Rudolph Parsons

Convalescence 38-02

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My knees hit the floor before I knew what was happening. My head went down, and I threw up right there on the floor. My stomach was rolling violently, even as indescribable shame overtook me.

Deveron was there first, dropping beside me to offer a cup of water that he had summoned before doing something that took the… mess from the floor. Neither of us spoke. I was too ashamed to for that moment, and he clearly wasn’t entirely sure what to say.

Actually, of all people, it was Percival who found his voice first. “Well,” the man announced into the silence that had taken over the room, “this is an interesting development, I’ve gotta say.”

“Interesting?!” Doug’s voice came out in a high-pitched squeal before he got it under control. “You think it’s interesting that my dead teammate is standing right here because Flick accidentally summoned him? Are you fucking cra–” He stopped there, seeming to realize only at that point who he was actually talking to, and I saw the boy’s eyes suddenly widen.

“Fucking crazy?” Percival finished for him. He didn’t look offended. Actually, he didn’t look much like a super-powerful member of the Committee either. He was wearing dark jeans with random holes over them, and a black shirt advertising Pink Floyd’s “We Don’t Need No Education.” He also had a metal-studded wristband, and I caught sight of a tattoo of a bloody sword on his opposite arm. That last one could have been decorative or a spell, I wasn’t sure.

“Lots of people ask me that,” the man continued before Doug could stammer any explanation or excuse. “You’re not even the first one today. Or the first one from your family.”

Dare moved to me then, her eyes flicking toward the still motionless Rudolph. I saw a lot of emotions pass through her face as she looked to the boy before focusing on me once more. “Felicity,” she started softly, “it’s okay. You can… you can let him down now.”

“Let him down?!” I gave her a brief look before my head shook rapidly, still on my knees. “I don’t even know how I’m keeping him up. I’m not doing it on purpose, I swear. I didn’t call him down here on purpose, or, or… or do any of this on purpose. It just happened. I mean, I think I maybe felt something back when I first did it, and maybe I feel something now like… at the back of my head, but I don’t know how to actually control it, or–or–I don’t know anything about it, anything!”

Okay, it was just maybe a tiny bit possible that after everything that had happened that night, I was kind of losing it just a little bit. But really, was that hard to understand?

It was Deveron who spoke up then, his hand resting on my shoulder while his other one touched my wrist. “I’ve seen a lot of necromancy, and if his is anything like that, he’ll follow your subconscious commands and the conscious ones. Verbal or silent, he’s connected to you. That’s probably why it was so easy this time. You know Rudolph pretty well and you really wanted him–” He hesitated, grimacing a little while coughing out the next couple words. “You really wanted him back. So the first thing you do is let him down. Think about him laying down.”

Trying to ignore the fact that I could feel and see everyone else staring at me, I swallowed hard before focusing on Rudolph–no, Rudolph’s body. Rudolph was dead. Rudolph was already dead. I wasn’t killing him again, because this wasn’t really him. It was some… some magic animating his body. That’s it. I had to remember that.

Keeping that thought in my mind, I willed Rudolph to lay down. Aloud, I quietly said, “It’s okay. You–” My voice cracked, and I tightened my hands into fists. “You can go back to sleep.”

It took a minute, probably because a good part of me didn’t want Rudolph to go away. As much as I told myself that it wasn’t really him, there was still a little bit that clung to the fact that he was standing right in front of me, and this did kind of feel like killing him again. It hurt. It really hurt.

But eventually, I managed it. Rudolph’s body slowly laid down there on the floor and went still. As it did, Deveron quietly talked me through pulling my power out of him. His voice was gentle. “Picture a line of power running from yourself to Rudolph, just a single tendril. Imagine he’s completely deaf, and that line is how you communicate with him. Like a cord between a computer and a keyboard. Focus on that line. It’s your power. It’s how you reach him, how you control him. Everything between you and Rudolph is in that line, okay? Now I want you to carefully pull that line out. Take the line out of him. Pull your power back and let him go.”

I did. Slowly and haltingly, I managed to extract the power from Rudolph’s body. Picturing it the way that Deveron described, I could feel the way the dead boy was connected to me, the way that the power I had taken from Manakel had extended itself into him.

Him. It. I kept flipping back and forth about what to refer to Rudolph as in my head. Both felt wrong. I was trying to remind myself that the dead body wasn’t really Rudolph anymore. But calling him ‘it’ even in my head also felt wrong. I just… I didn’t know how to deal with it.

Once it was done, and I felt like the power was completely out of the body, I straightened up, moving back away from the body as quickly as I could. I couldn’t look at it, at him. I didn’t want to see Rudolph like… like that. Even more bile rose in my throat at the thought of it, at the thought of what I had done with my power, puppeting him around like that. I almost threw up again.

It wasn’t right.

Everyone seemed to know exactly how I felt. Hisao moved closer, taking a knee beside the body. “I’ll take him back,” the man announced in a soft, respectful voice. I thought he had a hand on Rudolph’s shoulder, or maybe his stomach. I was really trying not to look.

A moment later, Hisao was gone, teleporting away with the body and leaving that spot of floor empty. And that was when I found myself staring at it, at the bit of floor where the body had been, where I had commanded Rudolph to move. My voice shook a little bit. “I–I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I–”

“We know you didn’t.” That was Dare. “We know you didn’t mean to.”

“It is, however,” Percival announced, “something else to explain. And unfortunately, keeping it secret isn’t in the cards. Rudolph wasn’t that subtle coming down here, and plenty of people saw him. Which means the rest of the Committee already knows. And, well, there’s some that tend to frown on necromancy. It has something of a negative reputation.”

Yeah, I could believe that. Not only for the obvious reasons, but also because of what Fossor had done. “Let me guess,” I started, “Ruthers is one of the ones who ‘tends to frown on it.’”

The man gave me a wry smile then. “You could say that. The man does have something of a shit history with necromancers.”

“Yeah,” I muttered, “given the necromancer in question has my mom, we should be on the same side.”

“Ah,” Percival replied with a quick grin, “so you do know more about the Fossor situation than you’ve told the Committee.”

That made me do a double take, mouth opening and shutting a couple of times before my hand found my forehead. “Shit. I knew that was going to trip me up eventually.” It had been an incredibly long night, after an incredibly long couple of days, after an incredibly long couple of months. I knew from Gaia that Percival could be trusted with that, but still, I should be more careful.

The man shrugged at me. “Don’t worry, most of us already know that you know more than you’re sharing. But it’s kind of a don’t ask, don’t tell situation. Believe me, we’ve had plenty of arguments about it. As long as you don’t let something like that slip in front of the others, they shouldn’t push you too hard about it. They’re afraid that if you don’t know much, asking you directly could create problems. Memory spells are tricky that way.”

“Wait,” Columbus started then, stepping closer. “How much do you know about what’s going on? No tricks or doubletalk. How much do you know?”

For a moment, I didn’t know if the man would answer. He looked at Columbus in silence briefly before turning back to glance toward Professor Dare and Hisao. Then he let out a breath and nodded as if coming to a decision. “Cards on the table, I know more than most on the Committee. Not all of it, but a lot. I also know that one of my fellow Counselors is definitely possessed. I don’t know who exactly, but it’s one of them. I’ve been trying to work that out. I know that Calafia, Teach, and Sophronia can be trusted so far as the Seosten situation is concerned, and I’m moderately confident that none of them are possessed. Particularly Calafia.”

“You know that they’ve been behind this whole organization,” I put in quietly. “You know that they were behind creating Crossroads, and the Bystander Effect.”

“Not originally,” the man replied. “I mean, I didn’t know they were the ones behind it. I knew who the Seosten were, just not that they were behind Crossroads. Not until more recently. But yeah, it fits with what I already knew before.  

“And I know that Joselyn disappeared because Fossor took her. I’m guessing the kid who showed up with mind-control powers was their son, and that he was visiting his big sister on her first trip back home after becoming a Heretic. Fossor objected and came to collect him, then let you know that he had your mother and that he’d be coming for you on some future date. Probably your eighteenth birthday.”

Well, I was definitely staring by that point. Around me, everyone else was doing pretty much the same. My mouth opened and shut before I managed a weak, “You are good.”

He winked at me. “We can talk about it some more later. I’m sure you’ve got questions. But right now, the rest of the Committee is gonna want to talk to you–to all of you, but especially Flick here. And they’re gonna want to talk about this necromancy thing.”

Making a face, I sighed while slumping back a bit. “What am I supposed to tell them… you… them? You’ll be there, but something tells me you’re gonna play dumb about most of this.”

Dare was the one who answered. “Just tell them the truth, Felicity. Well, part of it. The man who did all of this was a necromancer. You killed him and inherited his power, and you’re not sure how to control it yet. Be honest about that part. Ruthers may have a problem with it, but not everyone does. Especially when it’s an inherited power rather than magic that you’ve deliberately worked at.”

Percival was nodding. “She’s right. There’s no need to hold back on that point. It explains how the zombies got into Crossroads a few months back. Just…” He paused then, clearly thinking about what he was about to say before continuing with, “… answer the questions as well as you can. I know you’ve got a way to lie to us, probably thanks to Gaia. Keep your answers as honest as you can without giving too much away. It’s easier to keep track of what you’ve said then.”

“Right,” I replied, “so just like we said before. There’s a race of body snatchers that took us. The necromancer was one of them. They’re the ones who have been trying to kill Avalon, and they took advantage of us escaping… or possibly let us escape, as a distraction to grab her. They brought her here to the hospital that they took over and we accidentally found her, so they unleashed everything to stop us from escaping. During the fighting, the necromancer in charge k-killed Rudolph and then ran away from Gaia. I possessed him and made him kill himself.”

“And now you have his power,” Percival finished for me, nodding. “Exactly. They’ll probably push you on how much you know about these people and if you’ve been keeping things back. Which you are, but like I said, they probably won’t openly ask you directly about things like your mother because they’re afraid of weakening the memory spell, or leading you toward things that could weaken it. Even with something like this, they’ll beat around the bush a bit. Unless, of course, you give them reason to be more direct.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I promised before asking, “Is there anything else you can tell us about what’s going on in there? Anything we should know?”

Percival paused. I could tell there was indeed something he wanted to tell me. Instead, however, he shook his head. “Let’s just say there’s some pretty unbelievable shit going on. But trust me, it’s better for everyone involved if you’re surprised by it. Your first reaction needs to be genuine. Otherwise the hardcore guys will… well, they don’t need any more ammunition.”

And now I was really curious. But I couldn’t very well argue with him. Instead, I managed a weak, “Let me guess, they’re ready for us?”

Dare nodded. “Ready for you. They’ll talk to the others afterward. We thought you might want to get done first so that you could see Avalon and…” She paused, looking toward Percival.

“And my dad,” I finished for her. “Since they’re both at the Atherby camp.”

If he was surprised at all by that, Percival didn’t show it. He just gave me a tiny smile, nodding once. “That’s a good place for them. Calafia told me that she helped your father.”

“Right,” I muttered, “people communicate with each other even when they’re not talking to me. I have got to remember that.”

Chuckling, Percival gestured. “I’ve gotta get back. Oh, but first, before I forget…” He paused, then looked up toward Shiori, who had ushered Choo back into his bag the moment company had arrived. “Here,” he continued, tossing something that way. “A present for your little friend. Gaia thought you could use it.”

Shiori, looking surprised, caught the thing and looked at it. As did the rest of us. It was a collar. A really pretty purple collar, with intricate golden designs that were clearly spells. “Err… um. What–um… what frie–”

“Please don’t,” Percival looked slightly pained. “We have enough to deal with without playing the ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ game. Use the collar. It’ll help keep him secret and safe, I promise. Virginia can show you how it works. Calafia and I put it together in our spare time. Consider it a little gift to make up for all the shit you’ve been through this year, and the shit you’ll no doubt go through in the future.”

