Twister

By Blood 17-13 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Despite the fact that we had succeeded in rescuing the prisoners, the mood as we prepared to get the hell off this planet was somber, to say the least. My peers and I might not have known Tribald Kine that well, but I had still liked him. Hell, he was the one who had originally sent me to check out the photograph in the Crossroads hallway that gave away the fact that my mother had once attended there. He set me on this whole path, in a way. And the others… Deveron, Klassin Roe, and the Dornans had all gone to school with him. He was one of their oldest friends (and teammate, in some cases). Kohaku and Tangle had both known him as a child. They taught him. They–god damn it. Now he was dead, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

I couldn’t even summon his ghost. I tried, wanting to bring him with us. But there was no response. I even had the others boost me, and the adults made a small portal back to the prison camp. It was too tiny for anyone to get through, and in an out-of-the-way spot, just enough that I could find a connection to his ghost if it was back there. But it wasn’t. It should have been, but it just…. wasn’t there. Nor were any other ghosts, despite the fact that I knew for a fact others had died. It was like someone else had gotten there first, which…

The point was, I couldn’t summon him, which made this entire thing even worse. I felt like a failure as we carefully wrapped his body up and put it in one of the separate magical storage bags. He would stay safe there until we got back home so he could be buried properly. 

No. No, he wouldn’t be safe. He was dead. The correction blared in my mind as I closed my eyes tightly and turned away from the sight of the Dornans carefully putting the bag in the truck. On the other side of the clearing, I could see Tangle and Kohaku talking to the conscious prisoners, getting them organized to get on the truck so we could leave before the Eden’s Garden people showed up and turned this into a brawl again. I was done fighting for the moment. Hopefully for a long moment. There had been more than enough of that already. 

Avalon stood beside me, quietly speaking up. “I thought we made it without losing anyone.” 

“So did I.” As my voice murmured that, I found her hand and squeezed it. “We were close. And he would have been happy that we got the prisoners out.” Even as I said that, the words felt hollow and empty. Of course he would have liked that. But he also would have liked it to get out of there with his own life. And now I couldn’t even summon his ghost? This sucked. This whole thing was just–I wanted to leave. I really, desperately wanted to leave and never see this planet again. Between Heretics enslaving innocent people, fighting for my life repeatedly, and giant monsters fueled by blood sacrifices or whatever the fuck, if I ever saw this planet again once we left, it would be too soon. 

And yet, even as I had that thought, something made my head turn to look into the nearby trees. Nothing. There was no one there. If the Eden’s Garden people had found us, all the adults here would have reacted. They weren’t that distracted. But they just kept going about their business, getting ready to leave. 

“What?” Avalon asked, her gaze shifting between me and the woods where I was staring. I could feel her tense a bit beside me, clearly getting ready to call out a warning. 

“Nothing,” I started, before correcting myself. “I mean, I don’t think it’s anything. Just the same feeling as when we were going through the woods earlier. Like someone or something is watching. You don’t feel that?” 

There was a brief pause as the other girl considered before her head shook slowly. “No. I felt it before, but nothing right now. You still feel it?” 

A slight grimace found its way to my face before I sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m just making it up in my head because I’m paranoid at the moment. Maybe part of me just wants there to be something else to fight so I can stab something. I just–” Swallowing the thick lump in my throat, I set myself before starting to walk. “Come on, let’s check it out. Don’t worry, we’re not going to disappear into the forest, I just want a closer look.”

The twins joined us as we moved that way, and a quick consultation revealed that Sands didn’t feel anything, but Sarah did. Although she was just as unsure as I was about whether this was a real thing or just paranoia. The four of us got closer to the trees while I tried to determine where the feeling of being watched was coming from. A glance toward Sarah was met with a helpless shrug. She had no idea either. And yet, we could both still feel eyes on us. It was a creepy feeling, to say the least. Especially considering the other two didn’t feel it. Between that and the fact that we still didn’t know if it was real or just a product of our imagination… yeah. Walking toward those trees wasn’t the most fun time I’d had. I felt my stomach twisting a little the closer we got. It made my breathing instinctively get faster and deeper, like when I used to sneak peeks at scary movies as a kid when I wasn’t supposed to. The hair on the back of my neck kept standing up, and it felt like every step could result in the ground falling out from under me. I could almost hear the agitated violins in the soundtrack growing closer and closer to a terrible screech. Everything else had disappeared. I couldn’t think about the rescued prisoners, poor Tribald, or even about the fact that we had to leave before the Garden people counterattacked. I was barely cognizant of the others walking with me. The only thing that mattered, the only thing that existed, was whatever it was in that forest that happened to be staring at me. 

A hand caught my arm, stopping me in place. Only then did I consciously realize that Avalon had been repeating something for the past few seconds. I had somehow completely tuned out her voice. Now, she yanked me around, speaking louder. “Flick. What are you doing?” 

“Huh?” Blinking a few times, I looked around. We were much closer to the trees than I had planned on getting. Nearby, Sands was holding Sarah quite similar to the way Avalon was holding me. It looked like the other girl was snapping out of whatever she had been under too. 

“I–” Swallowing once more, I shook my head. “I don’t know. It just felt like I had to keep going. I wasn’t paying attention. I wasn’t–” Cutting myself off, I gave an uneasy look over my shoulder toward the trees. The feeling of being watched was still there, but it had lessened. Now it was more like idle curiosity. Which was still enough to make me shiver a bit. “Come on, let’s get back over there. We need to get the hell off this planet.” The words ‘while we still can’ tried to emerge, but I forced them back down. No way was I going to curse us like that. 

The four of us made our way back over to the others, where Deveron was waiting. The man clearly had a lot to deal with. I could see the emotions in his eyes even as he pushed them back to focus on the matter at hand, asking what happened. So, we explained the whole thing, starting with the fact that we had felt something watching us as we walked through the forest on our way to the prison, and now what had just happened to Sarah and me. 

Taking that in, Deveron frowned and looked past us toward the woods. His eyes scanned it as though he was trying to determine if there was anything dangerous, before the man sighed. “I don’t know. I don’t see anything, but–we need to leave.” 

“That’s what I said,” I murmured before adding, “I wonder if what we are feeling has anything to do with that monster in the prison cave.” 

Deveron blinked at me, frowning. “What monster in the prison cave? Wait, Jasmine and the others were talking about some big fight down there. What was that?”

Wincing, I gestured. “It’s kind of a long story, and we don’t have a lot of time, do we?” 

“I have no idea how much time we have, but let’s err on the side of caution,” he replied before giving a sharp whistle, raising his voice to be heard through the clearing. “Everyone on the truck, we’re getting out of here! We’ll sort out details once we’ve got some distance between us and this damn place.” Even as he said that, the man was already walking that way, waving for the rest of us to follow. 

Before going anywhere, I gave the woods one last glance. Whatever was in there that had been watching us, whether it had something to do with the monster we had killed or not, I wasn’t willing to just dismiss the whole thing as a figment of our imaginations. We had definitely felt something. But it seemed like a mystery that would go unsolved, given we weren’t going to be sticking around any longer. And I, for one, wasn’t quite so obsessed with learning the truth that I would be willing to change that. If there really was something in those woods that kept watching us, it could just go ahead and stay there. 

So, we all loaded onto the truck. There wasn’t quite enough room for all of us plus the conscious prisoners in the living area, given it hadn’t been intended to hold this many people. But we were able to shift the supplies in the main area around and drop a few crates. The supplies were intended to provide water and food for the whole prison for a few weeks, So we weren’t losing much by leaving a little bit behind. It allowed us to get more room in there for everyone, which became a bit more comfortable once we took some blankets and pillows out of the cupboards and laid them down over the floor. 

Two of the prisoners who were awake and moving around were trolls, so they took up a large portion of the space we cleared out. They looked bewildered by everything that was going on, but tentatively friendly enough. They also didn’t seem to speak much English or Latin, but followed instructions cheerfully enough when they were accompanied with hand gestures. One of the other conscious prisoners, an orc who introduced himself as Teragn (terrain), said that the Heretics had simply referred to the trolls as three-oh-oh-two and three-oh-oh-three. Or just Two and Three for short. Whether they had any actual names or not nobody knew, but they responded to those names for the moment. And, again, we really didn’t have time to get into details just yet. We mostly just pantomimed at the two trolls for them to sit, and gave them a large ball of cheese and a ham from one of the boxes. They really loved that and immediately proceeded to start making ham and cheese sandwiches. Which, in their case, meant using ham as the bread and cheese in the middle. 

