So, our group walked together across the orange-red ground. It continued to crunch under our feet, more like very thin snow than the dirt it resembled. The air was almost unpleasantly hot, and filled with that sulfur scent, which threatened to make us cough uncontrollably as we got closer to the volcano. But we dealt with both using magic, specifically the fresh air spell and another one Judas knew, which basically kept the temperature around our bodies to a more tolerable level. Although he did warn us that it wouldn’t stand up to very extreme temperatures, so we shouldn’t try to go swimming in lava or anything like that.
Jaq and Gus were riding on my shoulders, while the latter held Herbie in place on that side so he could see where we were going. I knew my little cyberform mice were worried about Mom too. She’d been giving them special treats now and then, little pieces of rare metal that was supposed to make their bodies tougher once they ingested and processed it. I wasn’t exactly sure how that worked, but apparently it was a thing for all Cyberforms. They rebuilt and repaired themselves over time using the metal they ‘ate.’ That was in addition to the way ones like Vulcan turned the ingested metal into new bullets. When they were able to get a particularly durable bit of metal, they could use that to strengthen their own form. My buddies were much tougher to squish by this point, all thanks to Mom’s help after she had been able to produce some truly rare samples. So they really wanted to find her too.
I did think about using the speed rings to make us go faster, but as impatient as I was for this to be over, the others needed to conserve as much energy as possible. It wouldn’t do us any good to sprint all the way there, only for half of us to collapse in exhaustion right when we found ourselves in trouble. Not everyone had the near-limitless stamina I had, or were a robot like Robin.
And speaking of Robin, they were in the lead, since their senses were better than anything the rest of us could boast, even the vampires. Especially with the way the volcano was messing with that. We might’ve had the fresh air spell keeping us from choking on the fumes, but that just meant that Senny and Stasia couldn’t smell anything beyond the effect. And if we lowered it, all they’d be able to smell would be the sulfur. It affected them even more than the rest of us.
But that was okay, because again, we had Robin. The Mevari could see and hear much further than the rest of us, even through the fog-like haze we began walking through. They made sure we didn’t stumble into any problems. Between Fossor and Denuvus, I was almost positive that there would be some sort of trap before we made it to our destination. Hell, probably more than one. For all we knew, the witch was watching us with magic right now, just waiting for us to get a little closer before–
No. No, Shiori had that power that allowed her to sense when she was being observed by someone she didn’t know about. She’d know if someone was watching us. Unless they had some way around that, of course. There was always magic and other powers to counter various abilities, including that one. And it would make sense for someone like Denuvus to have that. So really, there was nothing proving she wasn’t staring at us right now and plotting about what to do.
Shoving that incredibly unhelpful thought out of my head, I glanced around once more. Everything still looked the same. Robin was out in front, with Judas slightly behind them. Shiori, Tabbris, and I were walking side by side a few feet behind those two. About ten feet back from us, Stasia and Asenath were walking together, having their own telepathic conversation about vampire things. And a few feet further back from them, Persephone was riding on Twister, who was in the form of a rhino. They were also having their own conversation through the magical mental connection we’d set up. I hadn’t been privy to much of it, but from what they’d said a few minutes earlier when I asked what they were talking about, it had something to do with some very minor Seosten member of the Olympus Twister had met about eighty years ago without knowing what he was. It sounded like they had got along pretty well, and she wanted to know if he had just been manipulating her for some reason or what.
Eighty years ago would’ve been while the rebellion was still going strong. A rebellion Twister had been part of. Did her memories of meeting with this minor Olympian have something to do with that? Or was it entirely unrelated? I was going to have to ask her about that later, after we got through this whole thing. One problem at a time–okay, as few problems as physically possible at a time.
Squeezing my hand, Tabbris spoke through that same mental conversation spell. Despite the fact that she wasn’t talking out loud, her voice still came through in a whisper. Which wasn’t really necessary, but still. Do you think the people who live here are gonna be okay? I mean, on this world. Her telepathic voice was pensive, the girl squinting off into the distance as though trying to look toward one of the cities we knew were somewhere off in that direction. There was no chance she could see it, of course. The nearest inhabited area was thousands of miles away from here. Fossor hadn’t allowed anyone to live anywhere close to his old home. I still wondered if that had more to do with him being spiteful, or because he had put something important there. Maybe a bit of both.
