Well, if all those Seosten slaves/prisoners that we had just liberated were nervous about their situation before, a massive werelion running right into the middle of their impromptu camp while a Heretic armed with a mace rode on her back probably wasn’t exactly helping matters any.
Sands and I had just run for the past twenty minutes to catch up with these guys. Not that it was hard to find them, I just let the other girl hold my little mouse buddy so he could direct her to where his brother was (She’d been smart enough to hand Jaq over to the others so that we could find them later). Then I just shifted into my lion form, let her climb on, and took off.
The place where Roxa, Isaac, Gordon, and Jazz had stopped with the rest of the slaves turned out to be a large clearing that was sort of half covered from the sky by a rocky outcropping. Most of the former slaves were catching their breath, some lying on the ground and gasping for air while others simply bent to grab their knees. They all looked ragged, worn, tired, and scared.
As we came into view, however, all of those exhausted former prisoners were suddenly back on their feet. They looked ready to scatter and flee into the woods until Roxa came running down from atop the rock, calling, “Wait, wait, it’s okay! They’re with us! Gordon, tell them!”
But before the boy could say anything, as he too came down from the rock outcropping, one of the prisoners spoke up. His words were hesitant and a little slow, but understandable English. “We… have understanding of your speaking. We have… very hard trying to learn what they are called ‘trade language’ for if we are ever to be away from the masters.”
Lifting my currently furry head while Sands clambered off me, I looked at the man who had spoken. It was a Relukun, like the one I had killed to get my wood-traveling power. This one looked twisted and ancient, like a gnarled old tree that was about to fall over. Nonetheless, he was standing on his own two feet, and there was a smile somewhere in the wrinkled, wooden countenance. “It was a lost hoping,” he murmured, “But we did not stop it. Or stop learning.”
I think I like him, Tabbris whispered. Can we say hi? Um. When we can talk again. Please?
Trust me, I think I like him too, I replied before turning toward Sands as the girl held my clothes up to me. Taking them in my mouth, I looked over at Roxa. She was already gesturing for me to follow her over to a spot where I could safely change. In the background as I trotted after the werewolf-Heretic, I heard Sands telling them what little she knew about what had happened.
As she led me out of the way, Roxa quietly explained, “They’ve been using some magic and powers that they have to hide where we are and erase our trail. It probably won’t stop the Seosten forever, but it’ll slow them down, hopefully long enough for us to get out of here. There’s a few of them making some kind of portal thing now that’s supposed to take us up to one of the ships. We could’ve gone further, but the further we ran down here, the longer it would’ve been before they could start making the portals. I figured this would be far enough.”
I gave the other girl a nod with the lion’s head. She had a point. This wasn’t as far away as most might’ve considered safe. But as big as this forest was, it would still take the Seosten some time to search enough of it. Especially if these guys were using magic to try and keep them away. I had no doubt that the wannabe angels would eventually break through that sort of thing. But in the short-term, maybe it would be enough. It was going to have to be enough.
Changing and dressing quickly (an act that was made infinitely faster and easier since I could just touch an article of clothing, focus on it, and have it appear on my body where I wanted it), I made my way back out to where everyone else was. Sands was there, holding my staff out for me to take. Gus had been reunited with his brother, and the two mice were perched in the middle of the staff. I let them climb up on my shoulders, giving them a little attention before finally looking around the clearing.
Wow. There were a lot of Alters here. More than I could easily count during a quick scan. They were of all shapes and sizes. The majority, of course, were vaguely humanoid. But there were also a few that definitely weren’t. I saw a couple that basically looked like slime-creatures with tentacles, one six-legged bear-man with long rabbit-like ears, and even a few much smaller figures that looked like squirrels mixed with lawn gnomes. Not to mention several centaurs and centaur-like beings that stood near the back of the area, nervously pawing at the ground.
So yeah, there were a lot of people. And all of them were staring at me. Not glancing, not looking back and forth between all of us. They were openly staring directly at me, while not making a sound. Some of them looked scared, but the majority simply looked somehow… awed.
Roxa moved next to me, quietly whispering, “A few of the ones that can fly stayed back long enough to see what happened. They… saw what you did, that you could possess the Seosten.”