There was clearly a lot that Shiori wanted to say to that, but the man had already moved on, as if handing her a way (handmade by no less than two Crossroads Committee members) to protect her pet from being horrifically murdered was no big deal.

Percival, in turn, had already turned his attention to Dare, adding, “You bring her up for our little Q&A. The others and I will do our best to make it as short as possible.”

He turned then, before pausing. When the man looked back, his eyes moved not to me, but to the silent, somewhat listless Doug. “I’ll let your great-great-grandfather know you’re okay.”

As Doug (and, to be honest, the rest of us) blinked at that, Percival continued. “Sulan’s gonna be glad you made it through all that. And he’ll want to talk to you about it, soon as possible.”

“You… you know my Grandpa Sulan?” Doug stared at him for a second. “How? I mean, I know that’s a stupid question because he came through Crossroads too, but he wasn’t–I mean you were never–”

“It’s a long story,” Percival carefully replied. “Come see me another time, when everything isn’t so crazy, and maybe I can tell you. But make sure you ask Sulan how many eggs he has. He’ll get it.” He reached out, putting a hand on the boy’s shoulder then. “He’ll want to come for the funeral too. If you’d be okay with him showing up.”

“I–” Doug looked choked up, his face contorting with emotion before he nodded quickly. “I-if he can come. He was… he was banished.”

“Banished from your colony world,” Percival corrected, “not from Earth. Though he tends to keep his distance to avoid making any of the people around here who don’t like him very much look too hard at you. But he’ll be here for this, if you want him.”

Sounding like there was a thick lump in his throat, Doug slowly nodded. “Ye-yes. I–I’d like him to come.”

“Then he’ll be here.” Percival sounded absolutely certain, which made me wonder just how well he knew this Sulan guy. “I’ll be sure he makes it. You have my word, Douglas. And… and I’m sorry about your friend.”

With that, he was gone, leaving the rest of us there with just Deveron and Dare. The latter of which looked to me apologetically. “You have no idea how much I would like to tell the Committee to shove it and take you out of here. All of you. You’ve been through too much. An interrogation right now is asinine.”  

“You’re not the only one,” Deveron assured her. “Believe me, there’s more than one guy on that Committee I’m real close to popping in the face.”

Of all people, it was Sean who replied to that. “Something tells me that’ll just make things worse.” The boy’s voice was hoarse, and I did a brief double-take upon the realization that he had clearly been silently crying.

Guilt, I realized. Sean felt guilty. Of course he did. He and Rudolph had both been down there, and he had been the one that was spared. How must that make him feel?  Did he have any idea why Manakel had chosen him instead of Rudolph to live?

Because I was pretty sure he’d done it because Manakel assumed I’d be less likely to risk killing Sean than Rudolph, since we knew each other better. And the guilt about that was already killing me. I couldn’t even imagine how Sean was doing.

Yeah, Manakel being dead right now was a good thing. A very fucking good thing.

After taking a moment to embrace Shiori tightly (and slightly longer than strictly necessary given how much I would have preferred to stay with her than go be interrogated by the Committee some more), I nodded to the others. “Okay guys, see you in a few minutes, I guess.”

“Good luck,” Koren spoke up, echoed by everyone else.

“Thanks,” I replied, “and thanks for the message. That’s pretty much what tied it all together.”

Wincing, the other girl shook her head. “I just wish I didn’t fuck up that one word. I was trying to fix it, but–”

“Yeah.” Swallowing, I nodded to her. “It’s okay. I got the point in time. Trust me, I’m just glad you’re okay, and that he didn’t–” Stopping myself, I blanched.

I didn’t have to continue that thought. Koren just met my gaze. “Yeah,” she agreed softly, “me too.”

There was so much else that I wanted to say, so much more I needed and wanted to do with the people I actually cared about. After everything that we had been through, the last fucking thing I wanted to do was sit through another ‘discussion’ with the Committee, even if a few of them were on my side.

But I had to. They were the authorities and they were too powerful to ignore (in every sense of the word). I had to go through this.

So, with a sigh, I turned back and nodded toward Professor Dare. “Okay. Let’s go, I guess. Now I’ve got literal necromancer powers and Ruthers, who is already suspicious about me and hates my mom to the point of blinding rage, also happens to utterly loathe necromancers, probably even more than he hates her. Oh, and to top it all off, he probably knows I’m lying to him about some things.

“So, you know… this oughta be fun.”

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Convalescence 38-01

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To say that things moved quickly after Manakel’s death would have been a drastic understatement. Everything was a total whirlwind that I barely had time to comprehend.

What I did know was that a bunch more Heretic reinforcements had shown up, just in time for what was left of the living Seosten forces to disappear, while the zombies that Manakel had brought back to life dropped dead once more. Or whatever it was when undead things stopped moving around. The point was, there were suddenly a lot of very amped up Heretics with nothing to fight.

Sariel took the cure for the poison from the necromancer’s body, before she and Gaia gave it to Avalon. I didn’t see an immediate effect, but Sariel assured us that the girl would be okay. She just needed time to recover. Time that she would definitely get, as Gaia had Gabriel Prosser take Avalon back to his camp to make sure that there was no chance of any last-second, unknown assassins taking one last shot at her while she was still weak.

Sariel had gone as well to make sure Avalon got all the help she needed, taking Tabbris with her for the time being. Which I couldn’t really object to given everything that was going on, no matter how much more comfortable I felt with my partner. I’d just given her a brief hug and promised to see her as soon as possible. She would tell Dad what happened, and that I was okay, since my leaving right then absolutely wasn’t in the cards.

Meanwhile, Gaia, Dare, and Nevada were dealing with the Committee and their representatives, who had finally all showing up to find out what the hell was going on. They were in the hospital director’s office where everything had gone down. Kohaku was still in there with them, along with Rudolph’s body.

Which left me sitting in another room in the hospital along with Doug, Shiori, Columbus, Scout, Sean, Vulcan, Choo, Koren, and Deveron. Those last two had woken up around the time that Manakel and I had had our final… conversation, while Sean had been a bit later. We were waiting for our turn to talk to the Committee, after they were done with Gaia and the other adults. That and I was pretty sure there were some pretty intense discussions going on as far as I was concerned, which had to be ironed out before Gaia would let them anywhere near me.

That was okay. I really appreciated the chance to breathe for a few seconds before having to deal with… well, all of that. Time to breathe, in this case, translating to time to explain everything that had happened to the others and finally put everyone (mostly) on the same page.

“So… so he’s dead.” That was Koren, staring at me. “Y-you… you killed Manakel.”

My head shook at that. “Not me. Well, technically. But it was Sariel. She killed him. It’s just that she used my body to do it. I’m more like the knife than the stabber, in this situation.”

The room we were in was some kind of conference place, with a long wooden table taking up most of it, and several of those screen-windows that showed views of various exotic locations, like a waterfall in a rainforest, and a long expanse of empty desert with sand blowing heavily.

Deveron was standing by the desert window, staring through it for a moment before he turned back to where I was sitting at the table with most of the others aside from him and Douglas (who was sitting on the floor against the far wall) around me. “I can’t believe he was possessing Risa and I didn’t know about it. I–” A pained look crossed his face then before he let out a long, low sigh and moved to sit across from me. “I’m sorry. To all of you. I should have been… I should have done more. Everything you’ve been through this year and it was all because we didn’t figure out that the head of security was possessed.”

My head shook at that. “It’s not your fault. It’s… we all missed it. I dismissed her because of the choker. I never really thought it could be anyone that close to Gaia. I didn’t–” Flinching then, I dropped my gaze to the table. “God, how bad must Gaia feel about it? She was–” Cutting myself off then, I just bit my lip hard. If we felt this guilty about Kohaku, if I felt this guilty, Gaia must feel even worse. To say nothing of the idea that the woman she obviously cared about had been enslaved for… for… God only knew how long.

How long had Kohaku been possessed? Clearly at least since the beginning of the year. She had been the one who killed Pericles. Well, Manakel had, while possessing her. That’s how he managed to get so close to the man, and why Security had never been able to figure it out: because their leader was the one whose body had done it. Through Kohaku, Manakel had been able to control most of the investigation. And even the parts he couldn’t control directly, like Tribald Kine, were still confided in her. Because she was the head of Security. So Manakel had always known exactly how to push the investigation any way he wanted.

Doug spoke up. “There’s no point to playing the shoulda, coulda, woulda game. The point is, that fucking… fucking piece of shit is dead. He’s dead. That’s what matters. Whoever did it, congratulations. I just wish you’d pulled it off before he–” In mid-sentence, the boy suddenly stopped, clearly choking on his own words.

Before he’d killed Rudolph. That was what he’d been about to say, I knew. I felt the same way. If we’d figured it out sooner, if–well, there were a lot of if’s. But it was like Doug said, they didn’t matter. There may have been a lot of powers floating around, but we couldn’t just change the past like that.

Picking myself up from the table, I moved over to kneel next to the boy. My own voice was soft, cracking a little. “I’m sorry about Rudolph,” I whispered. “He didn’t–he shouldn’t have been involved in any of this. He was just–” Cutting myself off as tears filled my eyes, I looked away. “He wasn’t a threat to Manakel. He wasn’t… anything to Manakel. That asshole just–” I couldn’t say anything else. I didn’t know what I’d been trying to say in the first place. It just felt better if I was talking, like I was actually accomplishing something. But that was just stupid.

Doug’s voice was hollow. “Rudolph was my friend. Paul died. Jazz and Gordon are still gone. Isaac’s an evil piece of shit. Roxa disappeared and then ended up out in space. Rudolph… Rudolph was there. Maybe he joined our team late, but he was there. He did his best, he tried to help anyone he could. He listened when I needed to talk. He was there, and now he’s–he’s–”

His head fell then, arms wrapping around himself as he cried. It made me want to touch him, even hug him, but I didn’t know how he’d take it. I didn’t want to make things worse.

In the end, it was Sean who moved first. The other boy moved past me, sitting next to Doug before putting one arm around his shoulders. Vulcan sat on the other side of him, the metal dog leaning in to rub against Doug’s arm until the boy listlessly lifted it to pat him.

“He’s dead.” The flat announcement came from Scout, who seemed to be trying the words out for size, trying to understand them. “Manakel’s dead.” She sounded just as stunned as I felt. I knew why she was saying it, because saying it made it feel a little more real. And this… well, this didn’t feel all that real yet.

Shiori, shifting a bit in her seat to look over to me, asked, “Avalon’s going to be okay, right?”

Quickly, I nodded. “Between Gabriel and Sariel, yeah, she’ll be okay. Gaia wouldn’t have left her side if she had any doubt, no matter what the Committee said. So yeah, she just needs time.”

“It’s still not over though, is it?” Koren was the one speaking again. She had picked herself up from the table and now stood with her arms folded tight across her chest. “I mean, the Seosten aren’t just going to give up because Manakel’s dead. They’re not going to be like, ‘Oh well, fair shot, chaps. Jolly good, catch you all next time, what what.’”

My mouth opened, but before I could speak, Columbus interrupted. “Did you just give your hypothetical Seosten a really terrible British accent for some reason?”

Flushing noticeably, the girl shrugged while mumbling, “Maybe. Lots of evil space empires sound British in the movies.” Clearing her throat then pointedly, she looked back to me. “But the point is, they won’t just give up.”

“Nope,” I agreed. “They won’t. They lost their leader on-planet, so it’ll take them some time to figure out how to deal with that and bring in a replacement. But until they do that, we have a break. And we can use it.”

“To get to the vault,” Columbus finished for me. He held his goggles in one hand, his eyes meeting mine. “You want to get to the vault with Avalon and open it before the Seosten recover from losing Manakel.”

