Radueriel

Mini-Interlude 68 – Olympian Origins

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Several Thousand Years Ago

Three figures, one much smaller than the others, stood in front of the great transparent wall of the space station Aquilari’s observation deck. Before them lay the vastness of space, filled with innumerable stars, galaxies, and worlds beyond comprehension or belief. The universe, itself to the larger multiverse as this single station was to the galaxy it lay within.

“Are we really gonna see it all, Uncle Lucifer?” The soft, reverent voice came from the child, as she stood between her older companions. Chayyiel, only ten years old, could not hope to comprehend the scale of what lay before them. Despite all the incredible power that had been thrust onto her, despite the accident that had made her into what could become one of the most powerful Seosten in existence, she was still a child. She was still innocent.

With a slight smile at that, Lucifer exchanged a glance with Sariel. She, in turn, returned the smile. Which was nice, considering he was one of the few people she seemed comfortable enough to smile with. Shy and withdrawn, his female partner didn’t tend to do much talking. She let him do that. And he was good with the arrangement, since he loved to talk.

Even before his own enhancement. An enhancement that had been just as accidental as both Sariel’s and Chayyiel’s. All three of them, accidents.

Well, mostly accidents. Chayyiel’s father had intended to expose her to the physics-defying energies of the other-world. But only for a short time, just long enough to… to help her. Unfortunately, it had gone wrong. The man had been distracted and taken away from his work at the worst possible time. Which resulted in Chayyiel being abandoned in that other-world and assumed lost forever. At least until Sariel and Lucifer, his lab assistants, had saved her with the help of one of the actual project subjects, a man named Amitiel. He had been the one who came to the two in the first place, pleading with them to do something to save the girl. He had begged them to go beyond all safety measures, pleaded for them to not just bend the rules, but shatter them in order to open the portal again and get the girl out.

They had done so, at the cost of destroying the Seosten’s only method of accessing that other-world.

For some time, there had been talk of locking Lucifer and Sariel up, of containing them to some prison lab, of… doing any number of things that angry people talked about doing when something as bad as losing access to the ability to create ageless super soldiers happened. But in the end, higher powers had decided that since their numbers of project successes were limited, throwing away any of them wasn’t viable. The two had instead been assigned to the same exploratory ship as the rest of the products of that project. Though they were currently given no real assignment, being relegated to caring for and watching over Chayyiel herself.

Lucifer didn’t mind that either, any more than he minded being the ‘face’ of his partnership with the shy Sariel. Chayyiel was a good kid, and smart as hell even before she had been upgraded.

“We’re gonna try,” he replied to the girl’s question, giving her a wink. “It’s a pretty big universe though. It’ll take a long time.”

“Very long,” Sariel quietly agreed. Her hand moved to Chayyiel’s shoulder, squeezing it. She had been the one to come up with the solution that allowed herself and Lucifer to extract Chayyiel. It was a solution that had ended up destroying the project itself, even as it saved one child’s life. Lucifer had tried to take that blame for himself, but it was one time where Sariel had not meekly and quietly allowed him to take the lead. He’d wanted to spare her from being the focus of so much anger, yet she had done so anyway, confessing that it was her plan.

Seeing her small, fragile figure hunched in on herself while being bombarded with so much vitriol from the investigative committee had been the one and only time in his life to that point that Lucifer had been tempted to murder other Seosten. And not just one of them, but each and every figure who had been hounding, insulting, and belittling the woman beside him.

Not deterred in the least, Chayyiel’s head bobbed up and down. “Uh huh, but we’ve got time, right?” She looked first toward Sariel, then to Lucifer, eyes shining with curiosity and innocence as she firmly declared, “We’ve got lots of time to see everything out there.”

Chuckling, the man put his hand on the opposite shoulder from where Sariel’s still was. Both of them stood there with their hands on their young charge. “You’re not wrong about that,” he admitted while turning his gaze back to the stars. “We do have a lot of time.” Curiously, he asked, “So, how long do you think it would take to see everything there is to see out there? Every star, every world, every moon, everything. How long would it take us to see  all of it?”

Chayyiel blinked at that, face scrunching up with thought for a few seconds before guessing, “Ten thousand years?”

“Longer than that.” That was Sariel, her voice quiet, yet firm. “Much longer.”

“She’s right,” Lucifer agreed. “You want to see everything, you better settle in for the long haul. There’s a lot of stuff out there. And,” he added, “a lot of danger. Not just Fomorians. Other things too. A whole universe worth of monsters and problems.”

“We can handle it.” Chayyiel’s voice was assured, arms folded across her stomach as she gazed out at that starfield, determination written across her face. “We’re gonna see it all. And we’re gonna end the war with the Fomorians. We’re gonna fix everything.”

Again, Sariel and Lucifer exchanged brief glances. That time, it was Sariel who spoke up first. “If anyone can do it, you can.”

We can,” Chayyiel corrected.

“We’re gonna do it together.”

******

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome… aboard the Olympus.”

Pride filled the voice of the man who made that announcement. The figure, who was just barely under six feet in height, with black hair that was lined at the temple and along the sides with silver, smiled. It was a smile that spoke of adventure, of daring, and of battles yet to come.

His name was Puriel, and this was his ship. He stood directly in the middle of the bridge, surrounded on all sides by the consoles that his people, his people would use to direct the ship along their journey, through their missions. This pristine, almost perfectly white with hints of gold room was the command center, the brain of one of the most technologically and magically advanced ships in the entire Seosten fleet. Entire planets had worked to put this single ship through its theoretical, testing, and practical phases. And now it was real. It was complete.

And it was theirs. The products of the Summus Proelium Project, the experimental upgrading process created by Director Aysien, who had been granted an endless lifespan as their aging was frozen, along with other enhancements and unique, individual gifts, had all been gathered onto this single ship. A single ship with a single mission: to explore the vast, unending reaches of space and find some advantage that would allow the Seosten to finally finish the forever war. It was a war that had been raging for hundreds of thousands of years. Literally dozens of generations of the Seosten, whose members lived roughly ten thousand years by themselves, had come and gone without ever experiencing anything except this war against Cronus’s children, the Fomorians.