Soon, we had all of them on the truck. Including the still-unconscious Eden’s Garden Heretic who had apparently turned traitor. Kohaku had gone over the man with a fine-toothed comb to find any tracking spells or devices, but came up short. Still, they were keeping him secured with those cuffs and magically asleep, lying on a cot in the living area so we could talk to him later. 

Once everyone was onboard, Deveron hauled the heavy doors shut. He gave a quick glance to the clearly still terrified and confused prisoners sitting around, before speaking as gently as possible. “It’s okay. I know you don’t have much reason to believe this, but you’re safe with us. We’re going back to Earth, then you can do whatever you want from there. We’ll… we’ll talk about it on the way. Right now–” 

“They’re on us.” That came from Kohaku, who was looking at what looked like an ordinary smartphone. There was a slight grimace on her face. “No more time for explanations, we need to jump now.”  

With a muttered curse, the man immediately darted to the control board on the wall. You could also initiate the jump from the cab of the truck, but this was quicker right now. Opening the panel revealed a keypad where the coordinates were supposed to be put in, and a lever to activate it. That was how it looked normally. But now there were eight glowing little gemstones attached to the console as well. The stones were essentially magical batteries, storing a bunch of power we’d brought with us from home. And now they were plugged into the teleportation system.

The truck abruptly started to jerk backward, as if a large hand had grabbed onto it. Several people cried out, but Deveron simply shook his head. “Not today,” he muttered before yanking on the lever. 

And with that, we were gone. Whatever hand or power had been trying to pull the truck was left behind as we instantly transported off the planet. In my imagination, I could almost hear the Eden’s Garden people screaming as the truck vanished right in front of their eyes.

Instead of letting go of the lever when the jump happened, Deveron shoved it up into the default position, gave us all a look, and then yanked it down a second time. We jumped again. Of course, we weren’t dumb enough to make a single jump and allow them to track us. Each time the truck transported, two of those initial eight gemstones went dark. It allowed us to make four rapid jumps, each one bringing us slightly closer to Earth. 

By the time the fourth jump happened, the truck was shuddering and making unhappy noises. Plus the transport console was giving off a little smoke. I’d asked why we couldn’t just make every jump we needed to go straight back home instead of only going slightly over halfway, and this was the answer I’d been given. The truck could only stand up to so many transports at one time, even with extra power. Four was apparently pushing it, and no one wanted to see what happened if we went for five. It wouldn’t do us any good to push so hard to get home, only to blow up or materialize in the middle of empty space with a broken transport system. 

We also weren’t going to their normal jump points. Instead, Athena had given us a list of habitable moons along the way, and those were the coordinates we used. Just for fun, those first three jumps had been to a desert moon, an ice moon, and a forest moon. Just so those chasing us could have the full original trilogy Star Wars experience. 

Once the truck settled a bit and we were all certain it wasn’t going to catch fire on us, Deveron breathed out and nodded to Tangle, who was standing by the main door. At his nod, she unlatched it and hauled the door up, to reveal… rocks. Lots of enormous boulders all around us. 

“Look, Herbie,” I announced while hopping down onto the gravel-covered ground. I had the heroic stone in question in my palm already, turning in a circle so he could see. “It’s your homeworld.”   

As planned, the place we had landed looked like a large quarry. And in this case, large meant the size of a full city back on Earth. The rocks varied in size from pebbles all the way up to boulders the size of skyscrapers. According to Athena, there was some sort of special material within the rocks that would help block scanners if our pursuers actually made it this far. Which was doubtful to begin with, but being extra careful didn’t hurt anything.  

Tangle and the Dornans stayed with the conscious prisoners back there to tell them exactly what was going on, and who we were. Meanwhile, Asenath, Twister, Shiori, Jazz, Gordon, and Doug worked with Klassin to check on the unconscious prisoners and try to see what we could do for them. 

Which left Avalon, Sands, Sarah, and me to talk to Kohaku and Deveron about exactly what we had seen down in that cave. The six of us walked a little bit away from the truck, standing near a rock that was a good thirty feet tall and almost as wide. There, we carefully went through the whole story. We told them about the carvings we had seen and about the big hole in the floor that had clearly been covered with a forcefield at one point. And, of course, we told them about the way those tubes had clearly been draining blood from the prisoners into the hole. 

When we got to the part about the giant monster and began to describe it, I could see a flash of what looked like recognition on both their faces, before they smothered it and told us to go on. They clearly knew something, but weren’t willing to get into it just yet. Not until we told them the whole story. 

The others obviously noticed too, because when we finished, Sands folded her arms and focused on them. “You guys know something about that thing, don’t you? Come on, we killed it, you can at least tell us what the fuck it was.” 

With a heavy sigh, Kohaku shook her head. “That’s the problem, you probably didn’t actually kill the main thing. Just one of its… extensions.” 

“Extensions?” I echoed that, frowning. “You mean like the whole Nuckelavee thing? Like how they’re extensions or… or creations of that Lotan monster under the ocean?”

“Something like that,” Deveron confirmed. “Deep-Walker is just one of the names it has. No one knows very much about it, but from what I’ve heard, the thing basically… infects worlds. You know how Seosten possess people? This thing possesses planets. It produces monsters a lot like that thing you fought, and killing one of them doesn’t hurt the Deep-Walker any more than killing a Nuckelavee hurts Lotan. And… and they’re usually even stronger than that. I think you managed to get what amounts to a baby.” 

“If that was a baby,” Sands managed weakly, “I really don’t want to run into the adult version.” 

“No,” Kohaku agreed firmly, “you don’t. Nobody does. Which probably means that was what was watching us in the woods. The Deep-Walker infests planets and then controls every aspect of them. Well, eventually anyway. It takes time for it to get control.” 

“But what was it–I mean what were they–” Cutting myself off, I made a noise deep in the back of my throat. “Were they feeding it?” 

Sarah spoke up then. “Taming it.” 

Deveron cursed several times loudly, before nodding. “You know, I think that’s exactly what that stupid son of a bitch was doing. Kyril Shamon had that mountain mined out specifically to find those tunnels and then built that place to feed blood into the–he’s trying to tame and control that fucking–it’s a world-ender and he’s trying to make it his fucking pet!” 

He and Kohaku stepped aside for a minute, conversing quietly with each other. Which left Avalon, Sands, Sarah, and me by ourselves. I looked at Sands. “Do uh, do you have any idea what you got from that thing?” 

She didn’t. Fortunately, I had a Tabbris on-call. As I used our connection to let my little sister know that we had successfully escaped with the prisoners, and about our single casualty, she projected herself to me. Not a full recall. We didn’t want to pull her away from the station for that long, not when she had her newly-arrived siblings to spend time with. But she could at least temporarily project to me. 

Sorry about Mr. Kine, her voice spoke hesitantly in my mind. 

Me too, I agreed. Can you tell the others back there so they… so they know? Is my mom– 

She’s not back from her thing yet, came the response. But somebody will tell her, I… maybe Abigail? 

I nodded a bit. That’s not a bad idea. Or Deveron when he calls to check in. I think–anyway, we made it. And we’re bringing his body back. With that, I gave her a quick rundown of what had happened, with the other girl reading my mind to fill in some of the blanks. Then I asked, Sands doesn’t know what she has, so… 

She agreed to help, and I asked Sands for permission to possess her. Once she had given it, I took her offered hand and disappeared. It only took a minute for Tabbris to reach through her connection to me and scour what Sands was capable of, then report back to me.

Oh, she announced once I stepped out of the other girl, um, I think Spark needs some help. 

Go, I urged, shaking my head at how guilty she sounded. It’s okay. Thanks for the help. We’re safe now. We’re out of there, and we’ll be home in a few days. I’ll check in later too. 

If… if you’d really needed me back there, with that monster, you would’ve let me know, right? Tabbris sounded hesitant, like part of her still felt guilty for not coming along in the first place. 

Of course, I assured her. That’s the fun part of having the whole recall thing, right? Now go have fun. Or whatever. Help your other sister. 

Her presence faded from my mind before I looked back over to the expectantly-waiting Sands. “Well?” she pressed, practically bouncing on her toes. 