Returning the squeeze, I replied, They have a much better chance of it now that he’s gone. It’ll take a long time for them to move on, but at least they’ve got the opportunity now.
Shiori nodded from my other side, speaking up equally softly through the telepathic connection. Yeah, without that evil jackass around, these people can figure out what sort of society they actually are, you know? It’s sort of like a whole new world is being born. She smiled briefly before grimacing. A world that’s been through a lot of horrific trauma.
They will heal. That was Rahanvael. The ghost girl appeared slightly ahead of us, her form coming into view as she stared at the volcano. Her mental voice was tentative, and I could tell it was all she could do to keep herself somewhat together. And yet, there was hope in her words. With my brother gone, the people of our world can move on and become something better.
I started to say something about how she had made that happen, wanting to help alleviate some of the guilt I knew she still felt. But before I could, Robin stopped up ahead and held their hand out. A small hologram projector embedded in their palm made the words, Hold here appear in the air so we could all see. They looked back at us, and I saw the dark blue eyes of Sec as the hologram changed to, There is a tunnel running below the ground. It appears to be artificial, given the metallic walls. That lasted long enough for all of us to read, before changing once more. It runs from that direction, to that direction. First he pointed off to the west, away from the volcano, then his hand moved east, to the volcano itself. We had been moving in a north-eastern direction, toward the volcano at an angle.
Wait. Rahanvael floated that way, stopping right next to Robin. She turned, looking to the west, the way Sec said the tunnel originated from. That direction is where my brother took me that day, the day he… She trailed off, visibly frowning before turning back to the east, the way the tunnel went. And that is the direction of our old home. It is… close. Her form flickered a little, probably thanks to what had to be a wave of conflicting emotions. From here, it would only take twenty minutes to reach our old farm. Or ten minutes to reach the spot where… he took me.
Either of those could be important to him, I agreed, stepping up next to her and Robin while reaching up to put Jaq, Gus, and Herbie away in my pockets. I guess it just depends on which one you think we should check out first.
Da, Stasia murmured as she and the others joined us. The Russian vampire stepped out a bit before crouching over the spot where the tunnel was supposed to be. It should be her choice which way we go to start. But either way, perhaps we should see if we can do so from inside.
She had a point. Whatever we were about to find, it would be better to get there from inside the tunnel. Any defenses or traps that were set up would probably be mostly pointed toward the entrances. Not that I expected it to be completely safe going in this way, of course. We all took a minute to spread out along the apparent path of the tunnel, figuring out the best way to get inside. According to Robin, the tunnel was about ten feet wide, and equally tall. The top of it was six feet down from where we were standing.
So, Judas started while staring at the dirt beneath our feet, what do you all think? I don’t know about you, but I didn’t bring a shovel. And even if I had, I don’t fancy spending the next couple hours doing this manually.
Twister, who had shifted back to her normal form after Persephone dismounted, kicked the dirt. Me neither. Even if I could maybe speed it up with an animal, there’s gotta be a better way. Do you Heretics have any spiffy powers that might help?
I–wait, maybe. Focusing on the dirt once more, I thought about my sand control power. Maybe this stuff was similar enough to that? If there was silica in it, or something that my power could pretend was silica, it might work.
We were in luck. The dirt, or sand, or whatever we wanted to call it now, moved under my focus. I could still only move about fifty pounds at a time, but it was still faster and easier than physically digging. The others helped by pushing the loose bits back as I dug down, making sure the stuff surrounding it didn’t fall into the opening and cover it up again. Before too long, I had managed to create a hole four feet wide and six feet deep, revealing the green metal top of the tunnel.There was also some sort of energy field running along it. At first we didn’t know what it was, but the moment Rahanvael tried to float through to check the place out, she was violently hurled backward. Anti-ghost field then, apparently.
Fossor put up an anti-ghost shield around his secret tunnel? Shiori sounded confused. Why would he do that? I mean, he was the only one who used ghosts here, right?
Rahanvael, recovering after a moment, shook her head. Our people are known for producing Necromancers. None anywhere near his level, but still. And our ghosts commonly lingered until they were sent onward by our priests. It makes sense that he would take measures to prevent any of them from reaching whatever he was hiding here. Her telepathic voice turned a bit bitter then. Even if he did attempt to kill any who demonstrated that sort of skill. Some might have been able to hide it for a time.