And now, Puriel’s people, his people, would have a chance to find a way of ending that war, of ending the threat that the Fomorians posed to the entire universe, once and for all. Yes, he felt pride at that fact. Yes, he felt immeasurable happiness at the very thought that his children might, might grow up in a universe where they would be safe.

That thought made his gaze move to the console near the very back of the bridge, next to the main door. And to the beautiful figure who sat there, looking back at him from across the room. Tall and regal, with a beauty that was matched only by her sharp wit and sharper tongue for those who had failed her, Kushiel still took his breath away. To have a child with her, to give that child a chance to live in a universe free of the Fomorian threat… he still held to that hope, to that dream. Old as he was even now, that was a dream worth working for.

And he could live to see it. His age, like all of the crew of the Olympus, had been frozen. Unless killed by some outside means, they would never die. They could, conceivably, actually live to see the end of this war, and whatever would come next.

But the others were watching. As much as he felt that he could lose himself in the gaze of his wife forever, this was too important of a day. So, Puriel pulled himself back, clearing his throat. “Logistics,” he used Kushiel’s position rather than her name. Must stay professional. “Report.”

Granting him one of her rare, yet beautiful smiles before it vanished behind a mask of professionalism, Kushiel gave one slight nod, her voice crisp. “Yes, Trierarch. All supplies are in the green. Fuel stores are reporting maximum capacity. Weapons are pristine. We are clear for six months of regular rations and travel before restock and refuel will be required.”

“Good to know how long we’ve got ahead of us,” Puriel replied with a broad smile. He couldn’t help it. He was professional, not dead. Still, he cleared his throat before his gaze moved slightly to the next station. “Engineering?”

Radueriel returned his brief smile, giving a hand gesture that was part wave and part salute. “Believe me, Trierarch, we are just fine down in the engine room. The boys and I have spent the past week going over every millimeter of that beauty down there. She’ll get us where we need to go, and give a little kick to anyone that tries to stop us from getting there.”

“Given the things we’ll be running into,” Puriel replied, “it better be a big kick.” He turned his attention to the next console over then. “Tactical?”

Auriel stood at rigid attention beside her station, hands clasped behind her back. “Sir,” she began crisply, “All weapons are online and at full capacity.” And yet, even the always professional woman (to the point that many had joked when they thought neither she nor Puriel could hear them about the enormous stick that must have been lodged deep in her backside) could not entirely contain the excitement of what was about to happen. There was the faintest of smiles that briefly flickered across her expression. “It will be a very big kick, sir.”

Puriel smiled. “That’s what I like to hear. Security, Crew Liaison, any issues getting everyone settled in?”

From opposite sides of the bridge, Abaddon, as ship’s security chief, and Jophiel, as the crew liaison, both reported negative. The former continued with, “We all did a bit of partying last night, but we’re good for departure.”

It was technically against the rules, as military crews that were about to set off were supposed to remain ‘dry’ for a full day before departure. And Abaddon definitely wasn’t supposed to outright tell the ship’s trierarch about it. But what the hell. It was a special occasion. And everyone knew that no one paid attention to that rule.

Though, from the dirty look that Auriel was shooting Abaddon, if she had her way, it definitely would have been an issue. It was good for him then, that Puriel was far more easygoing. Well, as far as that kind of thing went, anyway.

Next, Puriel turned his attention to the woman who stood near the door, clearly waiting to be dismissed as soon as this launch procedure was over.  “Research and Development?”

The small woman who met his gaze had startlingly green eyes, the result of an earlier enhancement after losing the ones she had been born with. They allowed her to see into many different spectrums, and enhance down to the microscopic level. Her name was Cahethal, and she was also one of the members of his crew that Puriel knew the least about, aside from the late-comers. And they… well, they were a different situation entirely.  

She was also clearly anxious to get back to work, since her response was a simple, “We’d be doing a lot better if I wasn’t wasting my time up here. I have a whole roster of bright-eyed know-it-alls that I need to whip into shape before they run an experiment that blows up this entire ship.”

“Well,” Puriel replied easily, “I guess we’ll have to let you get back there as soon as possible to avoid that, won’t we? Let’s finish up then.” His attention moved to the man next to her. “Medical?”

The man there, Manakel, had been working with Puriel for the past five hundred years. The two knew each other quite well, and exchanged brief smiles. Neither could believe they were finally here, commanding their own ship. And not only that, but one of the most advanced ships in the fleet. It was a dream come true, for both of them, in many different ways.

“The crew checks out,” the medical chief reported crisply. “We are ready to go.”

“Indeed we are,” Puriel agreed before looking at last toward the nearest console to his own seat. “Unless my executive officer has any problems to raise?”

The man there, Sachael, was almost as tall as the giant Abaddon, though he also looked to be much older. His long, pure white hair fell to his shoulders, and he had a beard to match, along with eyes that were pale blue, like a pair of frozen ponds set against the snow of his hair. He had also worked with Puriel even longer than Manakel had. Which meant that Puriel was pretty certain Sachael had been the one to convince the crew to go out for drinks the night before.

On-duty, Sachael was the consummate professional. He did his job, and he did it very well. Perfectly, in fact. He was the best first mate that Puriel could have asked for. But off-duty, the man was another story. He was fanatical about separating his two lives, to the point of almost seeming to be two entirely different people. He valued his freedom and fun. That was why he worked so hard while on-duty, so that he could turn it all off and let loose when he wasn’t. And woe be to the person who made him work when he considered himself done.

In this case, the man nodded crisply. “All departments and systems seem to be green.”

Puriel turned to the front then, his mouth opening to address the helmsman, when the door at the back of the room, near Kushiel, Manakel, and Cahethal, slid open. Three figures entered then, one much smaller than the other two.