“I wasn’t going to bring it up just yet since everything just happened,” I replied, “but pretty much. Avalon needs time to recover from everything. And so do we. I mean, I doubt whatever Seosten are left will just let us walk in there. So we’ll need time to plan, time to rest, and time to… well, deal with everything. But eventually, that’s what we have to do. Look at how open they were about this whole hospital thing. They’ve gone completely insane. They’re not even trying to be subtle anymore. Not really. So yeah, our best next move is to get to the vault, open it, and figure out how to safely use whatever’s in it. If it’s over and done with, the Seosten might be pissed, but going after Avalon will be pointless from a… you know, objective standpoint.”

Deveron gave me a small smile. “You mean you hope that whatever Liesje’s spell does will make the Seosten too busy dealing with that to worry about going after Avalon anymore.”

“Make them too busy chasing the horses to worry about the barn they ran out of, yeah.” I nodded with a helpless shrug. “It’s the best I can think of. It’s a whole Empire we’re talking about here. Losing Manakel was big for them. Really big. But it’s not the end of it.”

“Avalon won’t be ready to do that for awhile,” Shiori put in.

“You’re right,” I agreed. “None of us are ready for that. And even when we are, like I said, we can’t just use the spell immediately. They’ll have to work out what it does, exactly. And try to fix it so that… so that Seosten and humans who agree to possession can still do it.”

Columbus squinted at me, holding his goggles tightly in one hand by his side. “You mean like you and…  and the girl.”

“And Tabbris,” I confirmed, staring right back at him. “She saved all of us, more than once. And her mother, Sariel, she did too. Manakel would’ve gotten away if it wasn’t for her. He would have gotten away if Sariel hadn’t been able to possess me. After everything that happened, he still would’ve gotten away. So yeah, I think we should fix the spell so that possession can be voluntary. Maybe when the others get back here, Dries can… can fix it, with Wyatt and Sariel’s help. And anyone else. But first, we just need to get into the vault. When we’re ready. When Avalon’s ready.”

It was Doug who spoke next, first mumbling into his arms as his face was buried in them, before raising his head to speak more clearly. “I’m surprised you can think at all. Rudolph’s dead. How can you even… how can you even think about anything else?” His tone sounded more… sad and lost than accusatory, though there was a tiny bit of that too, which I couldn’t blame him for.

My voice was soft as I hesitantly reached out to touch the boy’s arm. “Doug, believe me, I wish Rudolph was alive. I do. I’d do anything to have him standing right here in the room with us now. If it would help, if there was anything we could do, I just…” Taking a deep, slightly shuddering breath, I forced myself to continue. “I just can’t do anything. That stupid, psycho piece of shit k-killed him. And we can’t fix that. I want to fix it, but we can’t. So… so I’m trying to focus on other things. It doesn’t really help, because I keep seeing Rudolph. And Paul. And Professor Katarin. Even Professor Pericles and I only knew him for like a day.”

“They’re responsible for killing a lot of people,” Columbus put in, his own voice hard.

“Too many,” Sean agreed, still sitting there beside Douglas with one arm around him. “But now, at least Manakel is dead. He paid for it.”

Doug shook his head emphatically, his voice dark while he tightened both of his hands into fists. “He didn’t pay enough.” He spat the words “All the people he killed, all that… all the shit he was responsible for? He didn’t pay nearly enough.”

Before I could respond to that, Deveron spoke. He’d moved over to stand in front of us. “Sometimes you can’t focus on that. You can’t dwell on how much punishment you can give to the people who deserve it. You don’t focus on how much pain they’ve already inflicted on people in the past. You have to focus on how much pain you’re saving future people from.”

He took a knee then, meeting Doug’s gaze. “If you fall into the hole of obsessing over how much pain these people, and people like them, have inflicted on innocents before they were stopped, nothing will ever be enough. Nothing. That is a bottomless pit from which there is no escape.”

It took Doug a few seconds to respond to that. And when he did, his voice cracked a little. “S-so focus on the fact that they won’t be able to hurt anyone else like that? Focus on the fact that Manakel can’t torture or kill any other people like–like Rudolph?”

Deveron nodded once. “Exactly. That’s all you can do. Anything else is just… it’s just too much.”

Rather than respond to that immediately, Doug lowered his gaze to stare at his feet for a few seconds as he sat there. “I… I don’t know if I can do that. Rudolph was my friend. He… he didn’t deserve that. He didn’t–” Stopping himself, he just shook his head.

I knew how he felt. He wanted his friend back. Manakel dying was good and all, but Rudolph still deserved to be alive. He deserved to be here with us. Instead, he was dead. Dead because we hadn’t been able to protect him, because we had failed to-

Before I could continue that thought, there was a sudden commotion at the door. My eyes snapped that way, hand grabbing reflexively for my staff. After everything that had happened, it would just figure that another problem would present itself. But when the door opened, all thoughts of defense or attack left my head. Actually, all thoughts left my head, completely.

Because it was Rudolph who walked through the door. There were others with him. Professor Dare, that Percival guy from the Committee, and Hisao. They were right on his heels, as the boy entered the room.

“Rudolph!” Doug was the first to react, scrambling to his feet. He took two steps that way before suddenly stopping, his movement turning into a brief stumble. “Wh-what–no. No, no, what?”

Because while Rudolph was upright and moving… he was still dead. His eyes were empty, his movements listless. He was very, very clearly not alive.

There was a whole lot of cursing and scrambling then, while the dead Rudolph simply entered the room and stood there.

“He just got up and started moving,” Dare announced in a low voice, her sword drawn as she squinted at Rudolph, having put herself between the body and us. “We wanted to see where he was going.”

Percival and Hisao stood near the door, the former speaking up. “He came straight here. No detours, no hesitation.”

“H-he’s fucking with us.” That was Columbus, standing by his sister and partway in front of her. “Manakel, he found a way to… to give the body orders ahead of time or something.”

“No,” Deveron replied, his own voice soft as he shook his head. “Manakel isn’t the one controlling him, posthumously or otherwise.”

“Then wha–” I started to look that way, only to stop as I found Deveron staring at me. Confusion filled me for another second, before just as quickly fading. “Why a–oh.”

“Oh?” Shiori looked back and forth between us. “What do you mean, oh? What–oh.”

Yeah. Oh. A minute earlier, when talking to Doug, I had said that I would do anything for Rudolph to be right there with us.

And now… he was right there with us. Or his body was, at least. It was here because I asked it to be, because I wished for it.

Because I made it.

Sariel may have killed Manakel. But she used my body to do it. And my body had absorbed his power. Specifically, his unique Olympian power to raise and control the dead. The power that was now… now mine.

I was a necromancer.

Just like Fossor.  

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Desperate Measures 37-08

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Manakel would have killed us, all three of us (plus the others who were already unconscious) within the next second if he’d had the chance. I was certain of that much. When he had clearly been winning, he had been just arrogant enough to let it keep going. But now, once Tabbris spoke that single word to activate the spell that would take his protective shield down for one brief instant, he didn’t have the time to spare. He would end this immediately, and we were in no shape to stop him. Hell, we wouldn’t have been in the shape to stop him at the best of times, let alone now.

And he started with Tabbris. His arms jerked up and out, sending Avalon and me flying in opposite directions. I crashed down with a yelp, in time to see the man lunging that way. His sword was out of Avalon, blood dripping from it as he drove the weapon for the young girl’s back, even as I shouted. Warning, threat, plea? Probably all of the above.

In that instant, however, as the sword was driven down, there was a sudden crack in the air. And the blade was caught by a whip that stretched across the room.

Gaia. She was there. Her whip caught the blade a nanosecond before it would have gone into Tabbris’s back, before she gave a sharp yank that sent the weapon flying away from the man to clatter against the far wall. An instant later, the whip was cracking through the air once more, toward his face.

But it was more than that, I realized in that moment. As the whip snapped that way, I caught the slightest glimpse of something else. Around the edges of the whip was a view of somewhere else. It was hard to describe, but it was like… like there was some kind of very narrow portal or something extended just a couple inches out from the whip itself. That… tear of sorts in space would stay for a moment or two after the whip passed before shifting back to normal.

Then I understood. Gaia’s whip created a very minor portal around itself so that it would cut through basically anything. Any defense or shield that was put up to block it, that one or two inch portal would cut it out of the way so that the whip itself could reach its target. Gaia must have been able to control exactly what the portal affected, or when it was actually active. Or something. The point was, the portal-edge of it let the weapon pass through anything. And, I was sure, pretty much kill almost anything. Whipping a portal into someone had to be pretty damn hazardous for their health, after all. Between that and the fact that the whip could extend to fairly ludicrous lengths, yeah, I could see why Gaia’s weapon was so dangerous.

Manakel reacted just as quickly.. He vanished, disappearing from that spot just before the whip would have hit him. Then Kohaku, who had been on the ground after her forcefield collapsed, was on her feet. Recall, he’d recalled into her.

“Gaia!” I blurted while shoving myself up a bit, “It’s Kohaku! It–”

But the headmistress was already reacting. As the Manakel-possessed Kohaku made it to her feet, the other woman held her free hand out, starting to conjure some kind of golden forcefield orb around her. There were strange, green glowing runes on the sides of the forcefield. I didn’t know what it was, exactly, but I had the feeling it would contain the woman. And maybe even Manakel himself.

Before it could fully manifest, however, the dead Rudolph was up on his feet. His body threw itself at Gaia, who had to turn her attention ever so briefly toward him with a gesture that sent the boy flying out of the way. I could tell she was trying to be gentle with it, even as vines sprouted from the wood of the wall and held Rudolph’s body close.

Just as quickly, Gaia’s attention snapped back to Manakel, who had used that moment to move for the teleportation jammer. As Kohaku’s hand reached toward it, however, a smaller glowing forcefield appeared around the thing to stop him from disabling it.

“Leaving so soon?” Gaia’s voice was hard then, as she added, “I think I would prefer if you stayed.” With those words, she gestured, and the stasis fields that were trapping Koren, Dare, and the others all switched off. The now-former hostages all collapsed to the floor, unconscious.

“She thought you would save her, you know.” There was twisted venom behind Manakel’s words as he spoke through Kohaku. “She thought you’d realize the truth. For awhile, at least. I’m not sure when she gave up. Honestly, I’d stopped listening to her by that point.”

If his attempt to guilt Gaia worked, the woman didn’t show it. Her face remained impassive, as she met the possessed woman’s eyes. “I will give you one chance to release her.”

Giving a tiny, almost imperceptible smile, Manakel-through-Kohaku replied simply, “I understand your confidence. After all, you brought two Committee members in with you. And the mighty Prosser himself. Quite impressive. But I’m afraid that they’re running into problems of their own. You see, a lot of quite powerful beings, Heretic and Stranger alike, have died in this hospital, or had their bodies brought here. It makes for quite an emergency army, should one have nothing else to lose and no need to even play at subtlety. You are on your own, Headmistress.”

Gaia’s expression never faltered, never changed at all. “I am as alone as you, Manakel.”

Something happened then between the two of them. It was like they had an entire battle without ever moving an inch. I saw their eyes flicker, judging the distance between them, the powers that they could bring to bear, the people that could get in the way. They each saw what the other could have done, and how they themselves would react. They both saw all of it, the openings and the retaliations. There were dozens of battles taking place in those few seconds, all fought purely in their minds and through their eyes as they watched and judged one another.

Through it all, I didn’t dare move. Every part of me screamed to go for Avalon, who had become entirely too quiet. But I couldn’t. Moving from where I was would have made me a potential obstacle, or a hostage to use against Gaia. I had to stay put, and completely still. It was, I was sure, the same reason that Tabbris hadn’t moved. We didn’t dare interrupt. Not this. Not now.