Yeah, of course he would have made a point of killing any of his own people who might have posed even the tiniest bit of a threat to him, no matter how remote. That and there was the fact that he never missed a chance to be as petty as possible.
Rahanvael continued. I think there’s a lot of that necromantic energy in the shield itself. There’d have to be, for it to react so violently and effectively against ghosts. It seems to be a mix of magic and technology. Some sort of generator he set up and fueled with-– She blanched, arms crossing over her stomach with a look of disgust.
With more of his sacrifices, I finished for her, sighing. He’s been gone for awhile, I don’t suppose there’s any chance of it running out of energy soon?
Considering how quick he was to kill off his own people, Judas put in, I wouldn’t count on that. He’s probably got enough power in there to keep the thing running for years. You said he didn’t come back here that often anyway. The dark-haired man rubbed the back of his neck before glancing toward me with those piercing eyes that I could feel even through the sunglasses he almost always wore. And personally, I don’t really feel like sitting around waiting to see if the power goes out.
Of course. I knew Judas, Robin, Stasia, and even Asenath really wanted to focus on finding Rasputin. They were all totally willing to help with this thing, Senny especially, given how important it was to me. And, most likely, the fact that we all thought Rasputin being here probably had something to do with Denuvus as well. Sure, it was possible that they both wanted to get completely different things from this place right after Fossor was killed. But given the way things had gone so far, I was willing to bet there was some sort of connection. At the very least, it made sense for all of us to stick together and look for my mother first. Stopping her from doing whatever Denuvus had sent her to do had to be our top priority. Not only because she was my mother, but also because whatever Denuvus wanted probably wouldn’t be good for the rest of us. That and none of us liked the idea of that woman popping up out of nowhere to fuck us over while we were distracted.
But even with all of that in mind, I couldn’t blame them for wanting to get on with this so they could find Rasputin. If he wasn’t connected to this, then they were potentially losing the chance to find him here.
Between that and my deep-seated fear that whatever Denuvus was sending my mother to do would be very bad, it was clear that we couldn’t wait around hoping that shield went down. We had to keep moving.
Persephone straightened up after poking her finger into the dirt beside the tunnel and tasting it with a thoughtful expression. It is probable that any breach of the shield would send an alert, which this Denuvus might become aware of. If she is actually here. Or anyone else who might be nearby.
What if Flick did it? Shiori asked, turning my way. Rahanvael said the thing has a lot of Fossor’s energy in it, and you have his power. Maybe you could disable it without setting off any alarms or anything. She offered a weak shrug. I know it’s a longshot, but still.
No, she’s right. That was Rahanvael herself, focusing on me. I think you can push the energy out of the way to create a hole. But everyone would have to create an opening in the metal quickly and go through.
I can do that! Tabbris piped up while raising her hand. Her expression was determined. I can use my wings to cut a hole in it, I promise. I’ve been practicing.
I knew she felt guilty about the fact that she hadn’t been able to use her wings to cut through the security door back when Mom had locked us in that asteroid station. I’d tried to tell her not to worry about it, that Mom knew about her power and had prepared for it. But I wasn’t sure it helped all that much. At the very least, she was intent on using the wings now.
So, while the others waited, I held my hand out and closed my eyes to focus on the shield in front of me. They were right, I could feel the necromantic energy interlaced throughout it. I’d expected this to be hard and take a lot of focus, but it really wasn’t. Almost as soon as I had the thought about the energy moving, it reacted. A hole appeared in the shield right below our feet, and I blinked a bit in surprise. Uhh, go for it. I’ve got this. I really did have it too. This wasn’t difficult at all. Was that weird? Probably not, since Fossor wouldn’t have wanted to make it hard for himself to get through his own shield, and this stuff probably thought I was him. And yet, it still made me uneasy. Maybe just because of the reminder that I was using his power. I was pretty sure I’d never really get used to that.
Tabbris, standing on the opposite side of the hole in the dirt I’d made, manifested her wings and extended them. Within a few quick thrusts, she had cut an opening in the metal ceiling wide enough for all of us to go through. And one by one, we did just that. Asenath went first, followed by Stasia, then Shiori, and the others. I went last, allowing the shield to resume its position as soon as I was through.