Lucifer and Sariel, both of them barely past their mid-fifties in age. Barely more than children, really. Neither had actually been selected by their Choirs to be a part of Summus Proelium, or this ship. No, they had been simple lab techs back at the project itself, little more than assistants to Aysien himself until… well, until things had changed. Mostly due to the other figure they had entered with: Chayyiel. The director’s daughter, whose accidentally extended excursion into the other-world where they had drawn their extraordinary gifts from had resulted in the ending of that project.

Or, more specifically, whose unprepared retrieval from that excursion had ended the project, along with any way of actually accessing that other-world, possibly forever.

It was that fact that likely fueled the audible annoyance in Auriel’s voice, as the woman snapped, “What are they doing here?” It looked like she was about to order them off, but stopped herself with a look to Puriel.

Heedless of the reaction (most of the bridge crew looked no less annoyed or outright angry than Auriel herself did) that their presence was creating, Chayyiel all-but sprinted across the bridge, letting out a whoop as she saw the starfield ahead of them. “Are we really leaving, Uncle Puriel?!” She blurted while stopping beside him. Her hands grabbed his arm and she gazed up adoringly. “Really really leaving?”

Kushiel’s own tone was even darker than Auriel’s. “If the girl’s babysitters cannot even perform that duty adequately–”

“We’re sorry. Sorry.” Lucifer hurriedly put in, head shaking quickly as he moved with Sariel right on his heels. The blonde woman was slightly younger than her constant companion, and she was also much more shy. Puriel wasn’t sure he’d heard the woman speak more than a few words that she didn’t absolutely have to speak in the whole time that he’d known her. She relied on her research partner to do that talking for her so much that the rest of the lab, and now the crew here, had begun referring to them as ‘twins.’

“We tried to keep her in the mess hall,” Lucifer was explaining, “so she could watch the launch from there. But she kept insisting that–”

“Ahem.” Manakel raised a hand, drawing Puriel’s attention. “I’m afraid I did indeed extend an invitation to the young miss to bring her guardians with her to see the launch from the bridge. I thought it would be something she would enjoy. Who wants to see the first launch of a ship like this from the mess or the observation deck when you can see it from the bridge?”

Pausing briefly, Puriel looked down to the girl, whose eyes were shining with hope as she stared right back up at him, batting her eyelashes like some kind of innocent bifestel.

“Well,” the man finally replied, “how can I argue with that? Over there.” He nodded to a nearby couple of seats set against the wall near Abaddon. “Strap yourselves in, okay?”

That earned him a hug from the girl herself, before she and her two caretakers (who would have to be given some other job at some point, but Puriel wasn’t sure what that would be just yet, particularly if Cahethal continued to insist that she didn’t want them) moved to the seats.

With that interruption settled, Puriel finally looked to the front. “Helm and Navigation?”

The man there, Amitiel, gave a short nod. He had been looking briefly toward the three newcomers, his attention apparently caught by a wave from Chayyiel herself before belatedly realizing that he had been addressed.

“Ah, ready, sir,” he replied carefully.

Puriel didn’t know Amitiel that well, but he had noticed that whatever else the procedure that changed them all had done, it also seemed to have made him quieter than before. Less boastful of his skill and more… calm than he’d been in those first few weeks. Which was a good thing, as far as Puriel was concerned. Having a calm, professional helmsman would help the ship get through its shakedown voyage without too many problems. Hopefully.

“Very good,” he announced then, realizing that everyone’s eyes were on him. His command crew. His people. They were watching him, waiting for his word to launch. Waiting for him to give the command that would begin their great journey.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began then, turning his attention to the stars.

“Let’s see what she can do.”

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Interlude 37A – Mennin Tombs

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A pair of stunningly polished, gleaming black shoes stopped smartly directly at the edge of a puddle that was half-water and half-mud. The shoes were attached an equally well-dressed man in neatly pressed dark slacks, a red silk shirt, and black tie. A black suit-jacket completed the perfectly coordinated, yet utterly safe (and in many ways, boring) ensemble. The man within the clothes stood just under six feet in height, and could have been anywhere between forty and sixty in normal human age, his hair dark and well-groomed, his face vaguely lined.

“Mr. Tombs.” The gravelly voice that emerged from the man himself sounded in equal parts exasperated and sympathetic. It was the voice of a man who very much cared about the subject of his ire, yet was also at a loss of what to do with them. “What is the first rule of the Auberge?”

The subject of his attention, who lay face-down in that muddy puddle, groaned a little in response before slowly lifting his head. Turning, he spit out a rather extensive amount of dirty liquid in one thin line, like a drinking fountain. The water narrowly missed his admonisher’s perfect shoes, before the prone man ran a hand up through long, dirty-blond hair that fell to his shoulders.

In many ways, Mennin Tombs would have been considered a quite handsome figure. He stood just an inch or so taller than the man who stood before him, and looked quite a bit younger, appearing to be barely into his twenties. His skin was fair, his shape on the thin side, yet not drastically so. His nose was perhaps a bit small for his face while his mouth was just barely too large, leaving his face looking very slightly oddly proportioned. He looked like a stunningly handsome preset within a video game whose player had tinkered somewhat with the face, throwing it off in ways that were sometimes too subtle to truly describe, yet were subconsciously noticeable.  

“Uh, sorry, Deacon,” Mennin mumbled before slapping a hand against the side of his head. “Water in my ears. What’d you–hold on.”

Grabbing his earlobe, the young man yanked down. The ear stretched to three times its normal size, before a truly impressive amount of water fell from it as he tilted his head, filling the puddle up to about twice what it had been. Releasing the lobe made the ear pop back to what it had been.

“Hah! Told you I had water in my ear. Now I can hear you.”

Letting out a long, low sigh, Deacon repeated himself. “The first rule of the Auberge, Mr. Tombs.”

“Don’t talk about the Aube–no wait, that’s something else.” Squinting, Mennin snapped his fingers. “Don’t let anyone find the Auberge who isn’t a registered guest.”

“And the second rule?” Deacon prompted.

That one, Mennin answered instantly. “Don’t get any of the guests killed.”