Oh. That explained why they were staring. Flushing self-consciously, I cleared my throat before raising my voice to speak up. “Uh, guys, we should really get out of here. The Seosten aren’t gonna give up. We stopped them from contacting Radueriel, but that won’t last forever. Before long, he’s gonna get the message about what happened, and when he does, we’re completely screwed if we’re still here. They’ll send the ships back here to scour the place top to bottom. They’ll probably burn the whole planet at this point to stop us from getting away.”
The elderly, gnarled Relukun who had spoken up before moved forward. He had Jokai with him, and was murmuring something to the chameleon-like being. After a moment, Jokai turned and started talking to the other Alters in Latin, while the old tree-man came to where we were.
“Our peoples,” he started, “they have started the spells which will take all to the starboats. But it will… take more minutes to finish such spells. They are doing the working as fast as they able.”
“They’re up on the overlook,” Gordon informed me, gesturing that way. “Apparently, the spell needs a clear look straight at the sky in order to work properly. I just asked them, and they said it’s going to take at least another twenty minutes to get it set up. If they don’t do it just right, the spell could just fling everyone into the middle of space instead of sending us onto the ships.”
Isaac blanched noticeably at that little nugget. “Uh, yeah, tell ‘em to take their time and do it right, then. I withdraw any and all complaints I might have made about how long it was taking.”
Nodding slowly, I looked to the Relukun. “Do you think they–” Pausing, I frowned before hesitantly asking, “I’m sorry, could you tell us what we should call you, sir? I’m Flick.”
“Oh, right.” Roxa quickly lifted her hand to gesture that way. “Flick, this is Karees. He’s basically the leader of these guys, since he’s been here the longest. He spent eighty years here on the planet. Before that, he was in a few other slave camps. He’s the one who convinced them to listen to Jokai and the others when they were trying to convince them to leave the camp.”
Smiling a little at that, I nodded. “Thanks. And it’s really good to meet you, Karees. I’m glad you managed to convince the others to take a chance with us. And now I just hope you didn’t misplace that trust and we manage to get out of here without getting everyone captured again.”
The Relukun shook his head at that. “Whether one way or some other,” he announced solemnly, “we will no longer be Seosten prisoners. Our people here will be their slaves for no more again.”
Swallowing, I lifted my chin, deciding to focus on the part about getting everyone out rather than the implication of what the former prisoners would do if it looked like they were about to be captured. “The ships that Jokai was talking about, it sounds like your people are using a spell to send us up to them? Won’t the other Seosten think of that and be up there waiting for us?”
Karees smiled at me. “We have thinking of that,” he answered easily. “Before leaving prison place, some of us did went to wipe away and break spell transports. They will have to be remaking them. It will take them as far time as it is taking us to be making them up again.”
“Right.” I nodded gratefully at that. “Good to know. So we might just beat them up there after a–wait, aren’t there guards on there already? And a crew? I mean, they’re mining ships, right?”
It took the tree-man a moment to process what I’d said before he answered. “They are being not used right now. There is guards and crew, but only very few, just enough to keep ship stable.”
“A skeleton crew then,” Isaac put in. “Possibly made out of actual skeletons, for all we know.”
Ignoring the boy, I murmured, “So we should be able to take one then. Will all your people fit on one of the ships? And can you guys fly the thing, because we haven’t covered that class yet.”
“Jokai,” Karees replied with a nod toward the younger man, who was apparently trying to comfort some of the more frightened people. None of them could really stop staring at us, but a few were doing so with looks that made it clear that they thought we might be just as bad as the people they had just escaped from. They were beaten down, oppressed, and rightfully suspicious of anyone who came claiming to offer some kind of help. Especially when that help came from people they only recognized as Heretics. I just hoped we could change their minds.
“He and his… shackle-mates,” Karees continued, “were taught to work the ships under guard.”
“Shackle-mates,” Jazz echoed, having approached while we were talking. “Does that mean they were imprisoned in the same cell together or something? Or that they had work detail together?”
Karees nodded his ancient, gnarled head, looking a bit like a tree that was bowing against powerful wind. “It is both,” he replied. “Jokai and his shackle-mates were lived together, trained together, worked together.” His face twisted a bit as he finished quietly. “They were… friends.”
Catching his look, and the phrasing that he used, I hesitantly asked, “Were? You say that like…”
“Jokai’s shackle-mates were killed,” the Relukun confirmed. “During one training mission, when Jokai was taken for other things. The Seosten who trained them to handle ships insisted that they should mine area they should not. Ship was damaged very badly. Seosten blamed prisoners, and Jokai’s shackle-mates were executed.” His face twisted a little in grief once more before the old man quietly added, “That is why Jokai ran away, why he risked escaping. He chose to rather be dead than be slave anymore, and took one chance at escaping there.”