“Well,” I echoed, before leaning in to whisper in her ear. 

Taking in everything I said, Sands gave a double-take. “Are you serious?” When I nodded, she flashed a short grin before gesturing. “Back up. Everyone back up.” 

The three of us did, with Avalon and Sarah giving me a curious look. Once we were out of the way, Sands cracked her neck. She had to focus for a few seconds, finding the right… trigger or whatever. Even though I’d told her what she could do, it still took a bit of time to figure out how to do it. In the meantime, I called a warning over to Deveron and Kohaku, who turned to watch.

But, after a few seconds, she found it. Instantly, Sands grew in size until she stood a solid thirty feet tall. She was gigantic and could apparently take an absurd amount of damage, even considering the size. Not quite as much as the monster in the tunnel, but still a lot. 

Okay!” Sands spoke, voice booming out. “I think I can get used to this.” 

“Better not get too used to it!” I shouted up at her. “I’m pretty sure you won’t fit in the truck like that!” 

Fitting in the truck was definitely something she had to do. We might’ve had to stop to let things recharge, and there were the prisoners to deal with, both of the conscious and unconscious variety. Not to mention the fact that we had to keep an eye out for pursuers. There was plenty of work to be done. But what mattered right now was that we… most of us anyway, had gone into that prison, saved the people we went there for, and got out. Now it was time to go home. 

And for Asenath and Gordon to officially be reunited with their fathers.

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By Blood 17-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Thankfully, I wasn’t out for long. When I came to a short time later, Doug was sitting over me, using one of the enchanted stones we’d all received from the adults to give me a bit of energy. Sort of like smelling salts mixed with strong coffee. My eyes blinked away the blurriness until I managed to focus on him, then started to sit up. 

“It’s okay,” he assured me. “Fight’s over. They’re… trying to figure out how to open the tubes and get everyone out without hurting anyone.” He looked over his shoulder, and I followed the boy’s gaze to where everyone else was, sure enough, working on that. Even Sands was up and moving around, talking animatedly to her sister as they crouched behind one of the tubes.

“Checking for traps?” I asked, my gaze turning toward the dead body of the giant monster. It was still there, and still just as horrifying. Okay, maybe slightly less horrifying dead than it had been when it was alive. But I still wasn’t going to get anywhere near it. Still, I took a second to stare at the thing, feeling a sense of awe and satisfaction both about the fact that we had managed to kill it, and that all those people who had been sacrificed to bring it to life had had a part in taking the the damn thing down. I’d felt their own intense relief just before they passed on.  

Doug confirmed that before hesitating. “I think I should use my question, but I’m not sure. What if we need it later for getting out of here? I’ve only got the one.”  

I knew what he was talking about, it was that thing where he could ask a question once per day and get either the answer or be directed toward the answer. It was the same thing that had pointed his team toward me when he’d asked how they could find out what was really going on with Roxa. And now he could either use it to ask how to get the prisoners out of those tubes, or save it in case we needed an answer to a more dire and immediate problem later. It had to be a hard choice to make every time he made it out in the field like this. How was he supposed to know if using his single question at any given point was the right time? It was a lot of pressure. I didn’t even like using limited quantity items in video games, let alone something like this. 

Still, I only hesitated for a moment in this case before giving a short nod. “Use it. The sooner we get them out of there and moving, the sooner everyone gets off this planet. That’s gotta be worth it.” 

Letting out an audible breath, Doug hesitated to think before starting. “Okay, well here goes nothing. How do we safely get the prisoners right there out of the tubes without harming any of them or setting off any traps?” His voice turned somewhat eerie through that, gaining a slight echoey quality to it. 

While waiting for him to get an answer to that, I looked over to where Asenath and Shiori were standing together in front of the tube that Tiras was in. His daughter had a hand against the side, clearly overwhelmed by the fact that she was seeing him in person for the first time since she was a child. Even now I couldn’t make him out very well, but she knew him. And for Asenath, ‘since she was a child’ had been a very long time indeed. I couldn’t even imagine the emotions that were going through her mind at that moment. Especially considering she was that close to him, but still couldn’t talk to him yet.  All those years and all that distance, and now the only thing between them was this tube, but she couldn’t get through it. Not yet, anyway. 

Gordon had found his father too. Standing at the far end of the line of tubes, the boy had his arms folded across his chest while he stared silently at the figure within. As always, it was hard to judge his emotions solely from the flat expression on his face but I had a feeling there were a lot swirling inside him.  

With a slight gasp, Doug started and gave a sharp shake of his head. He glanced toward me briefly before starting that way at a jog. “Hang on,” the boy called, “I know how to get them out! But uhh, they’re gonna be out of it for awhile. They won’t wake up even after we get them out of the tubes, so we’re gonna have to carry them or…” Trailing off, he frowned while taking in the amount of prisoners. Three rows of ten. Thirty prisoners. We didn’t have nearly enough people down here to carry that many. 

Fortunately, we had come prepared for that, just in case the people we were rescuing weren’t in any condition to move on their own. Granted, we were anticipating injuries or something like that, not some sort of stasis coma. 

“We’ll have to use the blankets,” Avalon murmured. “Get them out, guys.” To Doug, she added, “How do we open them up?”  

Sands, Sarah, Shiori, Jazz, and I started to pull ‘the ‘blankets’ out. They were the same sort of magical storage blankets that Kohaku had used to store the body of that Heretic up in the lighthouse. When they were placed over someone, the blanket would shift them into a special pocket dimension (one with oxygen, of course). Each blanket could be used multiple times to store up to ten people. So we had plenty for this. 

Of course, that raised another thought in my mind. We had seen prisoners walking around outside when we first arrived, doing work for these people. Where were they now? We hadn’t run into them on the way down here, so I hoped they were taking cover in one of the buildings so we could find them before we left. Or maybe Kohaku and the others already had. Either way, we just had to deal with these ones. 

By the time we got the blankets ready to go, Doug had already taken Avalon, Gordon, Shiori, and Asenath over to what at first looked like just an ordinary boulder near the wall. But when he ran his hand over it, the hologram vanished, revealing a console. He quickly started typing in a complicated sequence on the keypad there, and as he did so, each of the tubes gave an affirmative beep. Then the liquid in them started to drain out. Where it went I wasn’t sure, but it was gradually disappearing, leaving the bodies within to slump down. Then the ‘glass’ of the tubes rose upward, leaving an opening while the still-unconscious prisoners simply fell limply against the floor of their containment units. Not the most graceful way of getting them out, but at least it worked. We didn’t exactly have time to worry about treating them like they were at a five star resort right at the moment, and I doubted the prisoners would care. 

Quickly, we all started to move in pairs, Avalon and I working together, to lay each prisoner out and put one of the blankets over them. The things were made to stretch a lot and shape themselves around the person being put under it, so it wasn’t that hard. Nearby, I could see Shiori and Asenath doing that with Tiras, while Jazz helped Gordon with his father. The whole time, I just kept imagining a clock ticking down. We had no idea if the Eden’s Garden people had even managed to get any sort of message out let alone how long it would take help to arrive. It was like being in a room where there could be a bomb, but we didn’t know if it existed or how much time was on it. Not to mention, whether there were reinforcements coming or not, the adults were still out there fighting against a numerically superior force, and the element of surprise had to have worn off by now. So, we had no idea if the Victor was on his way, or how Deveron’s group was doing out there, and the longer we took with this, the worse off the situation could be. Especially after we had already taken all that time to get down here and fight that fucking monster. Stressful, to say the least. Every second we took getting these unconscious figures under the blankets to store them safely felt like an hour. 

Finally, we had all of them put away. It had obviously been hard for Asenath and Gordon to be literally touching their fathers after all this time, only to shove them out of sight again. At least it was incredibly temporary, and they knew that. We just had to get the hell out of here. 

“Okay,” Senny announced while rising with the blanket that had her father and several others stored within slung over her shoulder, “someone let them know it’s time to bug out of here.” Her voice caught just a little in the middle of that, betraying a tiny bit of the intense emotions she had to be feeling. 

I already had the coin in my hand by the time she finished saying that. Rubbing my thumb over it, I murmured the words to trigger the spell. It grew warm in my palm before letting out a loud chiming sound. In that moment, the identical coins in the pockets of Deveron, Kohaku, and all the others out there would be going off. It was the signal to let them know we had the prisoners and were on our way out, so they needed to be ready. 