“Mmmhmm.” Deacon paused then, before taking one step back, safely away from the puddle before nodding past them. “And do you see how your actions tonight may have… strained both of those rules?”

Turning that way for the first time, Mennin looked to where six figures were at the opposite end of the alley that they were all hidden within. Three of those bodies lay on the ground in various states of decapitation and dismemberment. The fourth and fifth sat on summoned wooden chairs, while the sixth, a man in a spotless white coat with a truly impressive looking sword in his hand, quietly calmed the sitting pair down and assured them that they were safe.

“They wanted to see the Red Sox game,” Mennin explained with a helpless shrug. “Isn’t one of the rules, ‘keep the guests happy?’ I’m pretty sure that’s a rule.”

“Yes,” Deacon confirmed. “And there is a reason that it comes after not getting them killed, or leading threats back to the current entrance. Mr. Tombs, the Auberge has existed under various names since before the times of the biblical New Testament, and yet we have never suffered an invasion, nor have we lost one single guest while they are under our protection, so long as they followed our rules. Residence within the Auberge is expensive precisely because our reputation precedes us. We can afford to be selective in our clientele. We provide protection and security beyond what any other Earth-based location is capable of. If you find that any of our guests wish outside entertainment, your job is to take it through the proper channels. Our people, your coworkers, will ensure that the path is safe from both Nocen and the more zealous Heretics.”

“Yeah, I know.” Sighing, Mennin offered a weak shrug. “I just thought if I impressed Mr. and Mrs. Ulfin with a fun night out, they’d put in a good word for me and Mom wouldn’t think I was such a screw-up. But now I guess she’s gonna know I’m an even bigger screw-up than she thought.”

There was a brief pause then, before Deacon shook his head. “I see no purpose in bothering your mother with every minute detail of her establishment, Mr. Tombs. The Ulfins are safe, and Francis enjoyed the work-out. He may even have acquired interesting gifts from the Heretics who followed you back here.”

Blinking up at that, Mennin found a smile. “So I didn’t fuck everything up?”

“Let’s consider it a learning experience,” Deacon offered, before clearing his throat as he stepped around and past both the man and the puddle he had fallen into during the fighting, when Francis had swooped in to kill the other three Heretics. “Mr. Ulfin, Mrs. Ulfin,” he started in a perfectly polished voice. “Come, I’m afraid that while our security is top of the line, as you see in the form of Mr. Gale here, even we must put discretion over valor when Heretics are involved. With three of their number dead, there will be more sent along to investigate.”

The two guests let themselves be escorted by Deacon and Francis past where Mennin had finally made his way to his feet, Mr. Ulfin offering a sympathetic nod to him (though the man’s wife turned up her nose and sniffed with annoyance at his appearance).

Mennin followed, and the group made their way to an innocuous-looking red door in the middle of the alley. Deacon raised a hand, knocking twice, then once, then three times in rapid succession. At the end of it, a small window-slit appeared in the middle of the previously blank door, and a pair of dark, scowling eyes peeked out. Mennin and the others stood perfectly still as the eyes scanned them (in more than one way, several of which tickled) before there was the sound of half a dozen locks being undone.

Finally, the door was pushed open, revealing a truly lavish looking hotel lobby. It would have put any of those in the human world to shame, with its lavish fountains, gold marbled floor, and hanging chandeliers.

Once they were through the door, it closed behind them. And from the point of view of any on the Earth-side, the door simply vanished, leaving behind a blank brick wall attached to an unremarkable office supply store.

“Mennin!” As Francis led the two shaken guests to the bar for a drink to calm their nerves, a pointy-eared, green-skinned female goblin in a maid’s uniform bounded across the lobby holding a stack of towels. “Nine-thirteen asked for more towels. Can you take them up? They always yell at me for being too slow. Plus, that’s right next to nine-twelve.”

“Oh, uh, sure, Elky.” Mennin started to reach out for the towels, only for Deacon to stop him with a cleared throat.

“Mr. Tombs,” Deacon spoke simply when the man looked to him, “a towel is generally used for drying oneself. Which becomes exponentially more difficult when that towel is already wet.” He nodded to the floor, where Mennin was still dripping from the puddle.

“Oh, shit!” Blurting that out, Mennin whipped a handkerchief from his pocket. “Hold on, I can do this. It was… uhh… bluebeo.”

Nothing happened, as he waved the cloth at the puddle impotently.

“Ablee?” He tried again. “Abledable? Ablingle? Blue Beetle? Blue One? Beetle Bailey? Bluckblahbleen? Ableeze?  Ablaze?”

Gently, Deacon plucked the cloth from his hand, tossing it to the floor with a firm, “Abluo.”

Instantly, as the magicked cloth touched the water, it sucked all of it up, including what was soaked into Mennin’s clothes, leaving him clean and dry before the cloth itself disintegrated and vanished.

“I would’ve gotten that one eventually,” Mennin claimed, before taking the towels from Elky.

He hurried to the elevator, riding it up to the ninth floor. Whistling under his breath, the man stode toward the door with nine-thirteen engraved in the side of it. On the way, he did his level best not to look at room nine-twelve. Though without even glancing that way, he knew what he would see if he did: a door very different from the others. One made of metal rather than wood, with no numbers engraved on it. The metal looked like steel, but was actually much stronger. Strong enough, in fact, that should the entire hotel be destroyed as the rest of the Auberge was burned to the ground, room nine-twelve would still be intact, untouched, floating in the air in whatever tiny pocket dimension the Auberge called home.

No one living seemed to know why this particular room out of all others had been so thoroughly upgraded. Aside from, perhaps, the interesting fact that its position put it in the exact center of the building, with eight floors below it and eight floors above it. It was quite literally in the center of one of the most private and protected buildings on the planet.

The spells that were on it which ensured no one could ever enter, or use any magic or power to see inside, were the most powerful of their kind that anyone Mennin knew had ever seen. The most anyone else seemed to know was that it had been that way for at least five hundred years. Whoever had been the last to rent that room had paid for permanent residence, and had spent Gods only knew how much time and energy ensuring that it would never be accessed.

