You are making a mistake. This is–”

“Enough,” Caracalla interrupted, his voice harsh. “I have listened to your counsel for all these years, and yet nothing has changed. They are changing tonight. The feud with my brother will be over. I should never have listened to you.”

“Of course,” the fly-thing hissed, laying one of its many hands on the man’s arm while leaning up closer to his ear. “The final decision is yours, the men stand ready to follow your orders. But, Imperator, as I have tried to tell you for so long, your brother’s death presents a great… many…” He leaned in then, hissing his words into Caracalla’s mouth. With each word, the man’s usually scowling expression slackened, and he slumped a little bit more. Relaxing. The words from the fly creature were forcing him to relax, even causing him to sway just a little bit.

Magic. The foul, wretched creature was using some form of black magic to control his brother’s mind. And, from their words, he had been doing so for years. No wonder Caracalla had such a temper and was so… unpredictable. Any choice he made was undone by this filth.

Obviously, what happened here was that Caracalla had intended to make his peace with Geta. But this creature had discovered the truth and found a way to send the guards in to kill him first.

If his brother could be freed from this thing’s influence, then… then…

Geta thought no more. With a cry of rage and justice, he stormed into the corridor, rushing for the fly-creature.

Yet, before he could cross even half the distance between them, another body collided with his. There was someone else there, someone he had failed to see. As the body slammed into his, Geta was knocked sideways through the nearby glass window. The sword dropped from one of his hands, but his grasping, groping fingers managed to catch hold of his attacker. He felt… feathers?

Twisting in the air as they fell, Geta managed to get the man who had crashed into him underneath himself an instant before impact. Then they hit, and he felt a sudden, sharp and agonizing pain in his lower side.

Everything seemed to slow down then. A blink, and he saw the sword… the one that he had dropped. Somehow, it had ended up stuck against a rock with its blade facing upward. Geta and his attacker had landed on top of it, the blade piercing straight through the other figure’s chest before continuing on into Geta’s side.

Another blink, and he saw the man who had tackled him. Except… it wasn’t a man at all. The figure was just as not-human as the fly creature had been. This one, however, looked more like a bird, with wing-like arms and a beak. The feathers that he had felt covered the bird-man’s body. They had clearly been blue, though now most were stained with a mixture of the creature’s blood, and Geta’s.

Another blink, and he saw the bird-man’s eyes drift closed. Another, as he fell onto his back to look at the sky, and he saw his own brother standing there at the broken window, looking down at him.

One more blink, and he saw another figure, blurry and indistinct, limping toward him from the ground.

Then his eyes were shut, and remained that way for quite some time.

*******

“I should go back now, and free my brother from the influence of that creature,” Geta announced several days later. He stood in a small clearing, scowling at the man who sat across the fire from him. “I appreciate you dragging me out of there when you did. You saved my life and you have my gratitude for that. But my brother is still under its power.”

“You would be killed immediately,” the other man retorted. “I did not save your life just for you to throw it away once more. You want to learn how to kill those beasts, how to use the gifts that the bird-creature’s blood granted you? Then have patience. Your brother’s mind has been lost to their whispers. He has already proclaimed you dead. If you show up again, he will have you executed for impersonating yourself.”

Turning, Geta glared through the darkness. Darkness. He only knew it was supposed to be dark through context. Ever since the blood of the bird-man had mixed with his own, he saw through all darkness as if it was as bright as day. He could see further as well, and make out minute details from vast distances. Often, he lost track of what was happening directly in front of him, because his attention would be drawn to something far away as if it was much closer.

Still, it was an improvement from the first day, which he had spent with a splitting headache, throwing up more than he thought was physically possible.

“How much longer?” Geta demanded, staring at the man who had saved him. “As you say, they have already falsified my death. They even convinced my own mother that she saw me die right there in front of her. The beasts have control of my palace. How long until we can kill the creatures whose whispers have taken my brother and my empire from me?”

“Not long,” his rescuer, his teacher, promised. “When you are ready, we will take your empire back.

“But not until then,” the man who called himself Radueriel finished.

Previous Chapter                             Next Chapter

Field Trip 28-03

Previous Chapter                               Next Chapter

I was under absolutely no delusions. We didn’t stand a chance against Radueriel. If he was one of the Seosten who apparently posed as the original Olympian gods, that made him something like over three thousand years old. We didn’t have a prayer. We’d gotten our asses kicked by Charmeine. She would have basically taken us apart completely and for good if she hadn’t purposefully dragged it out so that she could show off. If it hadn’t been for Columbus nailing her with that hit because she’d completely dismissed him and her dragging things out, she would have easily won. And I sincerely doubted that Radueriel was going to make the same mistake.

No, there was no question. He could put us down in seconds. It might have sounded arrogant or unfair, but the simple fact was that if Avalon and Rudolph weren’t enough to help Roxa and me deal with Charmeine, then Jazz, Gordon, Sands, and Isaac weren’t going to be enough to deal with Radueriel. And that was if he’d been by himself, let alone with the rest of his soldiers.

The Seosten spoke, but I didn’t understand the words. It sounded kind of like some of the spells that we’d learned that year, but I didn’t think he was casting anything. When none of us responded, Radueriel paused, then spoke again. That time, he tried English. “Ah, correct, humans don’t speak Old Seosten anymore, do they? This language then? You understand the trade language?” His voice held far more curiosity than anger as his gaze passed over all of us.

Some part of me wondered what the man was thinking as he looked at us. We had to look like a strange group, even to him. We had two human girls; Jazz and Sands; a couple human boys, Gordon and Isaac; a mechanical cougar, Gidget; a werewolf, Roxa; and a werelion; me. I had no idea what exactly this guy had been expecting Charmeine to send to him (besides me in a far more captured state), but this definitely wasn’t it. I wondered how much he knew about what had happened. The Seosten were supposed to be connected to each other ‘if they were on the same mission’, but was Radueriel considered to be on the same mission as Charmeine? Did it even work over that much distance? Or was he completely clueless as to why and how things had gone wrong?

When it became obvious that the man was waiting for an answer (and lacking much in the way of other options), Sands was the one who took a step forward since neither Roxa or I could actually talk in these forms. She had her mace in one hand. “We understand you just fine.”

The man’s eyes lit up, and he smiled. “Ausgezeichnet. Oh, no, that’s still wrong, isn’t it? Fremragende? Excellent? That one then. Excellent. We can have a proper conversation then.”

Did you catch any of that? I asked my ride-along partner.

There was no response. I paused, then thought, Tabbris? Hey, you okay? I know it’s scary, but… Tabbris? Tabby? Still, there was no response. She wasn’t responding. Tabbris wasn’t responding. She wasn’t–where was she? What–that was stupid, she was still in me, right? She was– she had to be. She couldn’t just disappear, she wouldn’t just leave me like this. She–

While I was busy panicking inwardly, the Seosten man continued. “Right. Let’s try these introductions again, shall we? My name is Radueriel, of the Faustian Choir. You are all here because you were selected to be subjects of a series of tests that I am… currently engaged in.