Collectively, our group exchanged glances. We were exhausted from the fight, some of us even more so from multiple fights. But we had to keep going. This was almost over. We were this close to being done and gone. So, we steeled ourselves, took a breath, and then turned to run back up the tunnel we had come down. I ignored how exhausted I felt after empowering all those ghosts to hold the beast down. I ignored everything, my fear of what would happen if Victor Kyril Shamon showed up, the joy at seeing Asenath and Gordon manage to get to their fathers, my anger at what the Heretics here had been doing–wait, no, scratch that. I held onto that. I used that anger and focused on it as I ran with the others, keeping pace with them so we could all remain in a group just in case there were any bad surprises waiting for us. 

Fortunately, there didn’t seem to be anything in our way. I supposed that anyone who was still up and moving was probably thoroughly distracted by the huge fight going on outside. They didn’t exactly have time to set up a trap for the rest of us. No matter how long the paranoid part of my brain kept screaming that this was taking, it was all still pretty quick in the grand scheme of things. 

Shortly before we reached the entrance, as we passed through familiar parts of the tunnel, Sarah produced a second coin with near-identical runes as the one I had used before we started running. Its spell was activated, alerting the others that we were about to emerge. The first coin told them we were on our way, this one told them we were right there and they should tell us if it was safe to come out or if we should wait. 

At first there was no response and we slowed slightly while exchanging looks. Did we keep going if they didn’t respond? Or did we hold off and try to find out what was–

There. Thank God, that wasn’t a decision we had to make. Just as I was starting to think that something terrible had happened, a glowing green arrow appeared in the air in front of us. That was the signal. We were good to go. The fighting wasn’t completely over, or the symbol would have been a thumbs up. A green arrow meant it was safe to go and fairly clear, but there were still threats out there so we should keep our eyes open. A raised red hand would have meant stop, and a yellow question mark would mean there were threats right in front of the entrance that we would need to engage with. This wasn’t the absolute best response, but still. 

So, we kept going, sprinting straight out of the tunnel, through the spot where the forcefield had been before Columbus took it down. Right there, at the mouth of the cave inside the hollowed-out portion of the mountain, the Dornan cousins stood using a wave of blue-white fire from their hands to block several separate incoming blasts of energy. The Eden’s Garden people were still attacking, but Seamus and Roger were shielding the area. Tangle, looking a bit worse for wear and bloodied, was standing to one side, clearly watching for us. As we emerged, she shouted something to the other two, then beckoned for us to hurry. 

We didn’t see anyone else. They must’ve been fighting elsewhere, however, because I could hear shouting and explosions and… more going on in the distance. This place was a complete warzone, and something told me it was just going to get worse as the defenders warmed up. Let alone if they actually managed to summon reinforcements. 

Shoving that out of our minds, we ran straight toward Tangle. As we approached, the woman threw something toward the ground. It sprang up to form a door. A literal door standing right in the open, like the one I had taken to get to Crossroads. It was closed at first, but she shoved it open to reveal a clearing with black-gray trees and orange dirt on the other side. Still a place on this world, but away from the immediate fighting. A place to regroup so we could leave. 

Bobbi went through the door first, then Doug, Twister, Shiori, and the rest of us followed right behind. I was last, pausing just long enough to shout toward Tangle, “Everyone else?!” 

“Heading out right after you!” She glanced to me while shouting that. “Go!” 

Even as she said that, I could see the blue-white flame shield that Seamus and Roger were projecting start to flicker as more and more attacks hit it. Clearly, it wasn’t going to hold for much longer. Especially as the Heretics on the far side noticed the flickering and renewed their efforts. The blasts they were hitting it with were like artillery shells exploding against a forcefield of fire. It was going to fail any second now. And then, well, then we would really be in trouble. 

So, I went through the door, stumbling a bit in my rush. Then I was in that clearing with the others, who were already catching their breaths. Shiori quickly grabbed me in a hug that also pulled me away from the door just as Tangle came through. She was followed by Roger, then Seamus. Past the two of them, as I looked that way while still clutched by Shiori, I could see six Heretics coming straight toward us. They had spotted the door and were racing our way. One of them turned into a blur of motion, speeding straight at us so quickly he would’ve reached the door before anyone could react. 

At least, before I or any of my peers could react. Tangle’s hand snapped up as she turned back that way right after she and the cousins reached the clearing. A jet of water shot from her palm and between Roger and Seamus before expanding into a massive tidal wave the moment it passed the doorway. That tidal wave slammed into the approaching Heretic. I caught a brief glimpse of him attempting to fight his way through it and continue his forward momentum before the wave managed to shove him away from the door. 

That wasn’t the end of it, however. A circular blade shot through the doorway from that side, nearly embedding itself in Tangle’s throat before Roger snapped his hand out so that it embedded itself in his palm instead, making the man grunt. Meanwhile, Seamus grabbed the door to shove it closed, taking what had to be at least three or four blasts of energy against his arm and side, one of which destroyed half his shirt and left a truly nasty-looking burn across the lower half of his torso. It looked painful as fuck, to say the least. But the man showed no reaction other than to give a grunt similar to Roger’s when the blade had embedded itself in his hand.

In the next second, he had the door shut. The instant the latch clicked, the whole thing vanished. We were–okay, not safe. Not in the least. But assuming they had set this up the way we planned, we were now hundreds of miles from the prison. It would take them time to find us. Time we could use to get out of here on the– I looked around. There. The truck was waiting about a hundred feet away, just as pristine as it had been when we left it to make our scouting and sabotage trip. 

“What about the others?” Avalon was asking, panting a bit from everything. “And the rest of the prisoners? There were some out and standing, but the ones we found–” 

“Deveron and the rest have them,” Roger informed us. He was pulling the blade out of his hand. Grimacing at it, the man focused until the blade turned to dust. His wound was already starting to heal. “That’s why we had to split up. They had a bunch of slaves holed up in a corner of the compound. One of their people tried to send a bunch of fire that way to kill them off for retribution or whatever, but another guard was shielding them.” 

“Wait,” I spoke up. “You mean one of the Eden’s Garden Heretics was shielding the prisoners from getting hurt? Someone sympathetic to our side?” 

Seamus, gingerly touching his burn with a wince, shrugged. “I think they called him Coppe. Just someone who didn’t think their prisoners deserved to die like that, I guess. Can’t make him very popular with the rest of his people, though.” 

“No, probably not,” Tangle confirmed before focusing on us. “But what happened down–” 

In the midst of that clearly very important question, another door opened up nearby. We all spun that way, weapons raised. But it opened to reveal Klassin Roe, who stumbled through looking about as good as any of the other adults here. One of his arms was literally missing, and he had a hard shell of half-broken ice across half his torso, as well as a deep burn across his forehead. Clearly barely keeping himself upright, the man held the door as Kohaku appeared, followed by Jiao. The moment they were through, the trio moved away from the door, allowing a line of neon-red jumpsuit-wearing prisoners, of all colors, shapes, and sizes to pass through. A couple of them were too big for the door as it was, but it rose and changed shape to accommodate them. Soon, in addition to the thirty unconscious slaves we had taken from the tubes, there were a dozen or so more standing around. They looked bewildered, anxious, afraid, clearly unconvinced that this was a real rescue. Which I couldn’t blame them for. Not after everything they had been through, especially if they had the slightest idea what had been done to their fellow prisoners down in the caves. 

Either way, the second the last prisoner was through, another man appeared. I didn’t recognize him, but he wasn’t in prisoner clothes. He was a guard, another Heretic. Tall and blond. As soon as he was there, Roger and Seamus caught him by the arm and yanked the man out of the way. They had a pair of cuffs on him almost immediately, and Tangle used a field-engraver to put a spell on the man’s arm. She said something to him, he gave a short nod, and then she said another word and he collapsed. Roger and Seamus stopped him from collapsing, gently lowering him to the ground.

The traitor, I had already realized. It was that Coppe guy, the guard who had shielded their prisoners against his fellow Heretics’ retribution. That’s why he was here with us, but they weren’t taking any chances. He was being secured and knocked out until we could figure out what to do. 