Beyond that, all Mennin knew, all anyone knew, was that no one ever opened that door. No one entered that room, and no one left that room. Ever.  

Reaching the next room over, the man raised a hand to knock twice before stepping back. He did his best to pull his clothes into something resembling presentable with one hand before clearing his throat as the door opened. “Your, uh, towels, sir.”

Grunting, the big (human-looking) man took them from his hands and stepped back while jerking a thumb over his shoulder. “She wants to talk to you.”

“Err, she?” Blinking uncertainly, Mennin waited until it was clear that the big guy wasn’t going to offer any further insight. With a shrug, he slowly stepped over the threshold of the room and moved inside.

The place, like all suites in the Auberge, wasn’t like some cheap, normal Bystander motel room. Each was practically the size of a palace inside, with a dozen rooms of fairly enormous size. This particular door opened into the foyer, where a second man much smaller than the first, with an obviously mechanical arm and leg stood beside a dark-haired woman whose cold expression sent a shiver down Mennin’s spine.

“Um,” he started once more, “sorry it took awhile to bring your–”

“Quiet,” the woman interrupted. After speaking that single word, she slowly moved closer. A frown touched her face. “You are the child of this facility’s current owner, are you not?”

That was a strange question, and it took Mennin a moment to answer. “Uh, yeah? I mean, technically. But Mom doesn’t really… you know, involve me in the nitty gritty of the family business very much. I’m not much more than busboy. And a handyman sometimes, so if you have problems with your pipes or–”

“Quiet,” the woman repeated that single word that made his mouth snap shut almost against his will. She watched him for another moment before speaking again. “He may be a fool, but he has access to everything we need, and won’t be suspected. He will do.”

“Oookay, yeah, I think this is where I say that you won’t–”

In mid-sentence, Mennin felt a hand on his arm. The shorter man, the one with the mechanical limbs, had moved surprisingly quickly to grab him. He opened his mouth to object while starting to pull his arm back… and then stopped.

The other man was gone, and Mennin froze. Not because the man had disappeared, but because he quite literally could not move. Until he did. His arm lowered, and he straightened up, entirely against his will.

Wha–what?! Hey! Hey! With mounting panic and confusion, the man worked to stop himself, to make himself move and take back control of his own body. What the hell just–did you just Bodysnatchers me, you son of a bitch?!

“I’m in,” his voice announced aloud. “I should get back down there before someone wonders where he is.”

“Yes,” the woman replied, and that time her voice cracked just a little as she stood up. “And while you are at it, do try not to get yourself killed by an ignorant monkey-child, thereby forcing the rest of us to abandon our actual missions to solve your problems while the rest of the Empire scrambles to correct a mistake that endangers not only our place on this world, but our entire civilization.” By the end of her brief diatribe, the woman was shaking a bit, her fist pressed against the table as she glowered at no one in particular.

Mennin didn’t have the slightest clue what they were talking about, but the big guy grimaced. “Told you, just let me have one straight go at the little bitch. I’ll make her pay for it.”

“No.” The woman’s voice was brittle, like slowly cracking glass. “You know Metatron’s orders. Until we know how she did what she did, hands off. Whether it is her mother’s doing or some other force, we are not losing anyone else to this barbaric child. Stay away from her. It’s too much of a risk, given what we have lost already.”

Boy, Mennin inwardly wondered. Whoever had pissed these guys off so much must have been pretty damn powerful.

Too bad she wasn’t here right now.

The woman said something else, but Mennin was too busy struggling in vain against the being that was puppeting his body to listen. Hey! Hey, don’t ignore me, I’m talking to you! Pay attention to–hey! Hey, I know you can hear me. Don’t make break out the Lambchop song. I went a full twenty minutes once and I’m willing to break my own record.

His body was turning by that point, heading back to the door. The big guy who had let him in was holding something in his hand. It took Mennin a second to recognize it as a flyer for the demolition derby that was happening in the same town he’d just taken Mr. and Mrs. Ulfin through. He’d seen a few ads for it while they had been out.

Waving that flyer, the big guy grunted, “You promised.”

“I did,” his own voice replied, as he gave a bow that the real him never would have been able to pull off without looking ridiculous. “You’re quite right, my love. Allow me some time to ensure my cover with the coworkers and family, and then we will have our date. I know you’ve been quite looking forward to seeing Earth entertainment again. And, while it is hardly what I would consider stimulating, I would say that your enjoyment more than makes up for such deficiencies.”

“Yeah,” the big guy replied, “love you too.”

While Mennin was trying to comprehend that, his body moved out into the hall.

Now then, the voice of his puppeter spoke, a few ground rules. First, I will tolerate your attempts at escape. It’s only natural, and I would wonder about your sanity if you did not at least try. But I will tell you now, it is futile. You are not nearly strong enough to even present a challenge. That is not meant as an insult, only simple fact.

Second, should you attempt to distract or annoy me purposefully, particularly at important points or around others, you will regret it. You will be punished, and if you manage to actually convince anyone that something is wrong, one of three things will happen. They will be possessed as well, their memories will be erased, or they will be killed. Do you understand that?

Part of Mennin thought that he should object, or threaten to hold out to the bitter end, promising the man that he would fight him forever. But… well, honestly, he was afraid. Afraid of these clearly powerful people and what they could do to him or the people he cared about.

So, after a brief pause where all those thoughts ran through his mind, he quietly (or at least he felt it was quiet, given there was no sound involved at all) responded, I understand.

There was a sense of satisfaction that he was sure the man who was his slaver allowed him to feel. Good. Now, for the good news. You could have ended up with a much worse person than me taking you, I promise you that. If you behave, do not annoy or distract me, and generally sit quietly, I will allow you moments of entertainment. You will be allowed to retain control of your own body while alone in your room, whenever I do not need you. And, so long as circumstances do not change, our business here should not end in the death of those you care for. Do you understand that?