I cringed at that, but it was Jazz who spoke up. “You mean they killed his friends just because they did what the Seosten told them to and it went wrong? But that’s–that’s…” She worked her mouth, standing there staring at Karees for a moment while apparently unable to find words.
“It’s wrong,” I finished for her. “That’s why we have to get the rest of them out of here. Right?”
The other girl didn’t say anything at first. She just kept staring at Karees for a few seconds. Then her eyes moved to look at the other Alters. I watched as her gaze passed over them, almost as if she was seeing them, really seeing them, for the first time. Her eyes seemed to widen as she took in the sight in total silence before finally looking back to me. “Yeah,” she replied softly, voice cracking a little bit even on that single word. Then she dropped her gaze, staring at the ground.
I wasn’t going to push any further than that. I’d seen her reaction. That was enough. Instead, I looked over to the others. “So basically, we just have hope that we get up to those ships before our friends back there either get up there themselves, or manage to contact Radueriel.”
“How much damage did you do to their communications?” Gordon asked then. “The Alters who stayed behind to watch what happened, they were saying that you broke them pretty badly.”
I nodded at that. “Yeah, I shot them up pretty bad. Hopefully they won’t be able to patch them together too soon. Guess we should just be glad they don’t have anyone who can make the jump out to Radueriel’s station instantly. Or that they’re not–” As the next thought came to me, I frowned abruptly. “Wait, why exactly wouldn’t they just go to that building we came out of when we got here, the one with the portal directly onto the station, or any of the other portals?”
Karees answered. “When our peoples destroyed spells that would take Seosten masters to the starboats, they also did the same for spells that would take them to other places on world. They will be having to go on feet or with the volucercarrus. But either will not be immediate as spell.”
“That’s what they call those hover-bike things,” Roxa put in before I could ask. “Volucercarrus.”
The Relukun nodded once more. “For quicker, some have taken to call them v-carrus at times.”
“V-carrus,” I echoed, sounding it out for myself. “Almost sounds like vicars.” Looking up at that, I smiled despite myself. “I think I like that one. Vicars. Easier to remember than volcanocarass.”
“Okay, one,” Sands put in. “Volcano-car-ass is not hard to remember. But volucercarrus is.”
“So vicar it is,” I replied with a thumbs up. “The vicars, how long will it take them to get there?”
Gordon was the one who answered. “It took us four days hiking. Figure something like five miles an hour, hiking twelve hours a day, that’s sixty miles. Four days would make it two hundred and forty. I was talking to some of the other prisoners, and it sounds like the v-carrus can do about three hundred miles an hour. But that’s over open ground, not through trees and hills. Even if they sent someone immediately, it’ll probably still take them most of an hour to get there.”
“They were focused on me first,” I murmured thoughtfully. “So the earliest they would’ve sent them was when I took off, which was about…” I looked at the watch on my wrist. “Forty minutes ago. You said it’ll take twenty minutes to finish the portal spells, and that’s about how soon any vicars they sent could make it to Radueriel.” Hissing a little, I shook my head. “It’s gonna be really close. Really, really close. We’ve gotta get up there, take over the ship, and book it.”
“Book it?” Karees was staring at me with obvious confusion. “You wish to record these events?”
Forcing myself not to giggle to avoid making the guy feel bad, I shook my head. “Sorry, I mean ‘go’, we need to go very quickly as soon as we get up on that ship, before Radueriel shows up.”
“Our people will ‘book it’ as soon as we can,” he announced in a deeply solemn voice before reaching out to touch my arm with his wooden hand. “We thank you, for everything you have been doing. Some of ours may not know if you are to be trusted. But we know what you have done, what you have risked to free us. That is not something that we will just lose our minds of.”
Swallowing a little, I met the man’s gaze as he squeezed my arm. “I promise,” I started while moving my other hand to rest on his arm, “we’re not done. We’re getting everyone out of here.”
True to his word, it wasn’t that much longer before the Alters up on the outcropping called down. From Tabbris’s translation, they were saying that the spells were ready, but that we had to hurry.