Meanwhile, Deveron had appeared. He was dragging something with him, kicking the door shut while explosions continued on the far side. I could hear someone scream his name with rage that sent a chill through me. It was the sort of anger that promised retribution. This wasn’t over. We still had to get off the planet before they tracked us down. 

But wait. Where was–

Then I saw what Deveron had been dragging, as he carefully laid it down on the grass. No, not it. Him. Tribald Kine. Motionless, his eyes staring sightlessly toward the sky. 

We had escaped with the prisoners, for the moment. But not without cost. 

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By Blood 17-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Right, so this giant spider-crocodile-man thing wasn’t just really big and scary-looking. It was also very angry and incredibly violent, both of which were demonstrated as it let out a loud, piercing scream and brought two of those massive legs up before slamming them down toward the spot where we were all standing. Sands threw up a stone wall with her mace, Bobbi created a forcefield, and Gordon an ice-wall. All three defenses were layered together, and the creature’s legs punched through all of them like they weren’t even there. Thankfully, we were all already diving out of the way, but still. Seeing those deadly legs just punch through the walls of ice, stone, and light that easily from the corner of my eye as I was throwing myself to the side gave some small idea of how dangerous this thing was. Definitely not something to take lightly. Really, it seemed like the smartest choice was to turn around and get the fuck out of here. And yet, we couldn’t run away. Not now. We had to deal with it, if we were going to get those guys out of their prison tubes. And there was absolutely no way that Gordon or Asenath would leave without their fathers. Not when they were this close. 

So, we had to fight this thing. And we had to do it quickly, before the Eden’s Garden people managed to summon reinforcements. But at least there were twelve of us, right? We could bring this thing down pretty quick with all of us working together. At least, I hoped we could. 

Using a quick burst from my staff to lift myself back to my feet the instant I hit the ground, I spun toward the spot where those two enormous spider-like legs had just slammed into the rocks and dirt, spraying both in all directions. The creature was still screaming, but I shouted over it. “Get it away from the tubes!” Even as those words escaped me, I was already running to one side while converting my staff to its bow form. An instant later, I sent an energy arrow flying up to slam into the side of the thing’s monstrous humanoid head. The concussive blast barely seemed to register. The three eyes visible on its left side glared down at me, before the thing brought another of those ten legs out in a contemptuous swat, like I would when slapping a particularly annoying and persistent fly out of my face. 

Another quick kinetic burst from my staff launched me up and over the bus-sized leg. But while I was still in mid-air, a small opening appeared on the side of the creature’s neck, like a blowhole or something. But this didn’t suck in air. Instead, it shot this blob of sticky webbing that slammed into me. The next thing I knew, I was hitting the floor with this stuff wrapped tightly around me and holding me down. I couldn’t move, encased as I was in this sticky webbing. And it smelled awful, like rancid milk. Worse, it was starting to burn. Not like fire. Like acid or something. It felt like that, anyway. 

Thankfully, I wasn’t trapped that way for long. Even as my body had started to register the pain, Doug was right there. His hand rose, projecting what looked like a welding torch flame from his palm while he touched the webbing with his other hand. The flame cut right through the web, but didn’t hurt me at all, even though it should have been going straight into my side. As soon as I was free, he turned the blowtorch power to his own hand, cutting the webbing off that as well. 

The monster was starting to follow up already, lifting one of those legs. But before it could bring the leg down, Avalon screamed fire at it. Literally. She opened her mouth and flames shot that way. Flames which turned into a bird and flew right up into the side of the monster’s head.  She actually seemed more surprised than it was, mouth still open as she stood there frozen briefly. 

I and several others shouted a warning as the monster swung its leg back that way, abandoning its attack on Doug and me to instead swat at the source of that fire bird. At the last second, I saw metal armor encase Avalon, just before she took the blow from the leg. It launched her up and backwards against the rock wall, but she landed on her feet. 

Right, so we knew two of the powers she’d gotten from the guy in the tower. 

Meanwhile, everyone else was fighting too. Bobbi’s speed-blurred form raced up an energy-construct track she had created before driving a blade into the side of the thing’s head. Asenath was right behind her with a knife, stabbing into one of its eyes. Gordon had hold of one of the legs and was freezing it solid. Recovering from her fall, Avalon (still encased in armor) drove one of her gauntlet energy blades into the leg that had smacked her, while Shiori sent both of her electricity-covered discs flying up into another pair of eyes on the far side. Jazz had conjured her gravity orbs near another of its legs, trying to yank it off balance that way while Avalon and Gordon attacked its legs on this side. Twister turned into a bird, flying up to land on its back before transforming into a lion to bite into the base of the thing’s neck. Sarah had her rifle up, shooting multiple times into other eyes from several directions at once. Sands turned into her shadow-form, sliding up one of the thing’s legs to its back behind Twister before bringing her mace up toward the roof of the cave. With a grunt, she slammed it downward, bringing a sharp pillar of stone out of the ceiling to stab into the creature’s back. Finally, Columbus sent a blast of energy from his goggles into the creature’s long, exposed throat. 

And none of it seemed to accomplish anything. Columbus’s blast hit the neck with no apparent reaction. Everyone stabbing or shooting into the thing’s eyes had their attacks bounce off as if the eyes themselves were made of steel. Twister’s teeth couldn’t puncture its neck, and the stone pillar that Sands had conjured crumbled as it struck the thing’s back. Even Avalon, Gordon, and Jazz had no luck. The energy blade did nothing to one leg, the ice had barely settled on the second before the creature simply snapped it outward to send shards flying everywhere, and if it noticed the pull from the gravity orbs, it didn’t give any indication. 

But no matter how easily it had shrugged off every attack, the creature was still very angry. Not that it showed that through the scream. In fact, the scream itself had completely stopped. Instead, the monster made a dark, violent noise, like a growl. Its head turned a bit, as though it was considering us. Then a smile came across its face, showing those rows of deadly teeth. It saw us, evaluated us, and found us to be no real threat. And yet, threat or not, it was still going to kill us. 

“Flick, can you possess it?!” Columbus shouted across the cavern at me. 

Grimacing, I created a portal in front of my hand. I hadn’t really done a lot of possessing animals (if that was even what this thing was), but if it would stop it from being a threat… I shoved my hand through to grab the side of the monster’s leg, making physical contact before using my stolen Seosten power. 

I was in the creature. And yet, I was not in control. I felt bottomless, unfathomable rage. I felt destruction. I felt the unfathomable, unrelenting fury of a full legion of monsters stuck within the body of one. A hundred, a thousand voices in that head, each of them crying out for more death, more violence, for blood to be spilt upon the altar of their endless thirst. It was as though every dark impulse, every drive toward savagery and cruelty, had been drawn from thousands of beings and shoved into this single mind. If it could even be called that. This creature, this monster, had the violent desires of all those different minds, each clamoring for more destruction. I couldn’t control or direct it any more than I could tell a planet where to move. 

For a moment, I thought I would lose myself within that horrific tide of sadistic barbarity. But at the last possible second, I remembered to eject myself. And eject I did, flying through the air to land hard on the ground almost directly next to where I’d been a moment earlier. Crashing down, I managed a weak, “Don’t.. do that. Bad. Very bad.” 

“Then we do it the hard way,” Avalon announced, after giving me a quick glance to make sure I was okay. When I struggled upward, she snapped her attention back to the creature. “Don’t spread out your attacks!” she shouted while backpedaling a bit. “Focus on one eye and one leg at a time! Make a hole and punch through it! Chambers, Porters, Lucases, and Asenath on the eyes! The rest of us on the legs! One target at a time til you do some damage!” 

Even as she said those words, the creature was sending several shots of webbing from multiple holes in its long neck, forcing everyone to dive out of the way. I barely managed to avoid being hit that time. Which was good, because I had absolutely no desire to end up trapped by that shit again.  

Giving a quick nod and mutter of good luck toward Doug, I ignored the nausea that had swam up in me at the memory of what possessing that thing had felt like and shoved myself into a sprint, gripping my weapon tightly as I shifted it back into its staff form. Bobbi leapt down toward me, coming my way so fast she was almost still a blur. Without missing a beat, I held my staff up for her to grab onto it before pivoting in place to hurl the smaller girl in the direction of one of the legs so she could maintain her speed. In mid-flight, she produced a glowing red energy sword before slamming it into one of the joints. Still no damage. 