Yes, Mennin started before blurting, but why are you here? I mean, are you thieves or assassins or…

There was a brief pause before his eyes turned to look at the door into room nine-twelve. There. The woman who purchased that room hid something inside of it. Something which we are here to recover. That is our mission. Cooperate, and we will leave when that mission is over, you will not remember any of this, and you may continue your life.

After another brief hesitation, Mennin asked, I don’t understand. If you want what’s in the room so bad, why don’t you just break the door down and get it?

He felt some minor amusement from his captor then, before the response came. I am afraid that it is much more complicated than that. His body turned then, heading back for the elevator. To enter a blood vault requires a good bit more effort and planning than simply breaking down the door.

Whoa, whoa, what? That’s a blood vault? Mennin was still reeling from everything, but that threw him for yet another loop.

Well, the other man replied, to be specific, it is a backdoor into a blood vault. Same protections as the front door, but less… shall we say, public. But yes.

That doesn’t– Mennin started to say that it didn’t make sense, before stopping himself. You need the oldest blood relative to get through that, the heir.

Yes, well… for reasons that are too involved to get into right now, we are forced to seek alternative measures, came the response.

Alternative measures? Mennin hesitated. Like… like what? How the hell are you going to get through a blood vault without the, you know, blood part?  

His body stepped onto the elevator then, his hand reaching out to press the button for the lobby as his captor replied simply, Quite carefully.

Quite carefully, indeed.

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Interlude 34A – Kushiel, Radueriel, Abaddon, and Jophiel

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Please note a couple of important things. First, there was a mini-interlude focusing on Tabbris posted a couple days ago. If you missed it, feel free to use the Previous Chapter button above. And second, there are two very important notes in my first comment at the bottom of the chapter, concerning the start of voting for the joke tag contest (with all nominees listed), and big updates to the Patreon to add actual rewards (including access to chapters a day early!) for you wonderful patrons!. Thank you all very much, and you can find all that information, again, in my first post in the comments. 

“It seems that you somehow neglected to mention that your little emergency escape hatch was pointed directly at Earth,” Jophiel, back inside of Elisabet, noted in a voice that made her displeasure at that fact clear. Though whether the bulk of her annoyance was because she hadn’t been informed of it, or because of the information itself, was a little more ambiguous.

They sat, arranged around a table in the spacious and exquisitely decorated dining room deep within one of several castle-like mansions that Kushiel and Puriel owned on the Seosten homeworld of Elohim. The four of them, including Radueriel and his lover, Abaddon, had come here after abandoning the remains of the research lab to Athena’s forces (and in some cases, after being magically healed from their injuries). Not that Athena’s forces had been able to stay there for long before they in turn had been forced to flee when the Seosten reinforcement fleet had finally arrived.

“Hmm?” Making a show of thinking about what Jophiel had said, Kushiel pursed her lips slightly, wine glass held close while she gazed into the ruby liquid as if answers to her put-on uncertainty would be found deep within. “Earth… Ah, you mean the human name for Rysthael. Honestly, why bother to use the vulgar human term when the planet’s true name is so much more elegant and descriptive? Hidden. That is a much better name for that world. Don’t you agree, gentlemen?”

Radueriel spoke first, his tone casual. “Setting aside the fact that my husband has never been described as gentle by anyone who has had any proper experience with him, I do prefer our name for the planet, yes. Rysthael suits it.”

Grinning at his lover’s words, Abaddon put an arm around the other man and tugged him closer. “Yeah, well, I like Earth. It’s simple. Easy. And Urrr is a good sound. Urrr-thuh. Good, strong sounds.”

They’re changing the subject, Elisabet noted, her own annoyance at the revelation that had been brought up making the thought-words come through as a slight growl.

“You’re changing the subject,” Jophiel announced aloud, agreeing with the other woman. “Although that was a very well choreographed attempt, I will admit. But please, do tell me why you were set to flee to the planet that is my responsibility.”

Partly your responsibility,” Kushiel stressed, in a voice that failed to sound quite as offhand or uncaring she clearly intended. “After all, your authority begins and ends with events involving the… what was the name for that school, again?”

“Crossroads,” Radueriel supplied, after taking a sip of his own wine. Of course the man would remember that. He had, after all, been responsible for the creation of the Heretical Edge itself, the partially-living construct which gave Heretics their Reaper-derived power.  

Kushiel gave a slight nod then. “Ah, yes, Crossroads. Your authority begins and ends with events involving Crossroads, I believe. We mustn’t ignore poor Cahethal in the Garden of Ethan. She holds as much authority as you, after all. And then, of course, there is Metatron. I do believe that the old man might object somewhat to you claiming that the human planet is your responsibility.”

“Eden,” Jophiel corrected. “Garden of Eden. Eden’s Garden, actually. While you are trying not to ignore Cahethal, you should get that right. And the loss of your lab, subjects, and failure in the face of Lucifer and Auriel must have thoroughly shaken you,” the woman noted that part in a flat tone that she allowed only a hint of amusement to creep into. “You are not usually quite so transparently obvious in your attempt to distract from an uncomfortable subject.”

Kushiel’s glare was priceless, and worth it. “I did not see you actively participating in the effort to repel them,” she noted through tightly gritted teeth. “What, precisely, was your contribution?”

Resisting the morbidly tempting instinct to tell the woman exactly what she had been doing, Jophiel instead gave a little shrug. “I was not willing to risk my identity being exposed by contributing to your attempt at a trap. Perhaps if I had been told ahead of time, I could have prepared myself. And I did retrieve you from the… situation before any permanent damage was done.”

The other woman’s scowl only darkened. “You certainly waited long enough. If you had given Lucifer and Auriel any longer…”

“My apologies, of course,” Jophiel replied in that syrupy-sweet tone that implied no such thing. “I assumed that you would be annoyed if I interrupted your confrontation with the two traitors so soon. Given your status, I was quite certain that you had the situation well in hand.”

Radueriel interrupted before the harshly glaring woman could snap back with whatever she had been about to say. “Now now, I believe the human phrase is no use crying over spilled juice and all that. Let us assess the current situation and determine where we now stand.”