“Of course you’ve caused a bit of a, what was your word for it… ruckus since your arrival, but I suppose you can hardly be blamed for such attempts. What was your goal here?” He gestured to the park area behind him with the stream just in sight. “Were you going to sneak through our water portal to escape the station? Clever. And ambitious. Yes, I don’t fault you for that. But you should put those thoughts far from your mind, because it will absolutely not be happening.”

Tabbris! I was all but ignoring Radueriel then, focused totally on the silence within my own head. Still, I got no response, no indication that there was anyone in my thoughts other than myself.

Clearing his throat, the Seosten stepped forward. His mechanical leg whirred audibly with the motion. “No, I don’t blame you for trying to escape. You wouldn’t be very good test subjects if you simply laid down and accepted that fate. But I assure you, your options now are limited. You can either surrender, in which case you will be taken to your assigned quarters to wait until I happen to be ready to work on you. Or you can attempt some kind of resistance. In that case, I’m afraid you’ll be damaged enough that you’ll need to be put back together in our medical facility. It will be an entirely unpleasant experience, I can promise you that. And afterward, once you are pieced together, you will still be taken to your quarters to await your turn in my lab.”

His gaze fell on me then. Even in my lion form, I had the feeling that he knew exactly who I was. Not that it would’ve been hard. Even with no other information, he had a fifty/fifty shot between Roxa and me. His smile grew. “And you, yes, you must be the one who killed the charming Charmeine. Or did you know her as Nemesis? Did you know her at all?” He shook his head. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. You stole her possession ability, didn’t you? Yes. But you won’t be using that again. Not here, not now.” As he spoke, Radueriel held his clockwork mechanical arm up. At a touch from his other hand, part of the metal forearm flipped around, revealing a small keyboard. He tapped a few of the buttons, and there was a brief, high-pitched whistle. As it faded, I saw every guard in this enclosed wilderness area abruptly snap to attention, straightening noticeably.

“Every being within this facility has been… upgraded,” the Seosten announced. “You will find them to be much stronger, faster, and more resistant than those outside my control. In addition, they have also been upgraded in other ways, such as their implanted teleportation devices, which allow me to either transport any of them to any of the others, or even transport myself to any of them. Instant transportation to anywhere that any of my people are located. You may start by facing one man, only for that one to become dozens within seconds. That,” he boasted, “is how you find yourself facing this many now, instead of the few that I posted at this entrance upon your initial disappearance. You could have emerged anywhere, and met this same force, including myself. Anywhere you run to, if one of my men finds you, I will be there.”

He was still smiling at his own genius before shaking his head. “But that is not the upgrade that need concern you now. No, you see, when needed, such as now, my people also obey my thoughts. I direct them. And you’ll find that your possession ability is very useless when the mind of your subject has nothing to do with the actions their body performs. After all,” he remarked while tapping the side of his head a couple times, “you never know when you might need to defend against the very gift that defines your entire race. It pays to be prepared. You’ve fought my people once. You did well. I congratulate you on that. But now, you will fight me. All of me.” At his words, the man lifted one arm. Simultaneously, every single one of the guards did the same.

The announcement horrified me. Somehow, Radueriel had implanted devices in all of his people that allowed him to take direct command of them at any point. Not by possessing them, but with a thought. Now he could, what, direct them just by sitting back and watching the fight? That meant… that meant that they’d all fight with his skill, his knowledge. The brief thought passed through my mind that he couldn’t divide his attention that much, but really, he probably could. I sincerely doubted that someone like him would forget something that basic. Honestly, even after all the different things I had seen this year, multitasking like that still seemed like cheating. But yeah, he’d probably managed to upgrade himself that much.

And… and where was Tabbris? Despite only being aware of her presence for… what… how long had it been? Maybe an hour? Less than two. Despite that, I already felt like a huge part of me was missing when she didn’t respond. Her silence was one of the most terrifying things I had ever experienced, and it was all I could do not to physically freak out right in front of everyone.

Tabbris! Tabbris, wake up! What’s wrong with–Tabbris? I was still trying to get her attention. What was going on?

Radueriel paused then, letting that sink in briefly before finishing with a simple, “Any of you who wish to surrender now may do so. You will be allowed to go to your quarters and await your turn in my lab. It will not be a fun time. But I promise, you will enjoy our medical facilities far less.”

“Um. Flick?” Sands’ voice was quiet, her eyes darting to me. “What are we supposed to do? We can’t fight this many guys, not if they’re all like… like…” She stared at the assembled army.

“I’ll tell you one thing.” That was Jazz, the dark-skinned girl standing there between her two teammates with her falchion raised. “We don’t surrender to this assface. He wants us to walk in there willingly, without even a fight? Fuck that. I don’t care if we take out one of his guys or fifty. I don’t care if we cost him an inch or a mile. But we’re gonna cost this son of a bitch something.”

Beside her, Isaac’s mouth opened. “Now, hold on. I think if we–”

Whatever the boy had been about to say, he was interrupted by Radueriel. The Seosten had been patiently waiting there, watching us for a moment. But now, he shook his head (the assembled guards did not do the same. Apparently that was an order he didn’t send them) and lamented, “Well, I did try. Remember that, children, as your limbs are being reattached later.”

Oh! Oh, Flick?

The sudden voice in my head made me jerk. The timing probably made it look like I was recoiling from Radueriel’s words. But I didn’t care. Tabbris?! Are you okay? What happened?! I felt kind of like a mother whose kid had wandered off in the grocery store or something.

U-um, Mama, the reply came quickly. It was another memory, a-and I kind of… got lost. There was a pause, and I could sense her embarrassment at the admission. B-but it’s okay, we’re okay. We can get out of here!

The soldiers were already coming for us, while Sands and the others set themselves to meet them. They were saying something to me, but I didn’t hear it. All I could focus on was the voice in my head. What? Uh, maybe you tuned out for too long, but we’re kind of screwed right now.

No! She blurted. We’re not screwed, I p-promise. We can get out. We really can. You just have to say, ‘Sevesensiel’. Out–umm, outloud, I mean. And then make everyone run. I’ll explain later, I promise. You’ve just gotta say it!

The fight was already happening. Though it wasn’t much of a fight. With every one of the guards following Radueriel’s mental direction, it was basically turning into a slaughter. The ‘fight’, such as it was, would be over in a few more seconds, if it even lasted that long.  

Sands shouted something at me, clearly wondering why I wasn’t helping, why I was just standing there completely frozen. Still, I hesitated. I can’t change right now. You know how fast those guys would be on top of me? Even as I spoke, my point was proven as three of the soldiers bypassed the others to come right for me. I bounded forward, lunging up and over them to land near the others.

I couldn’t take the time to shift, and I couldn’t talk in this form. One word (at least I assumed it was one word) and I couldn’t say it. I was a fucking lion. What was I supposed to do, roar?

F-Flick! Tabbris’s voice was panicked, and I felt her take control for a moment, making me lunge sideways away from the guard who had been coming after me during my brief moment of distraction. If you can’t talk, possess someone who c-can! You can possess one of the others!

Oh. Right. Maybe I should have hesitated. Maybe I should’ve found a way to ask permission. But there wasn’t time. At this point, as the unified, Radueriel-controlled soldiers easily swatted aside any defense that the others tried to put up as if we were all children, seconds counted. Milliseconds counted. There was no time for anything except the only action that I had left.