But I couldn’t think about that, other than to hope that one of their attacks eventually got through. My sprint, by that point, had carried me close enough to the monster that I was able to leap and summon my new rocket-burst power to carry myself all the way up to its scaled back, landing almost exactly where Columbus had been a moment earlier. 

Sands was still there, pivoting around to put herself next to me. Even as she did that, I was already pointing my staff toward the thing’s ring of eyes. “It’s cool, I’ve got this!” With those words, I sent my super-heated cloud of sand right there. Screwing with vision using my sand was sort of my thing, I could–

And then the creature sent what seemed to be high-powered blasts of wind out of its fucking tear ducts to blow the sand away from its face. The wind was too strong for me to get the sand close. 

“Okay,” I amended, “I don’t got this.” So I was zero for two in trying to end this thing instantly. Stellar track record, Flick. And on top of everything else, I could still feel that weird, silent voice at the back of my mind. Only now it was worse, like something was desperately trying to shove its way out, or dig its way in. I couldn’t tell. Either way, this was a bad place to be in. We needed to get the fuck out of here. But we couldn’t, not until we dealt with this thing and saved those prisoners. 

Sands and I exchanged a quick glance and shrug before moving onto Plan B (or whatever letter this was). Namely, we looked up toward that ring of enormous eyes once more, far above us at the end of that long neck. Then we both jumped. Our strength had been enhanced enough by that point that, even without a boost, we could get some decent vertical distance. And I added to that by catching hold of the other girl while triggering the rocket burst once more. It carried us the rest of the way up there, as we both lashed out with our weapons. My bladed staff and her mace both slammed into the eye one after the other with as much force as we could muster. Which, considering Sands was capable of lifting a good four thousand pounds even without the boosted strength from standing still, and killing the Heretic back on Earth had pushed me up to just over that, was a lot of force. 

But again, our blows did nothing. The creature barely blinked under the pair of attacks. I was pretty sure the most we managed to do was annoy it, considering the way it screeched. 

Nor did Columbus’s follow-up blast of concussive energy, Shiori’s lightning breath, or Asenath’s own blast of lightning breath (she had borrowed some blood from Shiori to gain her powers for this whole thing) manage to do much better. I had no idea how the others on the ground were doing with the leg, but I hoped they were getting further than we were. 

By that point, Sands and I had almost collided with the ceiling, flipping ourselves over as the other girl made a quick wall for us to bounce off of. Which was just in time, as the creature opened its mouth to send a long, sharp tongue at the spot where we would have been an instant earlier. The tongue was more like a rope, with a blade on the end that probably would have pierced straight through us considering how easily it punched right up into the stone ceiling. 

Right, so unbelievably tough to the point of taking half a dozen blows against one eye without even blinking, strong enough to basically pulverize any of us with those massive legs, a bunch of blowholes around its neck that each could shoot acidic, almost-inescapable webbing, and now the thing had a long, prehensile tongue with a blade on the end that could go through stone. Were there any other powers or advantages this thing wanted to pull out to show how drastically outclassed we were? 

Fuck, I really shouldn’t have asked. 

Sure enough, the monster seemed to read my mind. Because the instant that Sands and I landed next to the others, it immediately began to produce a thick cloud of dark purple smoke from the same tear ducts it had produced the wind from. Which was weird, unfair, and very clearly poisonous. I didn’t even need my power to smell poison to kick in (which it did) before I realized that. Before the gas could reach us, I blurted, “Don’t breathe it!” 

“Worse than that!” Columbus snapped. Bringing up Amethyst in her shield form, he fired four of her spell-quills outward. In mid-air, the spells activated at a word from him, each creating their own sustained blast of wind to send the gas out away from us in various directions. “It’s acidic and hallucinogenic.” His hand tapped the side of his goggles in explanation. “It’ll melt your face off while giving you a psychotic trip of your worst nightmares, like the Scarecrow in Batman!”

Okay, that was just… not good. Quickly, before those wind spells could wear off (I was pretty sure he didn’t have an unlimited supply of them) I spat a wad of that thick resin stuff over the nearest tear duct to stop the gas from that one. 

Thankfully, Sands was already acting too. From her hands, she shot two different lines of spider-like webbing over a couple more gas-producing tear ducts. Meanwhile, Sarah chambered a round in her rifle, snapped it up once more, and fired a shot. But instead of being a normal bullet, that one exploded into thick putty when it hit the tear duct on that particular eye, before solidifying. 

Of course, the monster wasn’t just going to sit still and let us do that. The whole time we were dealing with the terror-gas, it kept jerking itself violently back and forth in an attempt to throw us off its back. It was all we could do to stay on, and I was pretty sure we wouldn’t even have managed that much if this thing wasn’t also busy dealing with the others attacking its legs. 

Worse, it was simultaneously sending more shots of that nasty webbing of its own at us through the holes in its neck. But we still had Shiori and Asenath, who kept blasting the incoming webbing with directed sonic-attack screams from the Cù-Sith that Shiori had killed way back during the whole business with tracking down Fahsteth last year. The screams were a bit loud for us, but the power was focused enough that the bulk of the sonic energy was directed in a straight line toward the incoming webbing, breaking it apart and scattering it before the stuff could reach us. 

At that moment, just as we finished blocking the thing’s gas-producing tear ducts that could reach us, the entire monster abruptly lurched to one side with a horrifying scream of rage. It was the others. Through sustained, directed attacks that entire time, they’d managed to get one of its legs off. And boy was our new friend pissed about that. It staggered that way, very nearly throwing the rest of us off its back. Still, it had nine legs left, three of which were violently stabbing down at the others down there. They definitely had its attention. 

And hey, the good news right then was that the tear ducts were blocked, so I could use my sand again. Unfortunately, the bad news was that this thing had no intention of letting me get that far. The group below may have pissed it off, but it hadn’t forgotten we were there. As evidenced by the fact that several of those eyes were glaring straight at those of us on its back. Yeah, it definitely hadn’t forgotten we were there. And it was going to do something about that, before we could take advantage of its ‘vulnerable’ eyes. 

In this case, that ‘something’ turned out to be ‘hold itself up on two of its remaining nine legs (one on each side), continue to stab at the people down there with three of the seven free ones, and twist the other four around to stab upward at us. Like someone reaching their arm around to scratch their own back. Only, well, much worse. Four bus-sized sharp spider-feet slamming down toward us from all sides. 

We got out of there, barely. The six of us bailed in different directions just in time, launching ourselves off the thing before it could pulverize any of us. Unfortunately, now we were falling from pretty high. Not far enough to kill us, given our strength boosts. But still not great. Fortunately, I was ready for that. With a thought, I summoned some of my volunteer ghost friends, one for each of us. The six ghosts manifested, catching us under our arms as they turned solid just long enough to lower us to the ground so we could land on our feet. 

Immediately, I fell to my knees with a gasp, pitching forward before catching myself with my hands. A short distance away, I could half-see the giant monster flailing violently. Its leg shot out toward Doug, but he managed to manifest those metal coils from his hands to shove himself up and out of the way. The deadly tongue nearly tore through Gordon, but he summoned a pillar of ice under his feet to lift himself up while shooting the monster’s face repeatedly with his own tommy gun. On the far side from Doug, another leg nearly took Sands’ head off but she froze, making herself all-but completely invulnerable for that instant so the leg actually bounced off her. 

It flailed, shot out more webs, screamed, threw those deadly legs around in every direction, and more. Yet I simply knelt there, staring at the ground. Above my head, Shiori and Avalon appeared as though by magic, working together to stop a set of webbing that had been coming my way. 

“Flick!” Shiori blurted, “are you–” 

Shoving myself to my feet in a single, smooth motion, I brought my staff up. “Everyone get ready to hit it with everything you’ve got!” I shouted as loud as I could. “And I wish someone had a camera.

“Cuz this is gonna be epic.” 

With those words, I grasped my staff high over my head with both hands, and reached out with my power. With my necromancy. Because in the moment that I had summoned those few ghosts to catch us as we fell, I had realized what that feeling in the back of my head the entire time we’d been coming down into this cave was. I’d realized what was trying to get my attention, what had been clamoring for a bit of power, a bit of strength. With a scream that tore its way out of my throat like a force of nature as I slammed my staff into the ground, I gave them that power.