But in the end, one of them had to move first. And given the condition Avalon was in, it had to be Gaia. With absolutely no warning or gesture, the woman made her move. And that move was to make the unconscious Columbus’s goggles shoot at Manakel-Kohaku from the side. At the exact same time, Vulcan (still in his gun form) fired as well. As did Scout’s gun. Even my own fallen staff fired off a concussive blast from one end. In an instant, the Seosten bastard was being attacked from all sides.

Manakel solved the problem the same way I figured most necromancers solved most of their problems: with dead bodies. In that same instant, a handful of them simply appeared around him. Two wore hospital gowns while the third was a doctor. But all of them were very clearly dead even before they were struck by the attacks meant for their master.

The first, one of the patients, suddenly disappeared into a blur of motion that went straight for Gaia. At the same time, the doctor zombie extended a hand and fired a bright blue laser at her, while the other dead patient somehow summoned what looked like dozens of tiny knives in midair before sending them flying that way.

Distractions, all of them. Gaia dealt with them in short order, her whip lashing out to create a portal that the knives went into, while she simply absorbed the energy from the laser. As for the guy who was using superspeed to rush straight for her, the woman’s hand snapped out. She caught him by the throat, stopping him in mid-blur. Then Gaia spoke a single word, and all three bodies instantly turned to ash.

Manakel-Kohaku, by that point, had summoned a massive spear of ice. The thing was a good nine feet long and two feet thick along the shaft. With a grunt, he sent it flying at the headmistress.

Gaia didn’t move. I saw a weird hazy effect appear in front of her, like a very intense, very concentrated spot of heat shaped in a wedge around the woman. As the ice-spear reached that spot, it instantly melted, before just as instantly evaporating. The water from the ice didn’t even have a chance to touch anything else before it was gone.

Without giving Manakel another chance to attack, Gaia summoned some sort of chains made of bright light, which flew at the possessed woman across from her.

Whatever those chains were, apparently Manakel didn’t want them touching his host, because her hand snapped up to create a metal wall between them. The chains bounced off, creating a brief, blinding flash of light that made me flinch. And in that same instant, as I flinched, I felt a strong hand yank me off the floor.

Manakel had me. Using Kohaku’s body, he hauled me up, putting my body between him (or her) and Gaia. His other hand produced a knife from his belt. “Now, really,” he addressed the woman while holding his arm around my neck in an iron grip, “you’re already about to lose one girl you practically see as a child.” His head nodded toward the bleeding, horribly pale Avalon. “Do you really want to make it two in one night, Headmistress?”

Before Gaia could speak, I found myself snarling, “Hey, Manakel…” As I spoke, my hand snapped up to his arm.

I couldn’t possess him. Even I wasn’t that stupid. It would have been suicide in that moment. The man was several thousand years old, and I was just a teenager. Even with Charmiene’s power, he’d utterly erase me the second I tried it.

But there was something else that I could do, a power that I had just picked up. Tabbris had told me that I could instantly draw symbols, pictures, letters, whatever onto solid surfaces by touching them. I’d thought about how well that would work for spells. It would have to be spells that I knew perfectly, however. Even the slightest wrongly curved line here or there would ruin the spell. And without a perfect memory like the Seosten had, the spells that I could create instantly just like that without looking them up or taking my time to let muscle memory help with the brush strokes were limited. But there was one spell that I knew incredibly well, one spell that I had memorized perfectly. One spell that I could have drawn blindfolded, on any surface.

It was, of course, the spell that I had learned from Gabriel Prosser, the spell that would drive any Seosten out of the host it was drawn onto. And as my hand closed around Kohaku’s exposed wrist, I used my new power to instantly draw that spell into her skin, shoving all the power that I could into it while blurting, “Get out of my teacher!”

It was an instantaneous thing. I heard a cry of pain escape both Kohaku, and Manakel himself as the man stumbled out of his host. Kohaku’s grip around my throat relaxed, as the woman herself collapsed to the floor in a heap.

I spun, just as Gaia reached me. But both of us were too late. Manakel, now hostless but recovering almost instantly from the pain of that spell, touched some kind of spell on his cufflink. In a brief flash of blue light, he vanished.

“He’s running.” Gaia’s voice was flat as she stood beside me. “Still in the building, but he’s running.” While she spoke, the woman briefly touched my shoulder, concern written in her eyes before she glanced toward Avalon. Pain wrote itself across her face, as she announced, “His blade is poisoned. It’s blocking her power.”

That was why Avalon was so pale. The wound itself didn’t help, of course. But her regeneration wasn’t working. She wasn’t getting any better, because of that poison. Of course. Of course that fucking piece of shit would have a poisoned blade, just in case.  

“He’ll have the cure on him.” The words came from the glowing figure who appeared next to Gaia, before resolving into Sariel. She’d been possessing the headmistress. “And if I know Manakel, it’ll be the only cure you can get to in time.”

“Mama!” Tabbris had picked herself off the floor, flinging herself at her mother to cling onto her. And in that moment, I caught my first glimpse of the girl’s face, the first time that I had seen her since this terrible night had begun.

Facepaint. Her face was painted to look like a fox. It was… simultaneously adorable and heartbreaking. The things that she’d had to do, the things that she’d had to help with… and she looked like that? It reinforced that she was just a little kid, who should have been able to do little kid things. I wanted to hug her, but I also felt ashamed, and sick to my stomach.

Still, the idea that Manakel had essentially been beaten here by a tiny girl in fox-face paint was… kind of appropriate. Horrified as I was by the whole situation, some part of me also appreciated that.

For her part, Avalon was shaking her head, mumbling deliriously about how she was fine and to do something about the others. I wasn’t sure she even knew what was going on or where she was, to be honest. Seeing her like that, after turning my gaze away from Tabbris, didn’t help. Manakel had done all this. Manakel was, in no uncertain terms, a fucking monster.

My eyes glanced briefly around the room at that thought. Rudolph… Rudolph was dead. Scout, Columbus, Shiori, Choo, and Doug were unconscious. So were Sean, Vulcan (if he could be unconscious), Deveron, Koren, Nevada, and Professor Dare. And, of course, Professor Kohaku was still down, right there in the middle of the room.

“Gaia.” I spoke without thinking, pain and desperation in my voice as I fell to my knees on the other side of Avalon. “Please. You have to stop him. He’ll have another way out. I know you think he’s trapped in here, but he’ll find a way. He’ll get away and we’ll lose Valley. Please, stop him.”

“Yes,” the woman agreed, already starting to the door. She paused, glancing back to where Sariel and Tabbris were. “Can…”

“I have magic that will stabilize her,” Sariel confirmed. “Go. I’ll keep her alive until you bring back the cure from Manakel. But you should hurry. He will avoid the Committee members and Gabriel, which will slow him down. But he will have another way out.”

Without another word, Gaia left, chasing after Manakel before the man found his way to whatever secret escape hole he’d set up. All I could do was pray that she made it to him in time. Please, please let her make it to him in time.

I couldn’t lose Avalon. I just… I just couldn’t. Kneeling there, staring at the girl that I had grown to adore over all these months, I fought the tears that flooded my eyes.

She looked broken, in so many ways. Bones poking through limbs, blood literally covering her shirt, face pale and eyes unseeing as she mumbled incoherently. We were losing her. We were losing her so fast.

Sariel moved then, one hand producing a field-engraver, which she used to quickly draw several spells around the floor beside Avalon, as well as on the girl herself. Nearby, I saw Tabbris doing the same, helping her mother with her own quick spellwork. The two of them drew so quickly I could barely follow what they were doing, as the runes around and on Avalon grew more and more complicated.

“We can keep her alive,” Sariel announced quietly as she glanced to me, “but we can’t fix her. We can stop the poison from making things even worse.”  

“I… I don’t know what to do,” I admitted, blinking tears of frustration and helpless terror out of my eyes. “Gaia, Gaia and the others have to find him. They have to get the cure. They–”

“Stop… stop… him.” The voice was weak, and I glanced quickly back to see Kohaku. The woman’s eyes were barely open, as she stared at me. She was clearly fighting to stay conscious, and losing that fight. “Escape…” she continued even more softly. “He’ll escape… Hatch. Hatch in… in nursery. Hatch in nursery.”

She collapsed once more then, eyes falling shut as her body slumped. It had been all she could do to pass that message along. The nursery, that son of a bitch was going to escape through some kind of hatch in the nursery.

My gaze snapped back around, just in time to see Sariel with her own eyes closed. She opened them after a second, head shaking. “Gaia knows,” she informed us, “but she won’t make it in time. She and the others are… occupied. Manakel wasn’t lying about the threats he could produce. They must have been hiding dead bodies here for decades, at least. Between that and the forces he already had, it’s… taking time.”

“We don’t have time!” I blurted then. “Valley doesn’t have time! We–” I was on my feet then, starting to move. “We have to slow him down.”

“I have to keep the spell going,” Sariel informed me. “Or Avalon won’t make it long enough for that cure to matter. And you can’t face him alone.”

“She won’t be alone, Mama,” Tabbris corrected her, moving to stand next to me. “We can’t beat him, but maybe we can slow him down, just enough?”

My mouth opened, then shut, as a light clicked on in my mind.

“Actually… maybe we can beat him.”

******

He better still be there, I directed inwardly while sprinting down the hall a few minutes later. I had made my way through the hospital as quickly as I could. There had been basically nothing in my way, since every possible threat was busy throwing itself at Gaia and the other much more powerful people. We can’t be too late, we can’t be!

He’ll be there, my Seosten partner assured me. We’ll make it.

She was right. I skidded my way into the nursery, just in time to see the man himself. He was there, on the opposite side of the room as he strode toward some door, already raising his hand.

The hatch. It had to be the hatch, his escape portal. He was going for it.

My voice filled the room then, and I heard the loathing within it. “Manakel.

Two steps from his exit, the man spun to me. I saw the toll that his trip through the hospital had taken on him. The strain of all the zombies he had raised and was using to keep the others busy was visible right there on his face. He was sweating, fighting to keep himself moving.

And yet, even then, I had absolutely no doubt that he could easily kill me if we were to fight one on one. He could have been half-dead and he’d still put me down before I could blink.

“Miss Chambers,” the man grunted, “I must say, you are very… persistent. And resilient. How is Miss Sinclaire, hmm?”

Narrowing my eyes at him, I replied simply, “I just figured you might not want to leave without finishing what you started. After all, I’m right here. And I did pretty much just kick your ass up there.”

The man chuckled low and dangerously at that. “Child, I know where the headmistress and the other members of your cavalry are. I know where everything in this hospital is. And let me assure you, if your plan was to delay me long enough to ensure their arrival, you have made a grave tactical error.”

There was a blur of motion then, before the man slammed into me so hard the wind was knocked from my lungs, before my back hit the wall, Manakel was there, shoving me up against that wall with a growled, “A very… grave… error.”

Using one hand to hold me against the wall, the Seosten man moved his other hand to my throat. I felt it close, instantly cutting off my air. All the man had to do was squeeze for another second, and I would be dead. Gone. Erased.

But I moved first. My hand caught his wrist, and our eyes met.

“Oh, Miss Chambers,” Manakel murmured with a mixture of disbelief and amusement. “I have been alive for millennia. If you believe that you stand the slightest prayer of surviving a possession attempt, you are far more deluded than I believed. Even with whatever Seosten child you have dragged along on this endeavor, you will both fail.”

“Oh, I dunno,” I replied in a flat voice, “I’m a scrappy one.”

With those words, I used my power. I possessed Manakel.

Instantly, I felt the weight of his willpower, his power, period. I felt how much he dwarfed me. Can you feel it, Miss Chambers? I heard him speak into my mind while pressing just a tiny bit of his power down on me, like a boy barely touching his thumb to a bug to pin it down. Can you feel just how lost you are? You chose this. Remember that, in whatever tiny part of your shattered consciousness exists after this. Remember that you chose to pursue your own destruction when you could easily have left this confrontation to your betters. What comes next can be blamed only on yourself.