“Most of the prisoners are gone,” Abaddon grunted while reaching out to pick up a thick roll full of meat from the table. Taking a heavy bite from it, the man continued without bothering to swallow. “Including Sariel. She’s out.”

Radueriel gave a faint nod at that. “Indeed,” he confirmed. “What was the last count, something like ninety percent of your subjects were just stolen? And are now completely missing, according to the scouts who were sent to check on the other end of that transport. They’re gone, possibly gallivanting around somewhere on Earth. Perhaps together, or perhaps not. They may well have scattered by this point. More than that, the transport itself is gone, with no sign of its location. And multiple members of the… ahem, Crossroads Committee, none of whom are under our direct control, have taken several of our dead soldiers. They have the bodies, and their equipment. They know more than they should, and have the potential to learn entirely too much.”

“I will handle that,” Jophiel informed the man as well as the other two. “Accidents will happen. Reports will be adjusted. We will allow them to gather some information, but only that which points them in a useful direction.”

Taking another bite of his meat roll, Abaddon demanded, “Why the hell was the transport pointed at some empty spot in the desert instead of some secure place like a prison or something?”

Kushiel bristled slightly at that, clearly annoyed. “The final destination was a secure facility that was prepared ahead of time. The trouble was that the transport had not finished aiming at that facility before it was prematurely activated. The targeting was only off by a very small number of degrees, but that itself was enough to make them end up thousands of miles away from the intended destination. Even then, the force that was able to transport out to meet them would have been enough to contain the situation and hold the children there as long as necessary for reinforcements to arrive, if…”

“If Sariel had not woken up,” Jophiel finished for her, mostly resisting the urge to smirk at the woman’s failure, particularly given her own contribution to that. “It seems that despite her extensive imprisonment, her intervention was too much for your security force to handle.”

Kushiel’s glare returned to her. “She should not have been able to wake up at all,” she snapped. “The only way that Sariel could’ve been released from that pod is if those children somehow had the security code. That is what I do not understand. How did they extract the code? And, for that matter, why would Eulfe have started the transport to begin with? We have seen the security recordings taken from before the transport set off. There was no reason for him to do so. None. He had the situation perfectly in hand, and would have known better.”

The answer, in both cases, was sitting right across from her. Not only had Jophiel and Elisabet provided the children with the code to open Sariel’s pod, but it had also been a simple matter to convince Kushiel’s powerful telekinetic underling that activating the transport right at that moment was the right move to make.

Oh, to be able to see the look on her face if you actually told her the truth, Elisabet lamented with a soft, inward sigh. It would almost be worth the trouble that it would cause.

Almost, Jophiel agreed before giving the woman in question a little shrug. “Lucifer has ways of obtaining far more information than he should have. It was clearly his doing.” Her eyes narrowed then. “My question is… why, precisely was your transport aimed toward Earth in the first place? What were you planning on doing with your test subjects there?”

“First of all,” Kushiel began, “What better place would there have been to keep Sariel away from those attempting to liberate her than the one planet that we knew they could not get to? The banishment was removed from her in preparation for the trip, but it should still be affecting her mate. Not to mention the fact that it would be the last place they would naturally look, and would be beyond or shielded from any tracking spells they might have attempted.”

“And secondly,” the woman continued with a tiny smirk, “the question is what am I planning on doing. Which, I should think that would be patently obvious. It has, after all, become very clear that Sariel’s offspring are viable. Particularly now, as the assault on the lab fully demonstrated, their Seosten genetics are enough that the two of them have been developing our gifts. Slowly, of course, but they have been developing. This is very… interesting. Yet, you have made it clear that you will not allow full experimentation to done on them. Thus, the next solution is to go straight to the source.”

Jophiel stiffened slightly at that. “Surely even you are not so desperate that you would see human-Seosten hybrids as a viable solution to our population issues. The Seraphim would never allow that. They would not accept the dilution of our race to that extent.”

Jophiel herself, of course, had less of a personal problem with that. But she also knew that there had to be more to it than that. Kushiel, after all, was not the type to accept that the only path forward for the Seosten as a race was to combine themselves with another. Her arrogance, which Jophiel had to accept that she also had more than her own fair amount of, was too much to allow that.

“Of course not,” Kushiel confirmed with a quick shake of her head. “But just as the humans have proven useful in other ways, so they may also be useful in this way. With the right human test subjects, it may be possible to add just enough of their genetics to a developing fetus to slow the development of the possession power long enough for the baby to be born and develop a little bit before it emerges. Of course, that will require a great amount of trial and error. We will lose a great many before the true solution is found. But then, they are only human after all. There are plenty more where they will have come from.”

Elisabet was the first to react, her thought-voice full of horror. She doesn’t want to make a human-Seosten alliance. She wants to use the humans as simple genetic stock to be pulled from to allow a Seosten to be born. We would be nothing but a pile of DNA for her to use just to slow the possession power.

Radueriel spoke up then, his tone curious as the man watched her. “Is something wrong, Jophiel? After all, you were the one who pushed the idea that humans and Seosten were genetically compatible. This solution would not have presented itself without those arguments.”

Resisting the strong urge to put her former crewmate on the floor, Jophiel shook her head slightly. “That solution was not my intention,” she replied flatly before returning her gaze to Kushiel. “And you say this is still your plan? Even with so many of your subjects missing?”

Kushiel smiled humorlessly. “A few of the subjects were already moved to the lab via other methods before the transport was arranged, while the new facility was being created. Between those and the subjects I will be able to acquire on the planet itself, it will be enough for a start. Not as much as I would have preferred with the rest of my patients, but enough.

“And in any case,” the woman continued pointedly, “Sariel is on that planet now. And I will not rest until she is back under my care. She is a traitor and deserter, and will not be allowed to roam free.”

“Speaking of which,” Radueriel put in then, “What became of her human mate, and the others back in the facility?”