People had died in this cave. Not a few. Not a dozen. Not a hundred. Three thousand, four hundred, and eighty-five. All of them different ages, genders, and species. They had died here, as what amounted to blood sacrifices to create, empower, and feed this creature. In their terrible, traumatic deaths, ghosts had been left behind. At that moment, as I slammed my staff into the ground, I shoved every bit of power I could into those ghosts. I boosted myself for even more power, and I gave it all to them. Even then it probably wouldn’t have been enough to control that many ghosts with my particular skill level. But there was no controlling to be done here. I didn’t have to ask for them to do it. They were ready and waiting, desperate for a chance. 

Hey ugly!” I screamed as loud as I could, already wavering on my feet as the thing focused on me. My entire body was trembling from effort, sweat pouring down my brow. I could barely speak. “You got some friends…. who wanna say hi.” 

My staff collided with the floor of the cave, and in that instant, all three thousand, four hundred, and eighty-five ghosts launched themselves upward out of the cave floor, all around the monster. They caught its legs, its extended tongue, its neck, they fell upon its back. They drove it to the floor and they held it there through sheer weight of numbers. It flailed, it screamed, it struggled, but it could do nothing. It was held down, trapped, pinned by the ghosts of the very same people who had been sacrificed to create it. 

Just like that, the monster’s neck was exposed, and everyone hit it in those brief seconds. Everyone but me, at least. Every attack they had, every power, everything they could hit it with was directed to one spot on the thing’s neck. They blasted it, cut it, shot it, burned it, they hit that single, small spot together. And under that assault, they broke through. They cracked the thing’s scales, they made a hole. A hole that someone could take advantage of. 

Sands was that someone. Rearing back, the girl hurled something small that way, like a pitcher on the mound letting loose with a fastball. But this wasn’t a leather-covered cork orb. It was a piece of wood, with runes along the side. And as Sands let it go, sending the wood flying at the single exposed hole in the monster’s neck, she triggered the magic on that wood. 

She summoned her theriangelos, the massive red and pink rhinoceros. And that three thousand pound rhino went flying, as fast as a girl who could lift four thousand pounds could hurl a small block that weighed about five ounces, straight at the single weak point that everyone had created. 

The rhino utterly annihilated that weak point, tearing through the monster’s neck and out the other side. Sands had severed the monster’s head from its body, and as she collapsed with a cry of pleasure, I released the ghosts I had summoned. I felt their own relief, their gratitude, as they vanished forever. 

“See,” I managed blearily, swaying a bit on my feet, “told you it was gonna be ep–” 

And then I passed out.  

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By Blood 17-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

The timing for our plan was incredibly crucial. We had to wait for enough of the guards to be thoroughly distracted by Deveron and the Dornans so the rest of us could jump them from behind. And if this whole thing worked the way it was supposed to, we would be doing that more than once. We just had to hit them just right. 

To that end, Kohaku and Tangle had the rest of us touch them and wait until enough of the guards had made their way to the gate on the far side of the complex below. Finally, it was time. There were still a few stragglers up on the buildings or coming out of side doors, but we couldn’t wait any longer. We needed enough of the guards to be over by the gate, yet if they got too far out, this wouldn’t work. So, with a word of warning, the two Heretic adults teleported all of us down to the roof of the building almost directly below us. There was a single guard there who had been taking aim with a rifle that looked a lot like Sarah’s. But even as he spun upon our arrival, Kohaku was driving her fist, abruptly shape-shifted into a glowing blade, into his gut. She cut him all the way up to his neck and then ripped her fist out. He was flailing and gasping until she transformed her hand back and caught both sides of his head so she could literally rip it from his body. It was brutal, efficient, and made my eyes widen as a noise of disbelief escaped me. The man had been gutted and then had his head torn from his shoulders before he even knew what was going on. Seeing it from this side was incredibly dark.

Meanwhile, Tangle wasn’t exactly slouching. There had been another Heretic coming out the door of the building we were standing on, and the former Crossroads teacher was already conjuring some sort of energy rope, which she threw around his neck like a noose before yanking him up to our level. He was choking and flailing even as she held the rope with one hand, produced some sort of knife with the other, and drove it into the top of his head. 

Both women acted together, and the whole thing took less than five seconds before the two guards were dead. I saw Kohaku and Tangle’s individual auras both flare, but if they noticed the rush of pleasure, neither reacted. Their attention was focused out on the yard itself, where we could see more Heretic guards racing around the fake smoldering remains of the transport truck on their way to deal with where they thought the main threat was coming from. 

Our main advantage throughout this whole thing, besides the element of surprise, was the fact that there weren’t incredibly powerful Heretics stationed here. At least relatively speaking. Honestly I thought the guy in the radio tower was powerful enough to be a problem. But the truth was that most of the people here were basically average. The strongest Eden’s Garden Heretics wouldn’t be guarding a backwater prison work camp with a few Alters digging out a mountain. They weren’t pushovers, by any means, but we weren’t dealing with the cream of the crop. And that was basically the only reason we had any chance of getting away with our small group performing a rescue mission. Especially now that we had cut off their ability to communicate easily with reinforcements. 

To the right, we could see another man come running out of the building there, shouting something about ‘the tower’ being down. Sure enough, he was pointing up toward the tower we had just come from, calling over his shoulder toward someone else inside the building. I could see him bracing himself for what was probably going to be a teleport up that way so he could figure out what was wrong with their radio. But then he caught sight of us on the roof of the other building, his attention snapping our way just in time for Tangle to hold her hand up. A strange set of dancing lights appeared in her palm. The man stopped short, staring at those rapidly moving glowing symbols with a slack-jawed expression. It only lasted for a brief moment, two seconds at most. But that was enough for Kohaku to appear behind him. And to the left of him. And to the right of him. While still standing right here with us. The two duplicate Kohakus on either side of the man caught hold of him, while the third pointed her hand into the back of his head and used the finger-laser I’d seen before. It took three or four shots, but the man went down. Which was just in time for a burst of flame from inside the building to engulf all three Kohaku clones and incinerate them. 

The regular Kohaku grimaced, then vanished from where she was standing, only to appear down there on the rear side of the building. As we watched, she raised her hands and then slammed them together. With that motion, the building crumpled in on itself, turning into a metal ball that was collapsed around the Heretic within. Unfortunately, he simply phased out of it, appearing in a ghost-like form with his gaze focused on Kohaku. 

Which meant he never noticed Tangle pointing a hand at him as she summoned a blast of electricity like the freaking emperor from Star Wars. The blast tore into his intangible form, seeming to hurt him even more than it would otherwise. With a scream, the man basically disintegrated. 

In what had to be less than thirty seconds, four Heretics were dead thanks to Kohaku and Tangle. Yes, we were taking them by surprise, and they were focused on other things. But still. 

That seemed to be all of the people who were right here, so we could move again. Our group hopped to the ground to join Kohaku, who was looking across the chaotic prison grounds. Her voice was terse. “Hit them now, hard as you can.” 

‘Them,’ in this case, were the Heretic guards on their way past the fake truck remains. They were in mid-sprint and hadn’t noticed the burst of violence behind them. We had to get their attention on us for this to work. So, Sarah brought her rifle to her shoulder and fired a shot, I transformed my staff into its bow-form to send an energy arrow that way, Avalon pointed one of her gauntlets to launch what looked like a bolt of energy similar to her constructs, and Sands drove her mace into the ground, sending a low, foot-high wall racing along the ground until it grew up and outward into a rock spike that slammed into one of the men. 

Between all those attacks and what Kohaku and Tangle sent that way as well, we definitely had some of the guards’ attention. They spun back toward us, bringing up their own weapons and powers. Which, for an instant, made this whole getting their attention thing feel like a bad idea. 

But, of course, there was a reason we wanted them to look at us. And that reason showed itself before they could launch their counterattack. From the fake rubble where they had been hiding, our companions abruptly appeared. Columbus rose, using his goggles to fire a blast of energy into one man’s side. Though strong enough to punch through rock like it was paper, the blast barely made that guy stagger a bit. He looked toward Columbus, just before Shiori launched herself at him from the side, her fist slamming into his face. Which didn’t do a lot on its own, but then six or seven glowing energy-like duplicate Shioris copied the same motion. That was enough to make him reel a bit, which was when Columbus brought both his hands together and shoved hard, sending a blast of kinetic force into the man that was hard enough to knock him a good twenty feet. And before he could crash to the ground, Bobbi was there in a blur of motion, catching the guy in the back as he was falling with a glowing energy construct of a fist the size of a small car. 