Yes. I had brought this on myself. I had come here. I had tracked him down. I had possessed him, already knowing everything that he said was true. He was right about all of it. I couldn’t beat him. Even with the power I had taken from Charmiene, I was nothing. I was a speck of dust under the kind of mental strength that the man who had been Hades could bring to bear. He would easily, pathetically easily swat my entire mind aside like an annoying fly. My personality, my mind, everything I was, would vanish in the blink of an eye. I would be nothing to him. Tabbris couldn’t help. She was eight. He, meanwhile, was approaching the double digits of millennia. As wonderful and amazing as my little sister, my partner, was, she wouldn’t be able to help me here. Not this time. Not against someone as powerful as Manakel was.

So… it was a good thing that she wasn’t the one possessing me.

Manakel.

Once more, that single word was spoken. Just as it had been a minute earlier when it had first gained the man’s attention. And now, as then, it wasn’t actually me speaking.

There was a brief pause, and I felt the man’s confusion. I felt his sudden uncertainty, which slowly turned to disbelief, then denial, and finally… it was there.

Fear.

Sariel.

Yes. Sariel. That was my plan. That was the last thing I’d said before leaving that office, that Sariel and Tabbris should switch places, that Tabbris should use her own magic to keep Avalon alive while Sariel came with me. Because Manakel had been right, Tabbris stood no chance at beating him in a possession contest. She and I both would have been completely crushed. But Sariel was different. Sariel was far, far stronger. Especially when her power was combined with Charmiene’s. Strong enough that, despite the fact that I could feel the man straining to turn back to his escape hatch, his feet remained firmly planted to the floor.
He was trapped.

Hello, Manakel, the woman’s voice spoke silently within his own head. Do you remember what you said to me all those years ago, on the ship whenever one of us was sent on a mission?

There was a brief pause, before the man’s response came. I told you only to say goodbye when you know that you’ll never see the person again.

Again, silence reigned for a moment, before…

Goodbye, Manakel.

I heard his voice start to speak. I heard his sudden panic, his denial, his rage. I felt him struggle to take back control. All of it in vain, as his hand snapped down to draw a dagger from his own belt, gripping it tightly despite his desperate attempts to throw it away, to release it, to let go. His hand held that dagger in a grip that was so tight, it was almost painful.

Then his own hand, gripping that dagger, stabbed it deep, all the way to the hilt… through his own eye and into his brain.

And the indescribable, blinding rush of pleasure that I felt in that moment? Well, let’s just say that only part of it came from being a Heretic.

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Desperate Measures 37-06

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Once we had clambered up onto the roof of the elevator, getting to the top of the shaft and to the executive floor above was pretty simple. The hardest part, really, was leaving the sound of Rudolph, Sean, and Vulcan fighting those zombies without staying behind to help. Oh God, how badly I wanted to stay. Leaving the two of them there sucked. But staying would have accomplished nothing. Yes, we could have held them off for longer, but we’d just be caught in a loop of killing more and more zombies over and over again with no actual solution. Wherever he was, Manakel could just keep bringing them back. Eventually they’d be joined by the bigger threats and… yeah, staying was a bad idea all around.

So no, as hard as it was, we had to let the two boys cover us while we pushed on to get up to that jammer. It was the only thing we could do, the only chance we had.

To that end, I took hold of Shiori, wrapping an arm around the other girl before using my staff to boost the two of us all the way to the top. We landed easily in the little space between the elevator doorway and the open shaft, balancing there while the others waited below.

Shiori immediately turned her attention to using her metal-control power to get the doors open, while I got ready to cover her, just in case there was an immediate attack. Because, well, I wouldn’t put it past these guys to ambush us right there.

But as the doors opened to reveal a nicely carpeted hallway, no threats immediately presented themselves. There was a beautiful painting of a boat on stormy waters taking up a good portion of the wall directly ahead, while the corridor itself ran both ways past the elevator. The only other bit of furnishing in the hall was a small table partway down on the right with a vase on it. Otherwise, it was just pale blue carpeted floor and wood paneled walls. The place looked more like a mid-range hotel hallway than something that would be in a hospital.

Cautiously, the two of us moved into that all, making room just before Columbus appeared with his hand on Doug. Right behind him was Avalon, who borrowed Columbus’s teleportation to appear with Choo (who still had Marian on his back).

Columbus immediately disappeared then after dropping off Doug, before showing up once more with Scout. And then we were all there.

While Tabbris made Marian gently pat Choo’s head (who was vaguely freaked out by the teleportation) and made cooing noises to calm him down, the rest of us looked around. The hall was long, extending pretty far in either direction, with a handful of blank, unlabeled doors.

Luckily, Rudolph had already told us where we needed to go, just in case we got up here without him, or if anything happened. According to the boy, most of these doors basically led nowhere. Or, at most, to regular offices. We needed to go left, hit the end of the hall, then go right to reach the director’s penthouse office. The director himself usually teleported directly into it, but this was the… well, ‘manual’ way of getting there. Which also meant that there would probably be even more problems for us to work our way through before we actually made it to the office itself. And there… well, there we’d no doubt find Manakel himself. And then things would get even more ‘fun.’

Get to the office, use the spell-hiccup grenades on the jammer, and then let Gaia and the others come in and clean everything up. That was all we had to do, and there was no reason for Manakel to suspect we even knew how to use a spell that would disrupt the jammer at all.

Um, are you trying to convince me that it’s gonna be easy, or yourself? Tabbris hesitantly piped up then.

Wincing, I mentally shrugged. It’s definitely not gonna be easy. I’m going for convincing both of us that it’s possible. How am I doing?

There was a brief pause then, before she replied, I think it’s possible. We just have to help Mama and the others get inside, right?

Right, I confirmed. We help your mom, Gaia, and the others and then let them handle the worst of it. We can do that.

I hope.  

By that time, Columbus had turned to the rest of us after carefully examining the corridor with his goggles, shaking his head. “No spells,” the boy murmured quietly before immediately adding in a slightly darker tone, “which makes this feel even worse.”

Avalon nodded. “It’d be better if there were spells to stop us. This way, it’s like he actually wants us to get there.”

“Oh, I’m sure he does,” I replied before looking to Shiori. “Anything?”

Her head shook. “No one’s watching us. Or me,” she amended then. “No one’s watching me.”  

Holding the crossbow that his pen had created in one hand, Doug quickly snapped, “Rudolph and Sean can’t hold out forever down there. We need to get there asap. Yesterday, preferably.”

He was right. There was no time to waste. So, without another word, we sprinted together down that hall. Columbus went first, keeping an eye out for any magic that could have stopped us (or worse), while the rest of us were right behind him, spreading out to take up most of the width of the hall. Tabbris kept Marian on Choo’s back as the Jekern ran right between Avalon and Shiori, making happy noises about being allowed to run with the rest of us.

The place was huge. I didn’t know what else was up here besides the director’s office, but apparently they did a lot. We ran for what had to be five minutes, following Rudolph’s instructions. Left, hit the end of the hall, then go right. The trouble was that ‘right’ went on for what felt like forever. I was pretty sure there was some spatial trickery going on.

Finally, we came to the end of that ridiculously long hall. Right there in front of us were a pair of enormous, ornate double doors. They were made of what looked like rare jungle wood (not that I was an expert or anything), and had intricate designs carved all along the sides and along the top that seemed to depict some epic battle between a man with a sword and a bunch of monsters, if you followed it from bottom left, up to the top, then along and down to the bottom right. The knobs were each gold, and shaped like a snake’s head. In the middle of each door was a half-circle that formed a full circle when they were closed, and in the middle of that circle were the words, ‘Medici Graviores Morbos Asperis Remediis Curant.’

Doctors cure the more serious diseases with harsh remedies, Tabbris translated quietly. Sounds like a quote or something.

Before I could respond to that, Avalon moved to those doors. She looked to Columbus while raising her foot to kick them in, and he nodded to show that there was apparently no magical spell connected to them or anything. So the girl reared back, lashing out with her foot. The blow knocked both doors inward, making them spring open while the rest of us moved quickly to cover her. Because again, perfect time for a trap.

But there wasn’t one. At least, not one that triggered right then. There were no zombies waiting, no cackling Seosten monster, no one.

What we saw instead was… an office. A pretty grand one, at that. There were floor to ceiling ‘windows’ all along the far wall that showed various scenes similar to the ones in Gaia’s office. The ceiling was about twenty feet up, while the whole room itself was about thirty feet across from this wall to the one where the windows were, and a good forty feet long. The door we were at was close to the rear right corner. The carpeting was plush and clearly expensive, and there was a fully stocked bar about midway down on our side of the room, while opposite that was a wooden dining table loaded with fruits and cheeses, along with a glass of what looked like wine that was half-finished. At the far end sat an enormous desk that looked large enough for an ogre to hold court at, with a chair that was more like a throne. Seriously, who was this office supposed to be for, exactly, a literal god of healing?

Oh, and of course there were also the forcefields holding all the hostages. Couldn’t forget about that.

Yeah. Forcefields and hostages. They were tube-shaped, spaced about five or six feet apart along the far window-wall, and each held a different individual. Professor Dare was there, as was Professor Kohaku, Deveron, Nevada, and… Koren. Koren was there too, somehow. All of them were frozen in place, in what looked like some kind of suspended animation. Each of them also looked surprised, though Professor Dare also looked angry.

Eyes widening at that sight, I moved that way, blurting an incredulous and confused, “What the hell?”

Koren. Why was Koren here? What happened to her? Was this because she sent that message? Had Manakel grabbed her then? And Deveron… had he been with her? What about that pixie? What happened to the pixie? What… how… what?

The others followed me as I rushed that way, until Columbus put a hand up to stop us. “Wait,” he started, “spells. There’s spells attached to them. They…” Frowning as he trailed off, the boy slowly looked along the floor, before eventually focusing on the opposite wall, back behind the bar. “There.”

Doug was closest, and he looked around a little there before reaching up. His hands found some kind of latch, before yanking open panel that revealed a safe with a keypad.

“A safe, seriously?” Shiori was shaking her head. “Let me guess, that’s–”

“–Where the jammer is,” Columbus finished for her, nodding. “Yeah.”

“Okay, first of all, why is Koren Fellows here?” Doug was pointing past us to the girl in question. “I mean, the others I get, but Fellows? Actually, come to think of it, why was she texting you about this Manakel guy to begin with? She’s obviously in on it and all, but… how much? And why is she here now instead of back at the school? What the hell is up with you guys?”

“Excellent questions,” I replied. “Unfortunately, we seriously don’t really have time to go over them. Not even the parts that I’m actually physically capable of explaining right now.”

“You know what else we don’t have time for?” Columbus snapped then with a vague gesture across the room. “Figuring out a combination for that safe. And believe me, all the spells hooked up to it, you don’t want to try to break it open.”

Nodding, I turned in a circle while a frown found its way to my face. “Yeah. Plus, you know, why isn’t Manakel in here? Seriously, a safe is all that’s protecting his jammer and his hostages? I don’t buy it. So where the hell is he? Shiori?”

The girl shook her head. “Nuh uh. No one’s watching us that we don’t know about.”

“This is screwed up,” I announced. “Something about this whole thing is just… really screwed up.”

Doug shrugged a little. “Well, the safe’s easy enough. Haven’t used my question yet today, so…” Pausing briefly to consult his power, he then quickly typed in a series of nine numbers. The safe beeped, and he pulled the door open, revealing the compartment inside. And within that compartment sat a glowing blue crystal, about a foot high and shaped roughly like a stereotypical diamond, sitting on a wooden pedestal.