“Don’t have to tell me twice,” I muttered before realizing that none of the Alters down here were moving. Instead, they were all still staring at me. There were a few whispers going around, but for the most part, everyone seemed to be waiting to see what I was going to do.
Karees spoke up from behind me. “They have seen what you do. They have seen your power, seen you do what the Seosten do to the Seosten. They have seen you master the masters.”
“I’m not–” Stopping myself, I breathed out. “I just got lucky and managed to kill one of their really powerful people, that’s all. If Charmiene hadn’t left herself open like th–”
The whispering was louder now, and even Karees couldn’t stop himself from interrupting. “Pardons, Charmiene? What of the Nemesis?”
“Nemesis?” I echoed. “That’s what Radueriel called her. Wait, wasn’t that one of the–oh.”
The Relukun nodded. “Charmiene the Nemesis, you… you are saying that you… that she is… that… that you…” There was emotion in his voice, as he stared at me.
“I… my friends and me, we fought her,” I replied slowly. “One of my other teammates, he hit her hard, stunned her long enough for me to… to kill her.”
Karees slumped hard then. At first I thought that he was falling over, and quickly moved to catch him. But he straightened after that immediate slump. And when he stood that time, it was like a weight had been lifted from the man. “The Nemesis is dead,” he spoke in an awed, hushed voice that cracked. There were what looked like tears in his eyes. Then he raised his voice louder, calling, “The Nemesis is dead!”
Someone else further back repeated the shout. Then another, and more. Soon, they were all saying it, all repeating the same thing. The Nemesis was dead. The Nemesis was dead. They said it over and over. There were tears everywhere.
As I stared around in confusion, they came forward. Karees was first. He stepped over to me, his gnarled, wooden hands taking my shoulders before squeezing. I blinked up at his eyes, seeing the tears there as he announced. “My girl-child, my girl-child resisted. The Nemesis killed her, killed her man-mate, their boy-children and girl-child, my next-children. When my woman-mate cried and begged for her to spare our next-children, our child’s children, she was killed. The Nemesis killed my all. You–you have killed her. You are–”
By that point, he was too choked up to speak, his mouth simply opening and shutting repeatedly for a few more seconds before he released me. Which was when more of the Alters came forward. They were all talking, all trying to thank me. All talking about what Charmiene had taken from them, who she had killed. The old Seosten hadn’t personally hurt everyone there, but she had hurt enough of them. Dozens kept trying to get closer, kept trying to tell me how grateful they were either for themselves or for people that they knew.
“Guys, guys, wait, wait, we need to go,” I kept trying to insist. “Thank you, I–I can’t–I’m glad that–guys, really, we need to–”
“Seosten!” The shout came from atop the outcropping. As everyone jerked that way, we saw a figure leaning over the edge, pointing off into the distance. Every head snapped that way, and I heard the sound of the hoverbike/vicar engines.
“Go!” I blurted, turning to the others. “Get up there, go, get everyone to the spells. Now, go!”
There was a shout from the other side of the group, before Roxa raised her voice to yell for everyone to get up to the portals. Gidget, bouncing from foot to foot beside her, made a loud growling sound of agreement. Then the rush began. It was actually better than I expected. The former slaves didn’t trample each other, didn’t shove one another out of the way. But they were definitely in a hurry.
Making sure the rest of my group was with me, I watched the sky while trailing after the escaped prisoners. We made it up to the top of the outcropping and found four large portals sitting there. They were vaguely violet in color, and I could see some kind of room on the other side of them. Beside each of the portals were several Alters pointing their hands at it. From the strain on their faces, it was obvious that it was taxing to maintain them. Still, they were trying their best, keeping the portals active while their fellow escaped prisoners started streaming through.
“Go!” I blurted, giving Roxa a shove. “We don’t know what’s on the other side, if we send them through and they get wiped out by all the guards there, we won’t–”
I was interrupted by the sound of those engines growing deafening, and whipped around just as a dozen vicars come into view. Each was carrying two riders, and they did not look happy.
The shooting started almost immediately, as some kind of weird, high-velocity metal shot from from both the front of the vicars and from the weapons held by about half of the riders themselves. It wasn’t the same thing as bullets. It was more like a rail gun or something. Tiny bits of metal accelerated so much that they punched straight through anything they hit. The other half weren’t using guns. Instead, they sent things like fireballs, scalding water, and more. The air was filled with incoming death.