Spinning on my paws, I lunged directly toward Sands. While leaping, I blurted, Do the thing!

The brunette barely had time to glance my way, seeing my positively massive lion-form coming at her, before I was there. And to my immense relief, Tabbris interpreted what ‘do the thing’ meant. It probably helped that she was in my head. Either way, as we leapt that way, rather than colliding with Sands, I was suddenly seeing through the other girl’s eyes. I felt her panic as she jerked backward from what had been a gigantic lion leaping straight at her, stumbling and barely stopping herself from landing on her backside.

Sands! I sent as ‘loudly’ as I could, basically screaming in my own head while trying to direct it at the other girl. I didn’t want to take her over. I refused to take her over, even right now. I wouldn’t do that, unless I had to. Sands, say Sevesensiel! Say Sevesensiel right now! Say it!

“Sevesensiel!” Sands abruptly blurted, clearly having no idea what she was saying or why.

On the heels of that word, there was a flash of light that seemed to come from the Seosten in the back. And just like that… the wilderness around us was empty. All of the soldiers were gone. Radueriel was gone. We were all alone.

What the fuck was that?!” The demand came from Sands, Isaac, and myself all at once.

“Flick, Flick, are you in my head?!” Sands demanded out loud. “What are–”

Run! Tabbris interrupted her, though it was obvious that only I could hear her. Make them run, he’ll be back! Go, go, now, now, you only have about ninety seconds! Hurry, go!

Jazz and Isaac were both demanding to know what the hell was going on. Roxa was growling from where she stood in her wolf-form, clearly not sure if she should change back. And Sands was still asking me if I was in her, if I could read her mind, and so on.

Run! That time, it was me shouting it. Ninety seconds, they’ll be back in ninety seconds! Go! Get to the portal, we’ll figure it out from there. Just go, damn it, go! Run, run, run!

I was about to ask Tabbris to get us out of her, but she was already one step ahead of me. I was suddenly back in my own (well, my lion) body, stumbling a little. My gaze snapped across the room, and I focused on the stream ahead. Then I ran toward it, making a noise that was something like a half-roar to get everyone’s attention.

To her credit, Sands didn’t wait around questioning what I’d said. “Go!” she shouted to the others. “They’ll be back in a minute, just go! Questions later, running now!” Even as she spoke, the other girl was already running after me. And the others, thankfully, were right behind her as we hit the stream and turned to follow it to the portal.

Sixty seconds. Tabbris’s voice was nervous. I couldn’t blame her. Hurry, Flick. Hurry.

She didn’t have to tell me twice. Err, three times. I saw the portal up ahead and kept running, pushing myself hard while the others scrambled to keep up. The portal glimmered a little as we approached, and I splashed my way through the water before going right through. There was a sudden tingling, disorienting sensation as the world went weird around me (they apparently didn’t build safeties into portals that were just meant to carry water).

Then I was through, emerging into some kind of metal building with the river running through the middle of it. There were consoles and several technicians standing around, along with a few more armed guards. This place was clearly some kind of filtration plant or something. And from the look of things, there were several more separated streams of water running through it to different portals. Probably all running to more space stations.

Leaping out of the ditch, I crashed into the nearest armed guard. He was shouting something, but I didn’t care. His hand was grabbing for the pistol on his belt as my frying pan-sized paw slammed into his head so hard it left pretty much nothing but mush behind.

A brief rush of pleasure rushed through me, my aura flaring up even as the others spread out through the rest of the room. The technicians were making a break for it, and there were only a few guards for Sands, Roxa, Jazz, Isaac, Gordon, and Gidget to make short work of.

Tabbris, I managed, using the moment of kill-pleasure as cover to stay still for a second. What was that? What the hell was that word?

The console, over there to the right! She urged me that way. Destroy it, so the portal shuts down before Radueriel recovers!

As I moved that way, bounding up a short flight of stairs that led to an overlook area where the console in question was, she hurriedly explained. Mama’s old partner, Apollo. He quit the Seosten a long time ago and um, he disappeared. Like, a really long time ago. But he and Mama were friends. He told her a… about something he set up the last time he had, um, the last time he had to deal with Radueriel. It was supposed to be a get-out-of-jail free card in case he ever got caught, and he told Mama so she could escape if she needed to, if she ever changed her mind about leaving. Because he trusted her. She didn’t report it back then because it would’ve… umm, given them a big excuse to come after Apollo a lot more than they were. He quit, and that was bad enough. But if they knew he had ways to stop or, um, or stall them, they would’ve sent a lot more people after him.

That word thing? I guessed, using my lion paws to utterly demolish the console. As I did, the portals shut down, winking out of existence so that the water in the little metal gutters throughout the room just started quickly filling it up. It was time to leave. And wait, that makes Apollo almost like your uncle if they were… partners, wait a second, does that mean your mother was–

Uh huh, she confirmed. Mama was Artemis. And it was a, um, a magic hack thing that Apollo installed into R-Radueriel’s equipment. When it was triggered, it took over all his stuff and transported him and everyone he was controlling to a random location, then shut down all his upgrades and other stuff he installed in himself for ninety seconds.

I absorbed that for a second while the others shouted at me to hurry up. They were already by the nearest doors. So I’m guessing that won’t work again. One shot thing, teleports him and everything he’s controlling somewhere else and EMP’s his stuff, then it’s gone?

Um. Y-yes, just that one time. Which… I guess we’re lucky no one else ever used it, huh?

Really lucky, I agreed. But wouldn’t he have upgraded his equipment at some point in all this time and noticed it?

It wasn’t just scribbled on his mechanical arm or anything, Tabbris explained. Apollo put it on one of the bits of equipment that was going inside Radueriel, part of his reinforced metal skeleton. It makes him a lot tougher than normal Seosten, and there’s no reason for him to take it out. Weapons and stuff, yeah. But the reinforced skeleton, that’s kind of permanent, you know? Like… like putting a spell on the foundation of a house instead of on the furniture. Furniture gets moved around and changed. Foundation stays the same. That’s why Apollo chose that one, cuz he knew it’d be a long time before someone used it. Then Radueriel got transferred out here instead of spending his time on Earth, so… I guess Apollo never ran into him again.  

I nodded a little at that, thinking about how much I really wanted to hug this Apollo guy while leaping off the raised platform to land by the others. They’d gotten the door open by that point, revealing a forest beyond that didn’t look too different from the artificial one we had just left. But this one was at least on a planet instead of an enclosed station.

There was a lot more I wanted to ask Tabbris. There was even more that the others probably wanted to ask me. There was a lot to talk about in general. But right now, only one thing mattered. Only one thing was going to keep us away from Radueriel and the other Seosten long enough to figure out what the hell we were supposed to do now.

And only one thing was going to spare me from thinking about what everyone back on Earth was doing right now.

We had to keep running.

Previous Chapter                               Next Chapter

Field Trip 28-02

Previous Chapter                                    Next Chapter

Two of the soldiers with the blank faceplates stood guard in front of a door. Ahead of them and opposite the door was a blank wall, while the corridor continued on in both directions to the left and right. Both held their weapons at loose readiness, clearly on alert and ready for anything.