“That’s it, right?” the boy asked, looking back to the rest of us while tugging his jammer-interrupter from his pocket. “We just use this thing right now and the cavalry can come in?” God, he sounded so hopeful that it would be that easy.

It was easy. Entirely too fucking easy. Which Columbus immediately confirmed by quickly shaking his head. “Don’t,” he warned with a raised hand, “it’s a trap. Yeah, that’s the jammer. Or I’m pretty sure it is, anyway. But… but the spells are connected from those forcefields into that crystal.” He gestured to where Dare, Koren, and the others were held in their magical stasis prisons. “I dunno what they do, but I can see six spells leading directly into that jammer, and five of them leading back out again. I can’t see where they go. It’s… blocked or something, I don’t know. It’s like the lines disappear, like they’re protected. But I’m pretty sure they connect to the stasis fields over there. I just… couldn’t tell you what they’re for.”

“And we don’t have time to figure out what they all do,” I put in with a groan while putting my hand up to my forehead. “Let alone disarm them safely. No wonder Manakel left this here. He could probably sit around doing a leisurely crossword or something while we try to figure this out. And this whole time, Sean and Rudolph are down there dealing with zombies. Not to mention everything else that–Damn it, we don’t have time for any of this!”

“In that case,” a voice announced from the same doorway that we had just come through, “allow me to help you, Miss Chambers.”

The man who stood there, just in the doorway, wasn’t tall, standing a couple inches less than six feet. He looked like he was in his fifties, though he was clearly a hell of a lot older than that. He was also mostly bald, and maybe a tiny bit overweight, though he had clearly been quite handsome in his youth.

Manakel. It was Manakel, in the flesh. He had arrived. I didn’t know how long he’d been standing in the doorway, but there he was, looking utterly casual about the whole situation. Which, well, duh. Of course he felt secure. He could kill all of us together without breaking a sweat. Or really putting much effort into it at all.

As soon as the man arrived, Choo made a noise of (completely understandable) fear and moved behind Shiori with Marian still perched on his back. Once ‘safely’ hidden, he still stuck his head out and made a cautiously threatening sound at the man, electricity dancing across and between his little tusks.

If Manakel cared about the Jekern that was making noises at him, he didn’t show it. Instead, the Seosten who had tormented Avalon all year focused directly on her. “You see,” he explained, “those friends of yours are connected to what you so… ridiculously simplified as a… jammer, was it? They’re powering it, essentially. You can stop it for a second or two by interrupting those forcefields with your… toys.” His hand waved absently toward the spell-hiccup grenade Douglas was holding. “But, if you do that, the forcefield you’re interrupting will collapse. And in this case, collapse means crush itself into a tiny speck. It will go from being that size, to about… oh, this size.” His hand came up, showing his index finger and thumb formed into a tiny circle. “Which will, of course, crush everything inside of it.

“Now, I may have proven incapable of accurately predicting every move you people would make. But I’m pretty sure that’s something you don’t want to happen to… well, any of the people in those forcefields.”

He smiled at us then, letting that silence hold for just a couple of seconds before adding a tiny shrug. “On the plus side though, after that, the jammer comes back up and everyone else is okay. So, you know, maybe I’m wrong and there’s someone here you see as an acceptable loss. Or two… three… exactly how many seconds do you think your friends out there need to break in here? How many of your friends here are you willing to kill just to save yourselves? I’m really quite curious on that part.”

Avalon was the one who found her voice first. “You’re seriously just going to stand there and see if we decide to kill one of the people here?”

Manakel’s response was a shrug. “I told you, I’m very curious. And we have time. Well, not much.” Holding up his wrist, the man tapped an expensive-looking watch with two fingers from his other hand. “By my clock, that protective spell is just about out of time. Which means it should be safe to kill you within… oh… sixty seconds?

“Oh, yes, I like this game very much. Let’s call it that, shall we? Sixty seconds. In sixty seconds, I’m going to kill you, Miss Sinclaire, or whatever moniker you’re using now. I’m going to kill you in front of the others. And then we will move onto them. Or, well, you could try killing off Miss Dare and however many others you need to before the cavalry arrives. Will two be enough? Or do you think they’ll need all six to make it in?”

“Six?” I put in despite myself. “There’s only five.”

Pursing his lips thoughtfully at that, Manakel replied, “Oh. Yes, well… looks can be deceiving.”

With that, the man snapped his fingers. As he did so, a sixth forcefield appeared at the very end. And in it were two figures: Sean and Vulcan. The boy had clearly been frozen in mid-shout, his expression startled.

“Sean!” I blurted, taking a step that way reflexively, the others all moving with me. Then I stopped. “But… where–”

Turning back, I froze. Because another figure stood beside Manakel. Rudolph. His shirt was stained with blood. Blood that fell from his sliced-open throat, while his utterly sightless eyes seemed to stare through me, accusing in their emptiness.

“What can I say,” Manakel announced offhandedly while laying his hand on the head of the boy he had murdered before letting his body simply fall to the floor in a heap.

“I only had six forcefields.”

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Desperate Measures 37-05

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Quick note, there was a bonus chapter of this arc posted on Wednesday. If you did not see that yet, you might be slightly lost in this chapter. So you might wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

The timing was incredibly important. Thanks to Scout (really living up to her namesake), and her invisible scope-portals, we knew exactly where all of the people on that higher floor were. And, more importantly, when they were near the glass dumbwaiter. We needed as many as possible to be close to it, rather than spread out over the whole floor. If the plan went the way it should, the whole floor would be taken care of anyway, but getting as many as possible in that first, initial surprise ambush was going to be important if we were all going to survive this.

Finally, there were at least ten of the guards within earshot of the lift. That was going to have to be good enough, because we couldn’t wait any longer.

At the sound of the dumbwaiter starting to rise toward them, all of the troops in the room and adjoining hallway spun toward it, moving closer. Their weapons came up, and they took aim. Then they paused, because what was coming up in that lift wasn’t any of us. Instead, they saw a small fox sitting there with a pouch tied around its neck by a leather strap.

“Is that a—” One of the soldiers, a red-armored figure, started. That was as far as he got, however. Because Tabbris, as the fox, suddenly jumped down out of the glass enclosure and started to run. A couple of the guys opened fire, but the fox was too quick, darting between their legs.

And then the troops had other problems. Because the mouth of the pouch opened, and from that opening came a thick, disgusting gas that instantly made the troops start coughing and choking, stumbling around a little while their shots went even more wide than before.

The pouch belonged to Shiori. It was the thing that she carried Choo around with. Like so much Heretic equipment, it was a lot bigger on the inside. Choo had his own miniature park in there that he could play in.

But he wasn’t in there now. Instead, what was in there was every last one of the Mesches that Manakel had been using to get those protection spells off of Avalon. We had used the specimen elevator to quietly collect them, storing them in that bag of holding. Now, they were all in there, pissed off and riled up about being disturbed and thrown into a new area. Which meant that they were giving off even more of that poison gas of theirs than usual. Poison gas which had been building up for about ten minutes by that point, and now had only one place to go: out through that single opening. The gas flooded out of the bag, quickly filling the room. And, unlike Avalon earlier, these guys didn’t have the Tabilten to counteract the poison.

Tabbris send Marian running out of that room and down the hall, working to fill as much of the floor with bad gas as possible. Which also worked to give her cover, blinding the people who were trying to shoot at her. And since it was being actively produced by our new little friends in there, there was no end of it. It would just keep coming.

It was time for step two of the plan. As the choking, coughing soldiers stumbled through the gas-filled room, they were caught off guard once more as the floor beneath them exploded. Well, the floor didn’t really explode so much as the mines that I had placed all along the ceiling of the room below them went off at once. The concussive force blew several holes in the floor, dumping some of the guards through them to hit the floor below, while others were thrown into walls.

Rudolph, Doug, and Shiori were ready. As the surprised soldiers dropped through the holes in the suddenly unstable floor, all three of them opened up with their weapons, tearing right through them before they could recover.

More of the troops came running. As they hit the hallway right outside of the room in question, their leader suddenly pitched over backward with a shot through his forehead, courtesy of Scout, hitting him through the scope-portal she had set up ahead of time.

The guys behind him stumbled to a stop, looking in vain for the source of the shot. And them holding still in that exact moment was the wrong choice. Because right then, thanks to an item-sense almost identical to mine that told him where they were, Sean opened up with Vulcan. The boy was standing directly below that hallway, with his cyberform partner held in his gun mode and aimed up at the ceiling. He unleashed a terrifying hurricane of bullets, flooding that hallway above with more metal than a 3 mile wide scrapyard.

Then there was me. As the floor finished collapsing under the force of those mines, I triggered my staff and launched myself upward, through one of those holes. I landed in the bullet riddled hallway right as Sean stopped firing, his sense telling him I was there.

Of course, there was still that poison gas. It was still flooding the whole floor, even going down through the holes that my mines and those bullets had caused. Which would have put us in the same situation as the guys we were fighting. Would have, except that we were prepared. Prepared, in this case, with scraps of cloth, torn from our own clothes, that have been tied around our necks. The bits of cloth had been enchanted with the breathing spell that Professor Carfried had taught us earlier in the year. The breathing spell which he had very specifically said would allow us to breathe through poison gas. Even I used it, because even though I could technically hold my breath for about ten minutes, doing so in the middle of a fight didn’t seem like fun.

So, unlike our opponents, we could breathe just fine. The poison gas wouldn’t hurt us, though it did make it a bit harder to see. But that was okay, because it wasn’t impossible, and I still had my item sense in any case. That was why I went first. Well, Sean had the same power. But he had been needed below.

Landing on that unstable floor, I gave myself a quick boost with my staff over the bullet hole-riddled area, landing a bit further down just in time to see two more guys running toward me. They were choking on the gas, unable to see much of what they were doing. But they would be right on top of me in a second.

I let them come, waiting until the last second before lunging that way to shove the blade of my staff through one of their throats. My aura flared up, and I felt the distant pleasure from the kill even as it was muffled by Tabbris. Just as quickly, I spun before the other guy could recover. He was too far away to hit with a swipe from my weapon. At least… he was until I used that new power I’d picked up that let me grow and shrink items that I could hold. In this case, I made my staff extend to twice its normal size, taking the man’s head from his shoulders with that single swipe of the suddenly-enlarged weapon. The two never knew what hit them.

Unfortunately, a couple of other guys did know what had hit them. I didn’t know if they were just resistant, or all out immune to the gas. But they didn’t seem to be affected by it. The two came into view, and through the haze of the gas I thought they looked a bit like walking hammerhead sharks.

Then there was electricity coursing toward me, as the shark guys, or whatever they were, opened up not with their weapons, but with literal lightning shooting from their eyes.

I dodged one, thanks to my werewolf-enhanced agility, literally ducking and twisting away from the line of electricity. But the other one caught the edge of my arm, which immediately spasmed and made me drop the staff to clatter along the floor. Even with the electrical resistance I’d picked up back at Radueriel’s station, it still hurt like hell. I couldn’t begin to imagine what kind of charred black figure I would’ve been without that resistance.

They were on me then, and I realized belatedly that they were more bird like then shark like, with feathers and short, stubby wings that only seemed to let them jump really well rather than fly. Their heads really were shaped like a hammerhead shark, however, with a parrot-like beak right in the middle.

One of them grabbed me by the arm, and I felt more of that electricity shoot into me. My body spasmed and I gave a sharp cry just as the other one put his fist into the side of my face, knocking my head to the side. I couldn’t react. The electricity kept making my muscles seize up and spasm. Pain resistance and electrical resistance, and I still couldn’t stand up to this lightning. Just how powerful were these guys? Even my attempt to absorb the energy seemed to fail, which was just cheating. And I only liked it when my side cheated.  