Soon, we were in what was essentially a long metal tube. It was lit by some sort of glowing lines along the floor in the ceiling, farther from that, it looked empty. Looking both directions, I turned back to Rahanvael and gestured. Up to you. Which way sounds best?
She thought about it briefly before giving a decisive nod. Toward our old home. We can see what my brother hid in his secret spot after we check on what he has done with this volcano.
So, we began moving east through the tunnel, keeping our eyes open for any sort of threat. Now we had the added feeling of claustrophobia to go with paranoia, which was fun. But either way, we kept going, doing our best to ignore that feeling.
As promised, it took about twenty minutes to reach the general area that had apparently been where Fossor had grown up as a child. We found ourselves emerging from the tunnel into a wide open underground cavern that had to be part of the volcano itself. It was a good three hundred feet wide and just as long. There were stalagmites and stalactites scattered throughout the cave, along with a small stream of crystal clear water running down the middle of it, perpendicular to where we had entered. We could also see glowing crystals embedded in the walls of various colors. Red, blue, green, white, and purple mostly, though there were a few gold and green as well.
Uhh, what is this place? Shiori asked as we all stopped and stared.
I have no idea, Rahavael assured us. This is… I have never seen it. She sounded confused and a bit lost, understandably. I don’t even know what those glowing crystals are. Those… are not natural.
Biting my lip, I started to step closer to the nearest cluster of the things so I could get a better look. Just as I moved, however, the cave rumbled around us. It only lasted for a couple seconds, but it definitely got our attention. As did the hole that suddenly opened up underneath the spot where Robin and Persephone were standing together. Before any of us could react, including the Mevari and Revenant-possessed Seosten, they had fallen through the hole and were gone. The ground reappeared just as quickly.
I dove that way, along with Judas and Stasia. But before we could do anything about it, a voice that spoke up from about a hundred feet off, far enough to be out of range of our mute spell.
“Well how about that! I told the old lady you wouldn’t sit still on that asteroid, and lookie here.”
It was… Trice? Fucking Trice of all people? I’d almost forgotten about him entirely, after he’d disappeared from the cell Gaia put him in so long ago. The tall, green-haired Eden’s Garden Heretic stood there next to the stream, watching us with clear amusement. He held his pike in one hand, the end of it planted on the ground like a walking stick as he stared at me. “Let me guess, you’re here to find your mom. Well, I’ve got bad news. We still need her for awhile. But don’t worry, we’ll keep you busy.”
We? What did he mean by–
The answer came even as I had that thought. Several more figures appeared around Trice. In front was a boy, a year or two older than me, with long, shaggy dark hair and an olive complexion. His left arm was covered by a metal gauntlet. He was accompanied by a pale, red-haired girl, a slightly taller black girl, a blond caucasian guy with very piercing blue eyes, a scrawny Latino guy with short hair and a goatee, and another caucasian (though quite tanned) guy with brown hair cut into a flat top.
At first I didn’t recognize them, but then I realized. The guy in front was Miles Cleary, the guy whose ‘bogeyman’ father had been imprisoned by Fossor. And the others were all members of his team.
Wait, hold on. Why didn’t I… why hadn’t I talked to the guy after we found his dad? Why didn’t I… even think about him that much? The realization of just how much I had not thought about him, and how strange that was given the circumstances, had just started to fill my mind when Trice spoke again.
“You guys heard what Denuvus said, right?”
“Fight,” all six of the others replied together, their voices a disturbing monotone that made it clear they weren’t in control of themselves. “Hurt the intruders.” As Miles said that, the gauntlet on his arm broke apart, turning into hundreds of tiny metal cyberform bees, which quickly reshaped themselves into a sword and shield. Meanwhile, the others all produced their own weapons. And just like that, we had seven Boscher Heretics about to launch themselves at us. Seven Boschers on their side, versus two Boschers, a tiny Seosten girl with terrifyingly powerful energy wings, two vampires, a Pooka, and a Natural Charmeine Heretic. And we had no idea what had happened to Robin and Persephone, or if they were okay.
“Yup, that about sums it up,” Trice agreed, almost as though he’d read my mind. His eyes narrowed at me, while lifting his pike to join the other six.
“Let’s have some fun.”