Anything, that was, except for a small, shimmering liquid-like spot to appear on that wall directly across from them. For a second, both of the guards simply leaning forward slightly as though squinting at it. Then they turned to look at each other, each about to say something.

Whatever they had been about to say was interrupted as an energy-arrow shot through that small liquid-like spot on the wall that they had been staring at. It hit the floor between the guards before exploding into a burst of concussive force that knocked them both to the floor.

“They’re down, let’s go!” I called while lowering my staff in its bow form. Turning away from where I had been looking between Gordon’s raised hands in order to see through the wall, I looked toward Jazz. The other girl was already moving up to the wall to run her hands along it. Like with the floor in the room where we had arrived, everywhere she touched, the wall turned that liquidy-shape. In this case, whatever material the wall was made out of must’ve been less dense than the room where we had first shown up, because it turned a lot faster than that floor had.

Within a few seconds, she’d made it just large enough to dive through. I did so, throwing myself through the almost-hole before rolling to my feet on the other side. The first of the two guards was starting to pick himself up, until my weapon, collapsed back into its staff form, collided solidly with the back of his helmet. He dropped once more, hitting the floor with a dazed grunt.

By that point, the second guard was up to my right. Before he could do anything, Roxa was suddenly there. She caught hold of the man’s arm with one hand and his neck with the other, before bodily heaving him hard into the opposite wall. He slammed into it like Wile E. Coyote running smack into a painted-on tunnel, rebounding off it before collapsing to the floor.

Gidget, who had come through with Roxa, padded over and leaned down to sniff at the second guard. When he stayed unmoving on the floor, she made a happy purring sound before plopping down right there with one big metal paw resting on his back, just waiting like that. The guy was gonna have a pretty bad day if he woke up and tried to move at all.

The others joined us a moment later, moving through the opening that Jazz had created. Finally, all six of us were standing there in front of the door. We had been running for the past fifteen minutes. Most of the others were winded. Roxa and I were the only ones that weren’t panting. Hence why we had been elected to go through and deal with the soldiers that were in our way.

Looking up and down the corridor for a moment, Sands asked, “Okay, so now what? We have no idea where we are, where we’re going, which way is safe, if safe even exists anymore, and everyone around here wants to kill or capture us. Oh and, by the way, apparently ‘capture’ is the worst of the two options, considering the reason they want to catch us is so that they can let one of those wannabe angel fuck take over our bodies and turn us into their personal meat-suits.”

“Um, I’m sorry, wannabe angel?” Isaac raised a hand. “As in big glowy wings and halos?”

Sands shook her head at him. “It’s an unbelievably long story. Seriously, you have no idea. Just wait until we can actually talk.” She gestured to me then, repeating, “What do we do?”

“We keep going,” I replied. “We’ll find an exit, get out of this building, and regroup from there. And–” I added while looking to Isaac, Jazz, and Gordon. “I know you guys have questions. We’ll answer them. But first, we have to get the hell out of this place. Then you’ll get your answers.”

The three of them looked between Roxa and me, and it was clear that they still at least kind of wanted to push the issue. But they stopped themselves. Gordon was the one who spoke up, taking the pragmatic approach. “How do we find the exit when we have no idea where we are?”

It was a good question. Our initial flight from the room we had arrived in had just been a result of ‘let’s get as far away from this particular location as we can, as fast as possible’. But now, we’d been running for this long and there was still no sign of an exit. The whole place was a maze, a maze that we would have been lost in for good, and probably even trapped and captured, a lot earlier if it hadn’t been for Gordon’s x-ray vision and Jazz’s ability to let us go through walls.

Pausing for a second, I thought inwardly, I don’t suppose you have any ideas, Tabbris?

There was a slight hesitation before the response came. I… I’m sorry, I don’t know. This wasn’t part of the memories that Mama left me, I don’t think. Um. Maybe it was built after she left, or she was never here, or… I had the feeling of a shrug. I’m r-really sorry, I wish I knew more.

It’s okay, I thought back to her. You don’t have to have all the answers. Just speak up if you think of something. Or if one of those extra memories your mom left happens to kick in.

Focusing on the others once more, I shook my head. “Sorry, guys. I wish I had a better answer than just ‘keep looking’. Eventually, we’re either gonna find our way out, or those guys are gonna find us. Let’s hope for the former. Because seriously, you don’t wanna let them take you.”

Roxa squinted at me for a second before turning back to look at the guards on the floor. “Too bad we can’t just ask these guys,” she started before her head tilted. “Unless we can.” Slowly, she looked to me. “You killed Charmeine. And back there, in that room, I swear I saw you…”

I nodded. “Right. I possessed the guy. But these ones are unconscious. As we saw back in the hotel with Charmeine, there’s not much an unconscious body can do, even if it is possessed.”

Jazz’s mouth opened at that, but I saw her hesitate before stopping herself. It was obvious that she had a ton of questions. Which I didn’t blame her for. But she kept quiet. Clearly, the other girl was smart enough to realize that every second we took dealing with their questions was another second that we weren’t escaping. And another second for the bad guys to find us.

Roxa just raised an eyebrow at me, asking dryly, “Does he have to be conscious to read his mind?” After a brief pause, she amended, “That sounded really snarky, but I’m seriously asking.”

“Oh…” I felt like slapping my own forehead, but now that there were two of us in here, it felt wrong. “Right, I guess I could give that a shot.” I took a step that way, while thinking, Little more help? I’m still not sure I understand exactly what you did before. Could you show me again?

Oh, oh, um, yes. I felt Tabbris’s own embarrassment, like she was ashamed that she hadn’t thought of this solution herself. She hesitated again before asking, Can I, um, does that mean–

Go ahead, I replied while moving to kneel next to one of the fallen guards. Do what you need to.

Once again, I didn’t actually feel control of my own body slip away. My hand simply moved by its own, reaching out to touch the fallen guard on the arm. Just as before, it felt disorienting.

The next thing I knew, there was… darkness. Right, he was unconscious, so his eyes were closed. And, as far as I could tell, he wasn’t really thinking about anything in particular. Or dreaming, if his race dreamed. I assumed they did. But in this case, there was just… nothing.

How do I, uh, get what I need? I was trying hard not to think about how weird it was to possess anyone, let alone someone that was unconscious. There was a part of me that thought I should have been cheering about the fact that I could now use the Seosten’s own trick against them. But mostly I just felt really awkward about invading someone’s privacy like this. Taking over his body, even if he was an enemy, felt really… icky. There was no other way for me to describe it.

Still, I forced myself past that. I was going to have to use every trick there was to make sure we all got out of this alive and unpossessed. Or, at least, unpossessed by bad guys. And now, I wasn’t just fighting to keep myself and my classmates safe. I had to worry about Tabbris too. She’d been hiding inside me this whole time, obviously secretly helping where she could. I owed her as much as I’d ever owed anyone. She saved me from enslavement. I wouldn’t forget that.

Shaking off those thoughts (which I was pretty sure she could hear), I focused on what was going on. Okay, so how do I–uh, you know, read the thoughts of someone who’s asleep?