Then a glowing blade suddenly tore through one of their chests from behind. The other one twisted that way, just in time for that same blade to be shoved through his face.

Their bodies dropped, and Avalon doubled over a little with a gasp from the kill pleasure while her aura appeared briefly. She had been with me the whole time, possessing my staff right up until the moment I had gotten into trouble.

It took both of us a couple of seconds to recover, her from the kill pleasure and me from the electricity. Thankfully, the werewolf regeneration I had just recently picked up had already started to earn its keep.

After taking in a couple more breaths, I looked over to the girl beside me and gave her a questioning thumbs up, my uncertainty written across my face for her to see. “Okay?” I asked quickly.

Nodding back to me, Avalon returned the gesture before straightening without a word. She was focused.

I could feel more enemies approaching, others that didn’t seem to be affected by the gas. A large portion of them were incapacitated, some had even died. But there are still those who were immune to it or resistant for whatever reason. Or maybe they had just been fast enough to use a spell to protect themselves. I wasn’t sure. Either way, they still needed to be dealt with.

Thankfully, we still had more help. Even as the new troops came toward us, bullets tore up through the floor at them from Sean down below. Meanwhile another one went down from a bullet out of nowhere courtesy of Scout. And yet another was hit from behind as Rudolph appeared by literally popping up through the floor, using his apparently newfound intangibility power to get behind them and launch an arrow. One of them turned to face him, but the boy dove through one of the other walls, putting it between him and the retaliation. Which gave Avalon an opening to use her inherited vampire speed to blur clear down the hallway and impale the guy on her energy blade before he could turn back.

Somewhere off on the other end of the same floor we were on, I could hear the distant sounds of Columbus, Choo, and Shiori working together to clean up there as well as blocking off the stairs that would lead up here from below. We just had to clear this floor out enough to make our way to the executive elevator so we could reach the top floor offices and get to the director’s penthouse. Get in, jam the jammer, and then let Gaia and the others deal with the situation. That’s all we had to do, all we really could do.

But Manakel obviously knew that too. That was why this floor had been so full of guards to keep us from doing just that. And normally it would have worked, because even with as skilled as we had become over the past year, taking these guys on all at once in a fair fight would have been complete suicide. That’s why we didn’t let them have a fair fight. Cheating our asses off was the order of the day. Actually, it was the order of every day. Fighting a fair fight at any point was stupid. But even more so now.

Between the poison cloud, Sean and Scout shooting the guys from out of nowhere, Columbus and Shiori working one side of the floor, Avalon and me working the other, and Rudolph popping in and out of the walls and floor to take pot shots whenever someone was open, most of these troops didn’t stand a chance. Especially since we hit them hard and fast before they even really understood what was going on. I was pretty sure the last thing they had expected was for us to mount a direct assault. They had felt secure in their numbers and the fact that we were ‘just kids’.

Unfortunately for them, we wouldn’t give the troops a chance to learn from that mistake.

Eventually, Avalon and I worked our way up to the front where the stairs and elevator on the east side were. I saw Columbus kneeling in front of the stairwell, while Shiori and Choo guarded him. The boy was moving his hands through the empty space in the doorway. Everywhere his hands moved, a hard, resin-like material appeared. It was like a wall made of amber, and according to Columbus, it would hold against a decent amount of punishment before breaking. It would give us a little time. There were already similar walls erected against the elevator doors.

Marian came jogging up to me then, Tabbris managing to make the fox-figure look quite pleased with herself while I knelt to close the bag and fasten it. We’d worry about getting the Mesches out of there later so that Choo could have his home back.

At the moment, the little guy (Not as little as he had been, obviously. Now he was about the size of a medium sized dog) was standing guard next to Shiori. Obviously, he wore a breathing-spell collar of his own to protect him from the poison. Electricity danced around the warthog-creature’s partially-grown tusks while he stood atop the fallen body of another Seosten soldier. Seeing Avalon and me approach, Choo gave a little dance while making happy, proud noises until we moved to pet him. Then he preened, even as Tabbris parked Marian next to him, fox and electric-pig looking like they were meant to be partners.

“Good enough,” Columbus announced, rising from putting the last touch of wall up. He patted it, looking to me. “It’s not perfect, but–”

“I know, good enough,” I agreed while rubbing Marian’s head with one hand (it was probably dumb, but it was as close as I could get to patting Tabbris right then) and Choo with the other.

The resin-wall would have to be good enough. We didn’t need it to hold for long, just enough to hold off reinforcements so that we could get to that penthouse. Disrupting the jammer for even a few seconds, that was the only thing that mattered.

I was, of course, trying not to think about one of the big questions. Specifically, where Professor Dare, Kohaku, and Nevada were. I was pretty sure they were supposed to be in the building, but were they fighting somewhere else? Had they been tricked into leaving or cast out somehow? Or were they–

Not thinking about it. I was very specifically not thinking about it.

Rudolph, Sean, Scout, and Douglas (who had been covering the previous two down there while they were distracted by shooting up here) joined us a moment later. Most of the group was panting, needing to take a break. But we didn’t have time to. Not only were there bound to be more reinforcements that wouldn’t be stopped for long by Columbus’s walls (especially if they took the time to find the holes in the floor where we had come up, or just used teleporters/any other cheap way through), but also because that Mesches’ gas was still around for the moment. It would dissipate quickly through all the holes that we had made now that the source had been closed up. But still, there was enough around that our breathing spells were going to run out a lot faster than they should. We needed to keep moving and stay on the offensive.

With that in mind, we took just a few seconds before heading out once more. Together, the nine of us (counting Choo and Tabbris-as-Marian because why wouldn’t I?) sprinted down the gas-filled corridor. Rudolph led the way as we weaved our way through the maze of halls, past more rooms and a lot more fallen bodies.

None of us technically got credit for the gas-kills, as far as the Heretic part of us was concerned. They had actually been killed by the Mesches. But I didn’t really care about that in the moment. All that mattered was that they were out of the way. And yeah, maybe part of me had hesitated a little at the idea of using what kind of amounted to actual chemical warfare. Especially when it came to involving Tabbris. Yet, on the other hand… without it, all of us would be dead or enslaved. So yeah, I went there. My initial plan had been for me to pilot Marian through all that, but Tabbris had insisted that she do it, so that I could participate as myself (as far as Doug and Rudoloph were concerned, I was just auto-piloting the fox up and down the halls without paying attention to it). So, in the end, I had agreed.

After all, we were desperate right now. And desperate times called for… well, yeah.

A few more soldiers still stood in our way, but we basically went right over them. They were too spread out, with the gas still at least making it difficult to see even if they had ways to breathe through it, and we were together. Not much stood in our way, at least for that moment.

Finally, working together, we reached the last elevator. This one was different from the others. It only ran between this floor and the one directly above, rather than connecting to anywhere else. It also required a passcode (the protective spells on the elevator meant that even Shiori couldn’t force it open, and my own security-breaking power wasn’t strong enough to bypass it), but Rudolph was able to quickly tap in the code that he knew from his grandfather, and the doors opened.

“So, we’re not stupid enough to actually get in and ride it up, are we?” That was Douglas. “Because I’m pretty sure that’d just make this thing into one big coffin.”

“No,” I replied with a quick headshake. “We go up through the top of it, then make our way up the shaft to the next floor. We–”

That was as far as I managed to get, before the sound of approaching footsteps made my eyes snap to the doorway at the end of the hall. Two figures stood there, both clad in that Seosten armor. But that wasn’t the only thing familiar about them. They were also familiar because they were the same electricity-throwing hammerhead-bird guys that Avalon had killed back there.

They were joined by others that I remembered either killing myself or passing while they were dead. And they weren’t just at that doorway. There were other dead figures coming from more directions, quickly filling the corridor. Worse, some weren’t walking. They were crawling along the walls and ceiling. It was… well, it was fucking creepy, to be honest.

“Zombies,” Avalon muttered with disgust. “Manakel was Hades. They’re zombies. Of course.”

Without wasting another second, as the horde started toward us, I extended my staff. A cloud of sand shot out of the portal on the end of it, which I sent flying that way. As the cloud sped toward the risen dead, I focused on making them hotter. Little help here, partner?

I felt Tabbris giving me a slight nudge inwardly, helping me access that power. And the sand suddenly turned red, a superheated cloud of particles that tore into the zombies, burning through them here and there like a thousand tiny, blazing hot bullets.

It slowed them down, ‘killing’ some of them once more. Meanwhile, I heard the others contributing their own shots in other directions. Unfortunately, the bodies kept getting back up if we ever slowed our attacks. Hell, even parts of their bodies were getting up. Taking off the heads wasn’t working either.

Lowering Vulcan after another burst, Sean shook his head. “We try climbing up right now and they’ll be right behind us. We can’t keep them down long enough.”

“We don’t have time for this!” I blurted, loosing a quick energy-arrow at another group, which exploded with enough force to make them briefly stumble. At the same time, I used my cloud of hot sand to literally burn the legs off of a zombie from the other direction. “We’ve gotta go!”

“Go.” That was Rudolph. The boy let three quick arrows fly in rapid succession, glancing to Sean. “We’ll cover you?” The last bit was a question.

“He’s right.” Sean nodded. “You guys get up there. We’ll keep the zombies off you. I’ve got this side, he’s got that side. If they get too close, we’ll take the elevator. Just go, we’ll hold them as long as we can.”

I hated that idea. I hated the idea of splitting up. And from the looks on everyone else’s faces, they felt the same way. But there wasn’t a choice. The zombies would be right on top of us if we turned our backs to them. We had to have someone keep them away from us long enough to get where we needed to be.

“Be careful, man.” Doug embraced Rudolph briefly, while Columbus did the same for Sean.

Then we had to go. There was no time to say anything else, no time to plan anything else. The two boys turned their attention to filling the corridor with enough firepower to keep the zombies away from the elevator, while the rest of us had to move on. We were going to have to get up the shaft to the penthouse.

And just hope that we managed to pull this off before Sean, Vulcan, and Rudolph were overwhelmed. Otherwise, it wouldn’t just be them who fell to Manakel’s zombie horde.

It would be all of us.

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Desperate Measures 37-04

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“So,” I asked Scout a short while later, “how does it look?”

We had all been working on the spell that Tabbris had been teaching through me. There was nothing elegant about it, really, which was the only reason we could learn it that fast. Tabbris (or I, as far as Rudolph and Douglas were concerned) had basically taught us how to make a very simple spell that would block the jammer for about two seconds. That was it. For those bare couple of seconds, the jamming spell would essentially ‘hiccup’.

We just had to hope that it would be enough for Gaia and the others to make it in. Not only because we didn’t have time to learn anything more complicated, but also because none of us (even all together) had the kind of power needed to actually fully take down something like that.

Scout, who had finished making her spell already, was currently looking through the scope of her rifle seemingly at nothing. In response to my question, she set it down and shook her head at me, replying, “Too many.”

To demonstrate, the girl held up the back of the rifle and hit a button so that we could see what she had been looking at. The area in front of the elevators was swarming with enemies. Some of them were clearly mercenaries, while others had the Seosten uniform armor on.

“It’s that way at all of them,” Scout informed us quietly, once everyone had glanced that way.

Groaning a little while holding the spoon that he had been inscribing the jammer-hiccup spell on, Rudolph lamented, “There’s no way we can get through that many. Especially not before they get even more reinforcements.”

“Right,” I murmured. “Which means we can’t use the elevators or the stairwells to get up to where we need to be.”

“Make the spells,” Columbus advised from where he was sitting next to his sister. “Make the spells, then worry about getting there. One step at a time.”

“He’s right,” Sean agreed. “We should finish with this first.” He gestured to the half completed collection of the spell-hiccup grenades, or whatever they should have been called. “Some of us are a little slower than others. Let’s finish up, then decide how to get where we need to be to use them.”