Roxa was running, for a few steps anyway before Gidget finished transforming into her hoverboard form to carry the girl up to the portals.
One of the Alters that was passing by me took one of those metal projectiles right in his arm, sheering the limb right off. But he never broke pace. The lure of freedom was too strong, and he kept right on running. As my head snapped that way, taking in the sight of his severed arm, Sands shouted my name from somewhere off in the mob of running figures.
Shots were coming everywhere. I saw Alters going down, bodies piling up even as the rest struggled to make it to the portals. Three shots took down one of the people who were holding the portals open, and the rest failed to maintain it. That portal flickered out of existence, leaving only three left.
Screaming, flying metal, fire, deafening engines, sobbing, smoke, all of it and more filled the air. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t see, I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t do anything but stand there as chaos and destruction reigned. Roxa, who had been right beside me, had been carried off somehow by the mob. Wherever Sands was, I couldn’t see her. All around me, there was nothing but running figures, and the death that chased them from the sky. In just those few seconds, over a dozen of the prisoners that we had saved went down, falling to the ground, never to rise again. They were cut down literally inches from freedom. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I could hear Tabbris crying.
Light suddenly filled the side of my vision, and I snapped my head that way in time to see a truly massive ball of ice coming straight for me. The freezing orb had to be at least five feet around. The ground beneath it as well as everything that got within a few feet of the thing ended up completely frozen. I saw a running figure pass too close to the frozen ball, only for half of their body to end up turning to ice. That only lasted for a moment before their frozen half shattered, like an icicle that had been dropped. For a half-second, an instant, I was caught flat footed.
Abruptly, another figure shoved his way right into my path, knocking me to the ground. I looked up, and saw Gordon. The dark-skinned boy had pushed me down, and now stood over me. He was turning, dropping down into a kneeling position as he wrapped both arms around me. I found myself pulled up against the boy and held there just as the frozen orb collided squarely with him. Things got cold… really cold. But I didn’t freeze.
Then it was gone. Gordon was standing, pushing himself up with a slight grunt. As I stared up at the boy, he looked down at me, extending a hand. His voice was as calm as ever. “We need to go.”
I let him help me up, turning. Most of the Alters were through by then. The ones who were still alive, anyway. But there were also only two portals still active. And as I watched, another went down. One portal left. Beside it, Jazz and Sands were there, waving for us to hurry.
We ran. Gordon and I sprinted that way, even as more rail-shots from the flying bikes kept blowing apart the ground all around our feet. I felt the heat of the shots, as they kept getting closer. We weren’t going to make it.
Except fuck that. My arm snapped out to wrap around Gordon, even as I pointed my staff behind us and toward the ground. Triggering the charge that had built up, I sent us flying far ahead, leaving the shots behind just as they would have converged with where we had been.
The portal was there. We landed, and I saw Sands take a quick step forward. As the vicars that had been flying right on our heels came screaming closer, she held up both hands. A spray of sticky webbing shot from them, and I snapped my head back that way in time to see the drivers of each of the two hovercycles that had been closest take a glob to the face.
An instant later, the webbing burst into flames, and the drivers screamed while veering off. They crashed into one another, leaving a massive explosion there in midair. All four of them, drivers and passengers alike, were killed instantly.
Sands collapsed, a cry of pleasure escaping her as the pink aura flared up. Instead of waiting for her to recover, I grabbed the girl by the arm and yanked her up, giving her a shove toward Jazz. “Go!” I shouted. “Take her through!”
She did, taking Sands around the waist to pull her through the portal. As Gordon followed, it left me and the three Alters who were holding the portal open. One went through, dropping its size by about half. The remaining two struggled to keep it open. Looking to one another, some unspoken communication passed between them, and one hopped backward through the portal.
One left, and the portal was down to about the size of a normal doorway. Ahead of us, the remaining vicars were on their way, coming in for another strafing run. We only had a handful of seconds, if that much.
The last Alter looked to me, shouting something that I didn’t need Tabbris to translate as an order to go through and leave him.
“Yeah,” I replied flatly, “that’s not happening.”
Reaching out, I caught him by the arm, while holding my staff straight ahead in the direction of the incoming Seosten troops. “Get–” I started while triggering the boost. It sent me flying backward through the portal, yanking the last Alter with me. As he was torn off his feet, the portal itself started to wink out.
We passed through at the last instant, leaving the planet and Seosten troops behind with my last word.