The um, the same way you did b-before, the answer came. Just um, you know, uh, focus on what you wanna know. Think about it really hard, and it’ll move his thoughts that way.

So I did. Sitting there in the darkness and relative quiet (I could kind of hear the others whispering in the background, but it sounded like it was coming from a long way off for some reason), I focused on thinking about the layout of this base, or building, or whatever it was.

It was that thought that dragged up the single word answer to that particular question from the man’s mind. An answer that almost made me bail out reflexively as I blurted that single word.

Space station?! We’re on a fucking space station?!

That was the first thought that I’d pulled out of the man’s mind. As soon as I’d wondered about where we actually were, his slumbering brain had offered up the image of a massive complex floating somewhere in the middle of space. According to his memory, the place was fucking huge. The place looked like an enormous, roughly pill-shaped oval with two giant pyramids attached to it at their bases. The pyramids each constantly revolved around the main pill shape of the structure, moving very slowly so that, over the span of what I was guessing was their equivalent of a day, each pyramid would face the nearby star for their daytime, then rotate away from it and behind the main structure for their night, then back again for the next day.

The top half of the pyramids themselves were clear, with parks and trees and farms and stuff inside, and places where they were raising animals. There were even a couple streams and waterfalls in there. Water itself was brought through a couple portals at the head each stream from some other planet, which then terminated at the end of the stream in a few hidden reservoir-like tanks to store more water. When those tanks happened to be full, extra portals sent the water back where it came from. In the meantime, the water that flowed through the streams could be used by the animals that they had wandering through their artificial wilderness.

They weren’t just small wildernesses either. At its base, each of the pyramids’ upper halves, which contained the farms, ranches, forests, streams, and more (even some low hills), were about eighty miles across from one side to the other, and about half that tall to get to the top.

The lower half of the pyramids, meanwhile, were where all the housing and other more private things were. And the big oval-shaped base in the middle that each pyramid revolved around, that’s where we were. And it was where all the military stuff happened, where the science labs (like the room we appeared in), the docking bay, and the bridge were.

Okay, uh, hey, partner, I thought toward my companion, I’m gonna need your help again. You’ve got that perfect memory. Can you, like, pull up every memory about this whole place that we can manage and just remember all of it? I don’t know how it works, but if we can just grab every bit of information possible out of this guy’s head before we go, I’m pretty sure we’ll need it eventually.

I had the impression of the girl nodding. O-oh, yes! Just… umm, just a second. It’s like… um, flipping through a book. Speed reading. It’s like speed reading.

Over the next brief minute, dozens of images zipped through my mind. It was like watching a movie on extreme fast forward, all I could focus on were the occasional high points. The man had the equivalent of what we would call a husband, his mother had passed away a few years earlier, he really wanted to be a pilot but didn’t have the test scores necessary for it… and more and more facts just careened through my thoughts too quickly to keep track of.

Finally, just as I was starting to get a headache, Tabbris was done. She had everything she could get in the brief window that we had. Neither of us dared take any longer.

That time, the moment I had the urge to escape the man’s body, I could suddenly see again. I was back in my own body, blinking at the bright lights. To my right, I caught a glimpse of Sands jumping a bit as I abruptly appeared out of nowhere.

“Well?” Isaac prompted, standing beside his two teammates. “Did you, uh, get what we need?”

“Jesus, Isaac,” Jazz chastised, “give the girl a second, would you?” She seemed to remember only belatedly that they weren’t sure they could even trust me, and flushed a little bit before muttering under her breath, “It’s a new power and she just possessed someone. Ease up.”

“Hey, sure, no problem,” the boy retorted sarcastically. “Not like we’re in a hurry or anything. Should I get the picnic basket and a few lawn chairs so we can spread out right here and have a nice, relaxing meal while we wait for all the bad guys to dogpile us?”

“Enough.” That was Gordon, the somber boy speaking that single word without taking his eyes off of me. He watched silently after that, clearly waiting for me to explain what I’d found out.

Still, I hesitated briefly before turning. “I’ll explain on the way, we need to keep moving. Isaac’s right, if we stay here much longer, they’ll be right on top of us. Trust me, we don’t want that.”

So we kept running. And as we ran, I quickly explained what I had found out from the guard.

“Wait, wait.” Jazz slowed, looking over at me with wide eyes. “We’re on a space station?! As in, there’s nowhere to escape to? It’s either stay here until they find us, or go die in the vacuum?”

Before I could answer, Sands spoke up. “No, there is a way off, remember? She said there was a docking bay. That means there’s spaceships, right?”

“Do you know how to fly a spaceship?” Isaac demanded. “Cuz I can’t even drive a stick shift. Plus, I seem to have left my ‘Piloting A Sowstin Spaceship For Dummies’ book in my other pants.” The boy was lagging back a little, running behind us. He sounded a bit out of breath.

“First of all,”  I interrupted before the two could argue any more,  “it’s Seosten.” I carefully sounded it out a second time. “Say-oh-stun. And secondly, we’re not going to the hangar bay. We might be able to work out the whole ship thing, but honestly, there’s a better way. The portals in the pyramids, the ones that bring in the water from that planet. They’re guarded, but we can deal with that. We go through the portals, deal with anything on the other side, and get out onto the planet. Then we’ll go from there.”

Roxa, jogging by her cougar, asked, “So we just break into their little park thing and head straight for the river?”

While I nodded, Gordon spoke up, his voice as calm as ever. “How far do we need to go? You said the station was almost a hundred miles across. So how far are we from getting into this park area? And how do we know that we’re not about to run straight into a guard barracks or something like that?”

“Yeah,” Isaac chipped in. “Can we take an elevator or something to get there? They’ve gotta have quicker ways to get around than just walking everywhere, don’t they? In all those space shows, they’ve always got elevators or teleportation systems or something like that.”

“Yes,” I replied to the second boy first, “they’ve got elevators. But we can’t use them. These back tunnels aren’t under constant observation, but the elevators are. So are the transport portals and every other thing they use to move quickly. Our only chance of getting there without being spotted are these tunnels. They’re basically maintenance shafts. Those guys are gonna be looking for us in them, but there’s hundreds of miles of these corridors wrapping all the way around the station on every level, and they’ve only got so many guards to send. Plus, they don’t want to split up too much, because they know we’ll plow right through any group that’s too small. They’ll stick together in big enough groups to slow us down long enough for the rest to jump in.”

Isaac heaved a long, heavy sigh. “So basically you’re saying we have to walk there.”

“No, idiot,” Jazz retorted, “she’s saying we have to run there. So save your breath and keep moving.”

Roxa shook her head. “Too bad you guys don’t all have werewolf powers, that’d help a lot.”

From where she was jogging, Jazz gave the other girl a thumbs. “Oh, right, saw you go all part wolfy back there in the big room. How many of the furry guys did you have to kill to get the full werewolf shifting?”

Somehow containing most of her reaction, Roxa replied flatly, “You’d be surprised.”

“And is that where you’ve been, hunting werewolves?” Jazz pressed. “And what does that have to do with Chambers over there? What–”

“Later,” Roxa managed to interject with a slightly pained expression. I knew she wanted to tell them more, but she simply shook her head. “No time now. I…” For a moment, I thought she was going to say something else about it. In the end, however, the girl just changed the subject. “I wish you could all ride Gidget, but the board’s only so big.”