Hey, I directed inwardly while waiting for the others to finish up. I know it’s been really busy and pretty chaotic so we haven’t really had much of a chance to go over it, but if I’ve picked up anything useful from these fights lately, now’s the time to let me know. Since we’ve got a second.

I sensed the other girl’s surprised realization. Wait, I never told you what you got when we were going to save Mama, did I?

Nope, but believe me, I understand the distraction.

Again, I felt her rising embarrassment while she hurriedly started, When you killed that big rock guy back on the ship you got the power to shape and move little rocks. Then from that green guy you got the ability to make this liquid come out of your skin that can make people dizzy and nauseous if it touches them. And another guy made it so you can turn handfuls of any liquid into a gel ball thing that turns back into a liquid a few seconds after you let it go. Those would probably work pretty well together.

Wait, I started then, blinking. Animate rocks? Okay, yeah, that’s definitely something I should know. Good, thanks.

Quickly, Tabbris continued. You got a couple more little strength and agility boosts, nothing to write home about, while you were going through Kushiel’s lab. Oh, and you can make your fingernails really hard. Like, steel hard. And when we were right outside of the prototype ship that Mama was on, you killed three more guys. One of them made you immune to most kinds of radiation, another one gave you a spell-power boost, and the third one made it so that any image you’re thinking of, if you touch a flat surface, you can sorta… make a picture of that appear there. It looks like a… a drawing, I guess?

Well, that all sounds useful, I replied thoughtfully, running through so many ideas in my head.

Uh huh, Tabbris agreed. And then there’s tonight. Um. Well, you got better regeneration from the werewolf. And just a minute ago back in the stairs, that big guy with the gun gave you the ability to make any non-living item you can hold in your hands that you spend at least a few hours with either shrink really tiny, or grow really big. Like, making a penny as big as a manhole cover, or making that big gun that guy had small enough to fit in a normal pocket. Or making anywhere in between.  But before that, you killed those five guys by Avalon’s room and got the power to imitate any voice you’ve heard, make someone’s muscles spasm for a second when you touch them, that nausea liquid thing you got earlier is stronger, not that you ever saw it before, the ability to hold onto the energy you absorb for longer and to hold more of it, and you can make very small amounts of any material you can touch, like no more than a few pounds at a time, give off a lot of heat. Like, so much heat that it’ll burn through things.

Does that few pounds have to be all in one object, I asked, Or can it be a whole bunch of really, really tiny objects? Like, say, the size of a grain of sand.

There was a brief pause then before the other girl realized. Oh. Ohhh. Oh. Wow. Um, yeah, yeah. You can heat up a few pounds of sand at a time in separate grains. So instead of regular sand flying around, you can have really hot sand.

Wait, I started then, won’t it just turn to glass or something then? I’m not sure how that works.

Nuh uh, she replied, your power protects it from anything like that.

Grinning despite myself, I nodded. Good to know. Really, really good to know.

“Uhhh, Flick?” Sean was looking at me, and I realized that the others had been talking. “You okay?”

Coughing, I nodded. “Yeah, I’m good. Sorry. Just thinking about the look on Manakel’s face when we break his jamming spell and let the others in here.”

Avalon gave me a brief, discerning look before straightening a bit. “We still don’t know how to get to that jammer. The elevators and stairs are still…” She trailed off, glancing to Scout for confirmation. When the other girl nodded, she finished, “Yup, still blocked. So we need another way.”

Doug looked to Rudolph, still holding one of the small medical pamphlets he had plucked off a nearby table for his own jammer-hiccup spell. “Hey man,” he started, you know this place better than the rest of us. Can you think of any other way to get up there?”

The other boy started to shake his head with obvious frustration before abruptly stopping. Head tilting a little, he changed that shake to a nod. “Actually, yes. Yeah.” Now he was talking a little more excitedly. “I know a way to get us at least closer.”

Quickly, he explained. “In one of the specimen labs. They’ve got this little cubby elevator thing. It’s small, but they use it to run samples up and down between the floors. We’d have to go one at a time and scrunch in there. But I think we should all fit that way. It doesn’t run all the way to the top floor, so we have to find another way to get that far. But it’s close.”

Grinning at that, I leaned over to give the boy a quick hug. “Perfect, we’ll work from there. Do you know how to get to it from here?”

Blushing, Rudolph opened and shut his mouth a couple times before giving a quick nod. I was pretty sure he didn’t trust his voice right then.

“Okay,” Sean started with a tiny smirk. “If Flick’s done embarrassing our guide, maybe he can show us where we’re going.”

“You’re just jealous you didn’t get a hug this time,” I retorted with a sniff before winking at Rudolph. “But yeah, if everyone’s ready, let’s—wait.”

“Wait?” Avalon echoed with a glance my way. “Everyone wait?”

“Yeah,” I replied, “I just thought of something I want to do first. Just in case. Sorry, I should’ve done it earlier, but I just thought of it.”

It took a few minutes to do what I wanted to do, but eventually, it was ready. Giving a nod of satisfaction, I straightened up. “Okay, now we can go.”

I moved with the others, and we carefully emerged from that back lab. We were moving slowly and cautiously, all of us focusing on any power we had that could tell us if we were about to be attacked or run into anyone. So far, it was clear. But I didn’t expect that to last long.

Sure enough, before we even got all the way through the larger lab room again, I held up my hand to stop the others. Nearby, Sean, who had the same item-sense power I did, was doing the same.

As the others looked to us expectantly, we took a moment to focus on what we could feel on the other side of the door through my item sense. Then I looked to Sean for confirmation while holding up four fingers to show that there were four guards. Once the others had that, I held up two fingers and mind shooting with a gun. Then I held up one finger and made an axe chopping motion. For the fourth finger, I pantomimed lighting up a lightsaber and cutting with it, making a quiet humming noise under my breath so they would get the point.

Sean gave a nod of confirmation each time. I had felt that right. Four guys, two with guns, one with some kind of axe, and the fourth with a laser sword. Plus, we had no idea what kind of powers they might have. Neither of our item-sense powers told us quite that much. We just knew what they were holding or wearing, and that they were on the other side of the door in that hallway.

Scout looked to me intently, mouthing the question, ‘Ambush?’ She already had her rifle unslung and was getting ready to set up a scope-portal to see what we were dealing with.

I started to shrug along with Sean, but Shiori and Avalon both  shook their heads, the latter speaking in a voice that was so soft we could barely hear it even from that close. “They’re just talking about what to do with the reward if they find us. They don’t know how close they are.”

That was lucky for us, but we were still going to have to get past these guys as quickly and quietly as possible. The hospital had to be completely swarming with enemies by this point. The last thing we wanted to do was attract too much attention, or stay in one place for too long once anything started happening that might get people to come running.

We were going to have to deal with this as quickly and quietly as possible, without giving them a chance to call for help.

With that in mind, I smiled. “Okay, I’ve got an idea. Scout, what are they doing out there? It feels like they’re moving now. Well, most of them anyway.”

In response, the other girl shifted her rifle to let us see what she was looking at. Sure enough, there were four figures in the corridor. One was standing somewhat close to the door. He was one of the gun guys, and he looked anxious, clearly ready for trouble. Meanwhile, the other three were patrolling up and down the hall. The big guy with the axe and the other gunman were walking together, while the one with the laser sword walked by himself. Basically, the two together would walk to one end of the hall, glancing into rooms as they went, while the one by himself walked in the opposite direction to the other end of the hall. Then they would turn and walk back toward each other, meeting the one guy standing in the middle near our room, before passing each other on their way to do the same at the opposite ends of the hall.

Which left the guy in the middle vulnerable for just a brief time, while the other three were walking in either direction away from him, before they turned back. It wasn’t long, especially if we were going to wait until they were far enough away that they (hopefully) wouldn’t hear him. But it was something to work with. Which Avalon apparently agreed with, because she looked to Scout after squinting at the projected image for a moment. “Think you can shoot one of them before they know what’s going on?”

Scout gave her a firm nod then before returning her gaze to the scope of her weapon, still watching the men out there.

“Right, okay.” Clearly thinking about that for a second, Avalon looked to me. “We don’t know how tough these guys are, or how fast they’ll be able to call for help. So we don’t take any chances. Scout shoots the guy there. As he’s falling, Porter and Gerardo step out to shoot the two at that end with their weapons. Parsons and Chambers, you’ve both got bows, so hit the other guy at the opposite end together. Shiori, follow up on that before he can recover. Frey and I will go after the two that Porter and Gerardo hit and make sure they stay down.”

So that’s what we did. As soon as there was an opening, with the pair and the single guy both at opposite ends of the corridor (but shortly before they would have turned back), Scout pulled the trigger three times in rapid succession. Each pull sent another bullet into the head of the man right near the doorway.

He was already collapsing as we went through that door. Rudolph and I had our bows up, and launched arrows that way even as the man there turned back with that laser sword drawn and ignited. Behind us, I could hear Vulcan in his gun-form open up, along with the sound of Columbus using the concussive blast from his goggles.

Knocked to the ground and thoroughly distracted by the arrows that Rudolph and I had sent at him, our guy had no chance to protect himself from Shiori. She was basically a blur of motion, throwing herself that way before flinging one of her discs at the last second. The thing embedded itself in the guy’s throat, a second before it electrocuted him. And as if that wasn’t enough, an instant later, Shiori planted her foot in the side of her disc to force it the rest of the way through his neck so his head came off.

He was down. As were the other two at the opposite end. They were all down, and the hallway was clear. Which meant it was time for us to move, before reinforcements showed up.

No words had to be exchanged for everyone to understand that. With unspoken agreement, we all immediately looked to Rudolph. He, in turn, started to run, and we followed him. As a group, we raced down that corridor.

A couple more troops tried to stop us on the way, but they were mostly alone and didn’t stand much of a chance. We tore through them, Columbus and Sean clearing the path with their own weapons as they took up positions on either side of Rudolph. Bullets and concussive blasts filled the corridor.

The boy took a wrong turn or two, and had to backtrack. Which was pretty understandable, given the stress he was under and the fact that he didn’t actually work here or anything. But for the most part, Rudolph did really well under the circumstances. Leading us through a maze of corridors, he finally stopped outside of a room, gesturing within while whispering, “Specimen lift is in there.”

The door was locked, but that didn’t last long. Breaking in, we closed it behind us as best as we could, before Rudolph led us over to a corner where something that looked like a glass version of one of those dumbwaiters in mansions or whatever. It was set in the middle of a counter, and I could see the glass tube running up into the ceiling as well as down into the floor. At the moment, the lift itself was parked where we were.

“This should take us all the way up to one floor below the executive offices?” Avalon asked with a look to our guide. When he nodded, she reached for the glass door on the lift.

Scout, however, stopped her with a hand. Shaking her head, she turned her rifle to show that she had sent another scope-portal up. “Top floor,” she informed us.

It was crazy. There had to be thirty guys there, just within sight. They weren’t all gathered around the specimen lift or anything, but it was obvious that they were on high alert. Clearly, Manakel had no intention of just letting us waltz all the way up there. We were out of luck, just like that. Getting around that many troops was a complete non-starter. The floor was just so heavily guarded, there was no way we’d just be able to slip up there on the dumbwaiter thing and make our way from there to the next floor without getting mobbed by everyone there.

No way, that was, unless….

“Chambers,” Avalon demanded while squinting at me. “Why exactly are you smiling right now?”

“Me?” I asked, innocently. “Am I smiling? Huh, so I am.” Shrugging, I looked over to Rudolph. “You said this was the specimen lab, right? So this lift would go to other specimen labs on the way up and down?”

The boy nodded curiously, and I grinned. “Right. Well, in that case, I guess I might be smiling because I have a plan.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I have a plan.”

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