It was Jophiel’s turn to answer. “At the request of Metatron, once Athena forced the two of you to withdraw and made her way to the transport room, I extracted Kushiel from the situation before it could deteriorate any further.”

If only the old man hadn’t been paying  so much attention to the situation that it was impossible for Jophiel to get away with allowing Kushiel to fall, or at least be captured. But with his eyes on what had been going on, she had been forced to rescue the woman or risk her cover.

From the look on her face, Kushiel was none too pleased with that fact either. The idea that she had been rescued by Jophiel clearly annoyed the woman even more than she would say. Instead, she pointed out, “And yet, you could not find it within yourself to take a couple of them prisoner as well, while you were at it? Don’t tell me that you were afraid of taking a few human children along with us. They would have made excellent hostages to force the future compliance of Sariel and the others.”

Meeting the other woman’s hard glare, Jophiel replied simply, “My instructions were to ensure your survival and escape. To do anything else might have risked that.”

“And as a consequence of that,” Kushiel snapped, “they have all escaped. The Aelaestiam forces managed to rescue and extract any subjects who were not sent on the main transport itself, as well as a great deal of research data from those computers before it could be scrubbed. They also took weapons and supplies, before leaving the area ahead of our reinforcements. This has been a completely unmitigated disaster.”

With a completely straight face, Jophiel noted, “It’s almost as if attempting to plot a successful trap against the so-called goddess of wisdom and warfare is a fool’s errand.”

Kushiel glared at that. “Do not use Lucifer’s foolish terms. Those days are long over, and his scribblings are not relevant.”

It was Abaddon who voiced his disagreement with that. “Actually,” the large man noted, “they seem pretty relevant. You wanna catch him, you gotta know how he thinks.”

“Indeed,” Raduriel agreed. “And under Metatron’s new orders, it is our job to locate both Sariel and her pseudo-sibling, and bring them to the new facility on Rysthael.”

Somehow keeping her rising annoyance out of her voice, Jophiel looked to the two men. “That means you’ll be coming to Earth as well.”

Abaddon grinned at that, giving her a nod. “That’s right, Metatron figures going after Auriel and those others would be a waste of time. Sariel’s the real prize. Her and Lucifer. He says that guy’s been given too much time to run around. So we’re going there to drag those two into Kushiel’s new lab, one way or another.”

Raduriel gave a nod of agreement. “After all,” he noted, “we wouldn’t want to distract you from the missions that you are already involved with. You are quite busy as it is. It will be our job to locate Sariel and Lucifer and return them to their proper place, while Kushiel works to acquire other new subjects.”

Jophiel didn’t like it. She really didn’t like it. After all, the last place she wanted these three to be was on Earth, where they could cause more problems for her projects, which were in sensitive enough situations as it was. But there was also nothing she could do about it now that things had been set in motion. Metatron outranked her by far too much for her to put a stop to this.

So, she simply gave a small, tight-lipped smile while looking toward the two men. “You say that Lucifer is one of your targets for… acquisition. Yet as far as we know, he is still here in our space, not anywhere near Earth.”

Radueriel offered a slight shrug at that. “Knowing him, he will have a way to return there soon. Better to get ahead of him since we know what his final destination will be, than to stay behind in some pointless attempt at tracking him. As was the case with the prison facility, we know where they will be going. Thus, we move ahead and prepare for his arrival. While, of course, searching for Sariel herself.”

Unfortunately, he had a point. One that Jophiel couldn’t pick apart. Instead, she looked toward Kushiel. “It has been quite some time since you set foot on Earth, has it not?”

“Not nearly long enough,” the other woman retorted. “And I look forward to this unfortunately necessary time there being as short as possible before I may leave that place once and for all.”

That makes three of us, Jophiel noted inwardly toward her beloved before simply nodding. “Well, we will have to do everything within our power to ensure that you don’t have to stay for long.”

The two women stared at one another for a moment, their mutual dislike written across their faces. They tolerated one another out of little more than necessity, but had never been friendly. Not that Kushiel ever had many friends. There was a reason, after all, that Lucifer had not attempted to cast her as a loving and kindly figure within his stories.

Abaddon grunted then, interrupted the long and silent glare between the women as he pushed himself to his feet while taking one more meat roll. “Are we going or what? I don’t feel like sitting around anymore. Been awhile since I’ve been to Earth too, and there’s a few things I’ve been meaning to check out. Humans may not be Seosten, but from what I’ve heard, they’ve come up with a few good ideas here and there. After all,” he added with a toothy grin, “any species that makes a whole sport around building the biggest, baddest vehicles and using them to crush smaller vehicles can’t be all bad.”

Patting his lover’s arm, Radueriel nodded while standing up as well. “Yes, we will be joining you on your trip back. After all, there is no sense in all of us going separately.”

Except that if I have to spend much more time around the three of you, I may kill at least one, Jophiel muttered inside her own mind for no one but Elisabet to hear. Aloud, she simply replied, “Of course. Except…” To Kushiel, she asked, “Are you quite certain that you wish to leave your husband for that long? I highly doubt he will be coming with you.”

The woman had a flash of what looked like annoyance on her face before masking it. “Puriel will be fine. He has his healers and minders to ensure that he does not do anything too… foolish. I will visit him as necessary. While,” she added then, “also working toward a cure for his affliction, of course.”

His affliction. Jophiel resisted the urge to laugh in the woman’s face. Puriel did have many problems, conditions that weakened the man and left him unable to perform his duties. But his main ‘affliction’, as Kushiel had put it, was one that no amount of medicine or tests would fix. The man had been fundamentally changed by his experiences following the destruction of the banishment orb.

Instead of saying that, however, Jophiel simply stepped away from the table. “In that case,” she began, “the men are absolutely correct. We should go. After all, it’s going to be a long trip back to Earth.

“And I’m sure you can’t wait to get started.”

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Hoc Est Bellum 34-04

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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.”

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Interlude 33E – Jophiel and Elisabet

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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.”

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A Different Kind Of Hunt 31-07

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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.”

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A Different Kind Of Hunt 31-06

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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.”

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