“Hold on.” I stumbled a bit to a stop. “Roxa, can Gidget carry two people in her board form that aren’t you if you ask her to?”

“Uh.” The girl looked at the cougar, then back to me and shrugged. “Sure, if I ask her to. Why?”

I smiled a little bit. “If you go full wolf, you can run a lot longer and a lot faster. Then two of these guys can ride Gidget.”

“That still leaves three of us,” Gordon pointed out. “You and two more. What are you planning to do about that?”

Slowly, my smile widened.

*******

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” Sands cried out.

“Oh my God, we’re gonna die, we are going to die, we are going to diiiiiiieee!” Jazz chimed in.

Big babies. You’d think they’d never ridden bareback on a five foot tall (at the head) lioness that was running about forty miles an hour down an alien corridor before.

It must have made a rather eclectic sight. One massive lioness carrying two teenage girls, one armed with a mace and the other a falchion, a wolf, and a hoverboard with two teenage boys riding it, one of them holding a flail while the other had what looked like a black powder tommy gun. All of which were careening through the corridors, basically running over and through anything that got in the way.

I knew the route from the man’s mind, and going the way that we were, it wasn’t too long before one of the entrances to the ‘park’ (or whatever they called it) loomed ahead of us. From the memories that I had taken from the guard back there, I knew that it was actually a hidden maintenance entrance built behind a large tree, with a boulder blocking the other side from view.

Then we were there. A security panel sat beside the heavy metal door, but it clicked green as we approached, and there was a hiss of escaping air as the hatch began to slide open. That had to be my security-breaking power kicking in. Super useful, that was.

Slowing down as the door opened, I let Jazz and Sands slip off my back. I wanted to take the time to change back, but… we didn’t have it. We had to get the hell out of here. As the boys stepped down off of the hoverboard to let Gidget shift back into her cougar form, we slowly crept forward. I went first, stepping through the doorway.

It was like going outside into an actual park. There was even a slight breeze as we moved out of the maintenance corridor and into the wilderness area. Dirt, grass, trees, rocks, and more surrounded us. We could hear birds chirping. It was a freaking park right in the middle of a space station.

“Okay,” Sands whispered once we were all through the door. “Flick said we just have to follow this treeline about a hundred yards, then take a right to hit the stream. Then we can find the portal and get the hell out of here.”

I was about to make a growl of affirmation, when the door behind us suddenly whooshed shut and gave a definitive click. My head jerked that way, before snapping back to the front at the sound of a lot of energy weapons powering up.

Guards. Soldiers. A lot of them. Too many. Thirty, at least, and that was just at first count. All of them with their weapons raised and pointed at us. And right in the middle of them stood the one figure I really didn’t want to see: Radueriel.

They’d known where we were going. They’d beaten us there. He was ready for us. He had been waiting for us to show up.

We were so fucking dead.

Previous Chapter                                    Next Chapter

Field Trip 28-01

Previous Chapter                              Next Chapter

Jazz’s voice was high-pitched, almost shrill. “I don’t understand. What the hell is going on? Where are we? What happened to Paul?! What was that thing that took his place?! And who the fuck was that woman that popped out of Columbus?!” By the end, she was waving her arms wildly while practically hyperventilating.

“And most importantly,” the dark-skinned girl demanded finally while spinning toward Roxa, “are you okay?!” Punctuating the question with a lunge that way, Jazz embraced her old roommate.

While Roxa grunted in surprise at the sudden hug and staggered back a step, Sands suddenly spoke up, interrupting as she raised her hand to point. “Uh, guys? I really hate to interrupt the happy reunion and all the really, really good questions, but we’ve kinda got company.”

She was right, I realized. The enormous, brightly lit room that we were standing in suddenly wasn’t nearly as empty as it had been just a few seconds earlier. There were a dozen figures in there with us. Most of them wore some kind of black body armor with a face-obscuring helmet. They also carried weapons, half of them some kind of electrified pike thing, while the other half carried futuristic rifles that hummed with energy as much as the pikes did.  

The soldiers, or whatever they happened to be, were accompanied by two other figures in what looked a lot like scientist lab coats. They stood a bit behind the others, one of them holding some kind of flat screen computer pad in one hand. All of them stopped short almost as soon as they appeared. Clearly, whatever they had been expecting to see in here, we weren’t it. Most likely because they weren’t expecting us to be upright, conscious, armed, and ready for a fight.

Tabbris, I thought inwardly, we are where I think we are, aren’t we? If there was the slightest chance that I was wrong and we weren’t as completely screwed as I thought we were, I wanted to know about it.  

I th-think so, came the response. I d-don’t know, I’ve never been here before. Or I was too little. Th-those are Seosten people though. I mean, the scientists are. The troops are probably something else. They use, um, other races for their grunt troops. She sounded about as nervous as I felt, probably because she knew that we were both in deep trouble if these guys caught us.

The guns had already snapped up up to point in our direction, while one of the scientist-figures (the one without the computer), called out, “Human-children, put your weapons on the ground and you will not be harmed! Do so immediately, or face the consequences of your disobedience.”

Gordon, who had been silent up until that point, lifted his chin. “I assume,” he started, clearly addressing me even if his attention was on those guys, “that surrendering is a bad idea.”

“Very bad,” I confirmed flatly. “You know that bitch that came out of Columbus? She was possessing him. She’s been puppeting him for months, enslaving him, making him work against us. And that’s what these guys want to do to us. They want to turn us all into their puppets.”

“This is your last warning,” the scientist announced, while the guards that were armed with the pikes raised them threateningly. All ten of the soldiers looked like they were about half a second away from opening up on us right then and there. Clearly, coming in expecting to pick up a bunch of helpless bodies and running into us instead had thrown them off. I had no doubt that they were already calling in for help. It might be just ten now, but it would be a lot more soon.

“Well, I for one,” Isaac put in then, “don’t feel like letting a bunch of weird freaks jam their hands up my ass and wiggle their fingers. Especially when they haven’t even bought me a drink yet.”

“Shut up, Isaac.” Jazz’s retort seemed automatic, like she wasn’t even thinking about it. Then she looked over to me pointedly. “When we get out of this, you owe us answers. A lot of them.”

Before I could do more than give the briefest nod, the soldiers made their move. From each of the five rifles, a wide blue beam emerged, shooting across the room toward us. All five of the beams collided with the stone wall that Sands created with her mace, though they didn’t seem to do any actual damage to it. Probably something meant to knock us out, a stun beam.

The brown-haired girl reinforced the wall quickly, adding an angled roof overhead before her head shook. “It’ll hold against those stun beams, but not against everything they throw at it.”

Holding both of his hands up in front of his eyes like he was looking through invisible binoculars, Gordon took a second before grimacing. “There’s more of them already. They’re coming.”

“And they’re going to keep coming,” I replied. “This is their home turf, we need to go. If we stand here and fight, they’ll take us down eventually. And trust me, we do not want to be taken down.”

The black boy gave a single nod at that before looking down, still keeping his hands cupped around his eyes to use his x-ray vision power. “Jasmine,” he started simply, “it’s clear below us. Can you–”

“Yeah, I can get us out of here!” Jazz snapped while ducking under a shot that was angled up over the wall, “But it’ll take a bit, and I can’t do it if they’re shooting at me! It’s–” She swallowed. “It’s harder under stress. And I don’t know what this floor is made out of, but…” Pointedly, she waved her hand over it, and I saw a little bit start to shimmer before it faded. That continued, the bit of floor going back and forth from normal to shimmery and back again before Jazz muttered with obvious annoyance, “It’s resisting my power. I need a minute.”

“Sands, can you cover Jazz while the rest of us keep these guys busy for as long as it takes?” I asked, even as a wince escaped me at the sound of a lot more feet pounding into the room.

She gave a quick nod. “Yeah, I got it.” Pausing, she looked to me seriously. “Be careful, Flick.”  

“Why would I start now?” I asked with a shrug before turning to the others. “Okay, let them make the exit. The rest of us… these guys are playing for keeps, okay? It’s not a game, and we don’t have Gaia, Professor Dare, or anyone else watching our backs to make sure it’s not too dangerous. This is real. Absolutely, completely real. I know asking if you’re ready is stupid at this point, but…”

Roxa straightened, lifting her chin. “We can do this. Right, Gidget?” As the mechanical cougar gave a growl of agreement, she winked at me. “Just another fun day around Felicity Chambers.”

“You sure?” I pressed, gesturing to her injured arm. “Your…”

“I’m fine,” the other girl insisted, touching the spot where she had torn a bit of her shirt to create a makeshift bandage to tie around the wound. “Heretic regeneration.”

Right, the werewolf healing might not do much to the silver, but that wasn’t the only healing ability that Roxa had. Plus, she had those redundant organs from the Jekern. When it came down to it, Roxa Pittman was now incredibly difficult to kill.

“Little help?” Gordon, who was still using his tommy gun to spray down covering fire over the top of the wall while using his other hand to watch through it, prompted in his simple, unexcited voice. He sprayed again, grimacing. “Too close.”

Roxa gave a quick nod at that. “Right, let’s do this. Remember, what doesn’t kill us… we kill first so we can Highlander its soul.”  

That might as well have been our battle cry, because it was the last thing that any of us said before we were suddenly in the thick of things. I spun around the left side of the wall that Sands had created just in time to practically come face to face with one of the pike-wielding soldiers. His helmet had a flat black visor covering his face that made his expression impossible to read, though from his body language, he seemed surprised to see me. Abruptly, that pike of his snapped up, and I barely had the chance to spin out of the way, letting it jab past me. My arm dropped to hook around the shaft of the weapon, catching it as I continued to pivot. I felt him try to keep his grip on the thing, but I was stronger. The pike was torn from his grip, and I released the thing to let it clatter to the floor. At the same time, I turned my spin into a leap, kicking the man across his helmet in a blow that knocked him stumbling sideways, now weaponless.

There was another guy right behind that one. He had his gun raised, but I took a quick hop step forward while kicking out. My toes barely caught the shaft of the fallen pike, launching the thing up into the man’s helmet just hard enough that he reflexively jerked backward. His stun shot went wide. Then I was there. Pivoting, I caught the rebounding pike with my left hand while turning in a full circle. My own staff, held tight in my right hand, collided with the gunman’s chest before I triggered the kinetic blast that I’d been charging up. He was sent flying across the room.

At the same time, as I pivoted, my other hand reared back and released the pike that I’d caught. The electrified blade part took the first man in the back before he could finish recovering from that kick. There was a sudden crack of energy, and the man screamed before collapsing to the floor like a sack of bricks. Clearly, the pikes could knock us out as easily as those stun lasers, or whatever they were. Either way, we definitely didn’t want to get hit by them. It would be… bad.

Across the way, I could see Gordon. The boy had split his gun apart into its sword and shield mode, catching an incoming pike-swing from one of the soldiers with the blade while simultaneously using the shield to deflect a couple of stun-blasts. A second later, he spun and dropped to one knee while swinging his shield-arm to the left and back, driving the edge of the shield into the stomach of the man whose blade he had deflected. The blow made the soldier double over, and Gordon pirouetted back to his feet while giving a quick slice with his sword that took the man’s head off, sending it bouncing along the floor as the boy’s green aura flared up.

Meanwhile, a little bit past him, Isaac had somehow gotten hold of one of the enemy’s stun rifles and was using it to take potshots at them while the three spiked balls from his flail all hovered around him in their separate, floating drone forms. The drones were taking shots here and there as well, but mostly they acted as shields. Any time a shot came near the boy, one of his drones darted into its path to intercept, creating a shimmering blue forcefield around itself for an instant.

Hey, partner, I thought inwardly while using a short burst from my staff to knock myself away from a couple of stun shots. They were still trying to knock us out, even now. These guys were trying really hard not to kill us. I could only imagine what their Seosten masters would do to them if they ruined a set of perfectly good Heretic bodies that could have been possessed.

As I landed, Tabbris responded, clearly waiting until I had my feet under me and wasn’t under immediate attack. Yes, she answered without wasting the time to make me voice what she already knew I was going to ask by reading my thoughts, I can, um, tell you what you got from killing that stu–um, Charmeine. You can, um possess people. Like Seosten do. Like I do.

Now see? I sent back, even as I darted forward to catch the pike from one of the soldiers and knocked it aside. I knew you’d be really useful to have around, now that you’re talking to me. But– I went silent briefly, focusing on spinning my staff around to parry the next thrust from the man. As his pike was knocked aside once more, I finished, think you can take over for a second and make it happen? I’m not sure what I’m doing.

My eyes were on the quite frankly alarmingly number of soldiers coming through what I could now see was a door at the other end of the room. These guys may not have been expecting us to be ready to fight, but they were adjusting quickly. We’d had a bit of early success at fending them off, but sooner or later, they’d overwhelm us. Unless, of course, we could get out of here before they brought in too many guys for us to deal with. Time was decidedly not on our side.

The surprise in Tabbris’s voice was obvious. Y-you want me to… to control you? But I–I mean, you trust…

I grimaced, taking a quick step back as the man swung that pike at me again. You could have taken over any time you wanted to, I pointed out simply. The fact that you haven’t, and after everything you’ve done… yeah, I’d say I can trust you. C’mon, partner, take this guy over.

By that point, the soldier had gotten tired of me evading all of his attacks. I heard a dark growl of frustration escape him, and he swung the pike up and around violently. I was pretty sure that he didn’t care if he hurt me more than he was supposed to. He wanted me on the ground already.

My instinct was to dodge away from the swing. But abruptly, my body didn’t respond to my thoughts. It was incredibly disorienting. The closest thing I could compare it to was when you’re climbing stairs and you expect there to be one more step than there actually is, so you raise your foot really high and then come awkwardly. It was kind of a mental version of that.

My body wasn’t responding to me, but it was moving. My arm lashed out and down, parrying the pike out of the way with my staff. Then my other hand snapped up while my feet moved to carry me forward. I caught hold of the soldier’s armored faceplate, pressing my fingers against it.

And then… well, then my view suddenly snapped around so that I was looking at the spot where I had just been standing. It was a disorienting vision switch that kind of felt like going around a sharp curve in a roller coaster. My stomach was doing flip flops. Or maybe his stomach was, and I was just feeling it. Or maybe–never mind, it was entirely too complicated by that point.

Not only was I seeing through the man’s eyes, I could also feel his muscles. I could feel his… wow, I could feel his exhaustion and his fear. Not of us, I realized belatedly, but of failing. The man was thinking about what would happen if he failed to contain us, of what the Seosten would do. And–okay, the images that filled his mind would not make it easier for me to sleep at night.

The man’s name, he was… he was called Riolu Ylet. He had been alive for what his planet called fourteen ossils, which I was pretty sure translated to years. And since he’d never been to Earth, there was no way of knowing how long that actually was. My best guess was that he would’ve been considered roughly twenty-eight. A young guy, as far as all that went. And he–

Flick, Tabbris’s voice prompted in my head, you can move him, just like moving yourself.

Oh. Oh. Right, stop reading into the man’s entire life story, Flick. His thoughts, memories, and feelings had just started flooding into my mind as soon as I had the slightest inkling of curiosity. In the background of my mind, I felt him shouting at me, demanding that I leave his body.

Sorry, I thought at him, I just need to borrow this for a second. To be fair, you were gonna help your masters enslave all my friends and play Operation on me. So I think we’re pretty even.

Moving felt awkward. My body was all wrong. Or rather, his was, in relation to what I was accustomed to. He was taller than I was, he moved a little slower than I did, his arms were longer, it was all different. I turned, and as I took in the sight of the rest of the room, something else happened. Wherever the other soldiers and the scientists were, there was a faint green outline. And wherever Roxa and the others were, there was a faint red outline. The helmets had Identify Friend/Foe capability. Probably among other things that I didn’t have time to focus on in that moment.

Instead, I focused on the one thing that I actually did need to know right then, dragging the memory up out of Riolu’s thoughts while he tried to keep it hidden from me. Then I had it.

“Desedene!” I made the man’s lips shout, screaming it as loud as he could while running away from the group. His arms flailed, and I made him shout again, “Desedene!”

Hearing that word, all of the soldiers and the scientists dove to the floor. They covered their heads and hugged the ground.

Bomb. I had taken the word for the most dangerous (yet still believable) bomb that Riolu could think of, the worst bomb that we could possibly have smuggled in on our little trip. It was enough to make them dive for the floor, buying us a little time.

Eject! I blurted inwardly. Tabbris, hit the eject!

My body was back. Or I was back in my body. Whichever, the point was, I was back behind the man that I had taken possession of. And as a bonus, he was already collapsing to the floor. Tabbris had knocked him out rather than give him a chance to say that everything was safe.

Spinning on my heel then, I shouted for the others. “Go, go, go!” All the while, I was already running back toward the wall that Sands had created.

Sliding my way around it, I blurted, “Tell me you’re ready, cuz there are way too many guys out there for us to deal with anymore.” Around me, the others came stumbling into view, most of them looking pretty ragged. It was time to go.

Jazz, kneeling on the floor with Sands standing over her (and a couple downed soldiers littering the floor around them), gave a short nod. “Got it, got it! I don’t know how long it’ll hold, but got it! Go, go, get through right now!” The floor in front of the girl was shimmering like water.

Looking back around the wall, I saw the soldiers just starting to pick themselves up. Since the bomb had never materialized, they were rising once more. Luckily, the fact that we had so much firepower on our side seemed to have given them pause. And I was sure they were confused about the guy who had yelled about the bomb. But still, there was no more time to waste. They were going to get over their hesitation really quick.

“Roxa, go!” I gestured, and the blonde girl hopped through the shimmering part of the floor. She was followed immediately by Isaac. Then Gordon went through. I nodded toward Sands, and she followed after him.

A quick glance around the wall revealed that all of the remaining soldiers were back on their feet by that point. Worse, there was another figure standing in the doorway of the room, just beyond them. He was a short man, standing only slightly taller than I was, with tousled, curly brown hair. He wore a dark green cloak over one shoulder that covered the right half of his body, leaving his right arm hidden. One of his legs was clearly mechanical, a bronze and red metallic limb with what looked like clockwork parts whirring and spinning as he lifted it to take a step.

Radueriel, Tabbris’s voice whispered in my head. When the Seosten were all playing gods on Earth, he was Hephaestus. M-Mama said his experiments are almost as b-brutal as the Fomorians. He’s the one who really made the Heretical Edge.

Okay, there was a lot of information to digest there, especially the part about all the Seosten playing gods and the fact that this guy had made the Heretical Edge, not Bosch. Which probably meant that he had been the one possessing Bosch, though I wasn’t positive on that.

The man stopped when he saw me peeking out at him, and I saw a small smile play over his face. When he lifted the arm that had been hidden beneath the cloak, I saw that it had the same clockwork cybernetics as well. He pointed the arm at us, and I saw the mechanical fingers retract before the hand reshaped itself into a cannon. He smiled again, and I jerked backward behind the wall just in time for a spinning ball of what looked like purple plasma or something go flying past where my head had just been.

Okay, okay, time to go. Past time to go. “Jazz,” I started, but the girl shook her head.

“I go through and it closes. Get through. But hey!” Her hand grabbed my arm, squeezing tight as the girl stared intently at me. “Don’t screw us over, Chambers. Got it?”

There was a lot that I could’ve said to that. But none of it would have been productive. Especially not with the sound of running footsteps approaching. Instead, I just replied, “We’re on the same side.”

Then I dropped through the shimmering part of the floor. It didn’t just look like water, it felt like it for that moment. Well, very thick water. It was like moving through somewhat thin jello.

Once my body was through the floor, I dropped the rest of the way. A couple hands caught me as I fell, steadying me for a moment. Isaac and Sands. The two of them released me once I had my balance.

I stepped quickly out of the way then, just before Jazz dropped through. The floor above returned to the way it had been, and we had a second to look around. We were in what looked like a utility tunnel beneath that room. It was fairly narrow, just wide enough for two of us two walk abreast, with dull gray walls and a single glowing white line along one of the walls that seemed to function as a light. And possibly a guide of some kind, I wasn’t sure.

“We have to move.” That was Gordon. The boy was looking up, cupping his hands to see through the ceiling above us. “They’re right there. They’ll figure out what we did in a minute. They’ll know where we are.”

“Who was that guy?” Jazz demanded. “The one with the steampunk robot limbs. What–”

My head shook. “We don’t have time. We have to get the hell out of here.”

“What do we do now?” Sands blurted. Her head was shaking. “We’re in Seosten space, aren’t we? We’re–they–those banishment things, like–”

“There isn’t time,” I repeated. “We can’t think about that now, we can’t talk about it. We have to get the hell out of here. There’s an entire army above us, and we’re stuck halfway across the universe, behind enemy lines, surrounded by monsters that want to turn us into their personal marionettes. There is no one else that’s gonna help us at the moment. We are on our own. So you wanna know what we do right now?

“We run.”

Previous Chapter                              Next Chapter