Shiori, Columbus, and Bobbi all hit that guy, while Jazz, Douglas, and Gordon hit another one, Tribald Kine and Klassin Roe hit a third, and Jiao and Asenath jumped a fourth. This was how we were hitting them, how our plan worked out to triple-ambush the prison guards. First Deveron and the Dornans unexpectedly attacked them from one side. Then, as they were running to deal with that, Tangle, Kohaku, and the rest of our group hit them from behind. And as the guards we hit were turning to deal with us, the others rose from their places hidden in the supposed wrecked remains of the truck to attack both the ones who kept going toward the gate and the ones who turned to deal with us. No matter which way they turned, the Eden’s Garden people were getting hit from behind by someone. 

Suffice to say, they were all having a bad day. And it was only going to get worse for them. They were stuck reacting to something that they hadn’t known anything about practically a minute ago. Up to that point, this had been a perfectly ordinary, mundane evening for them. And now they were under direct assault from what had to feel like all sides. They didn’t have time to adjust to what was happening, whereas our group had been planning this literally for weeks. We knew what we were doing, and we certainly weren’t going to give them time to recover. 

To that end, the second we had their attention and caught the guards between all our groups, Kohaku pointed toward the hole in the mountain. Specifically, to the cave entrance leading into what still remained of the mountain that hadn’t already been dug out. “You know your parts. Stay together, be careful.” 

That was all she had to say. Without missing a beat, Avalon, Sands, Sarah, and I were already running to the side. Twister jumped from my shoulder, transforming into a cheetah to run ahead of us. Part of me felt bad about leaving Kohaku and Tangle by themselves. But on the other hand, they could handle it. We had to do our part and get into the prison. 

Not that we would be getting in there alone. Even as we approached the cave entrance where the mountain had been hollowed out, the five of us were joined by Columbus, Shiori, Asenath, Gordon, Jazz, Douglas, and Bobbi. 

Yes, that left Jiao, Tribald Kine, and Klassin Roe in the middle of the Heretic guards, Deveron and the Dornan cousins in front of them, and Kohaku and Tangle at the back. They were all adults. Their job was to draw attention and keep the guards focused on them. Meanwhile, the rest of us had to make our way through the deeper prison complex, staying together to handle whatever and whoever might still be down there until we reached the prisoners themselves. We had to get in there and let them out so everyone could teleport the fuck out of this place before the Eden’s Garden people managed to recover too much. Again, the plan relied a lot on timing, on hitting these guys so hard and so fast and from so many sides they never had the chance to retaliate too much before we were already gone. And there were still so many ways it could fall apart. All I could think of, even as our groups ran through the hollowed-out portion of the mountain, was that we had to hurry. 

This place was weird, to say the least. It was like a huge bite had been taken out of the hill itself, leaving just under a third of its lower portion present. There were several large digging-like machines that sat motionless and unused for the moment scattered around the massive open cavern-like space, but nothing seemed to be holding up the hundreds of tons of rocks and dirt high above our heads. I had no idea how they were stopping the upper section from crashing in, and hopefully we wouldn’t be here long enough for that to become relevant. What we were interested in was a hole in the inner wall, which led to the lower tunnels where the prisoners were supposed to be kept. At the moment, a glowing blue forcefield was stretched across that hole, blocking entrance to those tunnels, but that wouldn’t be an obstacle for long. . 

“Didn’t take all the excitement for yourselves, I see,” Jazz noted once we all came to a (very temporary) stop at that forcefield. She was panting a bit, holding her falchion in one hand, its projected flames dancing around the blade. 

“Thought about it,” I retorted, “but we figured you’d complain if you came all this way just to be bored.” 

Even as we said that, Columbus had vanished from where we were standing. He appeared on the far side of the forcefield, standing inside the enclosed, previously empty security station there. We could barely see the boy through the narrow window where the guards were supposed to stand to control the forcefield whenever people needed to move in and out. 

Thankfully, it didn’t take the boy long to figure out the controls in there. Soon, the forcefield was down, and he rejoined us as we started running together once more. Now we were inside the cavern. The entrance tunnel, carved into black and gray rock, was about twenty feet wide and equally as high. So we weren’t exactly cramped, even with a group as relatively large as this was. The tunnel sloped downward, leading deeper underground and into the darkness. So, after producing flashlights, that was the way we went, keeping our eyes and other senses open as we raced deeper into the man-made (or at least living person-made) cave. 

I didn’t sense anyone, but I did sense… something. It was weird, a feeling pressing down on me from all sides, like… I wasn’t sure. It was at the back of my mind with every step, making the hair on my neck stand up. I felt something, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t good. But there was nothing I could do about it. We had to keep going. 

“Did we ever figure out what the hell they were trying to do down here?” Columbus asked, while we continued downward, spreading out a bit to avoid making ourselves a single target. “I mean, this is a weird way to mine, isn’t it? How much effort are they spending just to keep the top of the mountain from falling in? They’ve dug out so much of this place, for what? Minerals? The hell are they looking for and why are they taking out so much of the mountain to do it without taking the top?” 

“Those are all very good questions,” Gordon agreed simply while not breaking stride. “Maybe the prisoners will know more when we find them.” 

Yeah, he couldn’t have been any more clear. What he was focused on was finding his father. Everything else, as far as he was concerned, could take a back seat, including questions about what the Eden’s Garden people were trying to do with this place. Which was fair, given I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be interested in those sorts of details if I was in his boat. Still, Columbus had a point. We had spent the past couple weeks, including the trip here, trying to work out why the mountain would have been mined out this way, without any luck. Now we were here and seeing it in person, and it seemed to make even less sense. Between that, the weird feeling of being watched that some of us had experienced coming through the forest, and now the feeling was I was getting as we descended, this planet in general was giving me the creeps. 

All of which was just more proof that we needed to get all these prisoners and leave as soon as possible. As if we’d needed any additional motivation for that.  

We were rounding a bend in the tunnel when Doug called out for everyone to wait. His flashlight was pointed toward the inner wall, where we could see what looked like words carved into it. Words that had been broken and chipped away by time or erosion or whatever. It looked like at one point there had been a full message carved there, but there were only bits and pieces of it now, words here or there. 

“Uh, can anyone read that?” I asked. It looked like gobbledygook to me. The ‘letters’ were meaningless shapes to the point that I couldn’t even tell which ones were complete and which had been broken.

We needed to hurry, obviously. But something about this made everyone stop to look at it. The message, if that’s what it was, gave me a weird feeling. I felt like we needed to know what it said. So, Bobbi produced a bit more light, a couple glowing balls to illuminate the whole thing. It took up a good ten feet of space, and had obviously been an extensive bit of writing when it was complete. Now more than three-quarters of it had been broken. 

Avalon spoke quietly. “I think I can. That… guy back in the tower, he must’ve had some sort of language deciphering power.” She lifted a hand to point. “This little bit here, it says ‘blood taken’ or maybe ‘blood given.’ And here, it says ‘legs of the world.’ Or maybe ‘legs stretched across the world.’ Down here, it says ‘deep-walker.’ and in this last bit, it says, ‘powers of blood.’ 

“Well that’s all nice and creepy,” Shiori muttered. “Wait, what about this?” Her light had found another bit near the bottom right that we had missed. This seemed somewhat more intact, several complete sentences carved near the floor. 

Crouching down, Avalon examined it, grimacing slightly. “It says, ‘Before being taken, activate disintegration.’” 

“Before being taken, activate disintegration?” I stared at the other girl. “What does that mean?” 

Her head shook. “I don’t know, but I think the bit that comes after it was instructions for the disintegration they were talking about. Maybe a spell or something.” Her finger traced along the broken bit of wall next to it. “But from the look of this whole message, the tunnel was here already. It looks like it was just buried and these guys uncovered it.” 

Asenath spoke firmly. “Whatever it’s about, we need to get to the prisoners. Everyone outside is… they can’t hold out forever.” 

Nervous as we were about whatever that message was talking about, she had a point. We had to press on quickly, or all of this would be for nothing. 

The tunnel opened up wider and wider the deeper we got. There were several more of those messages along the way, although all of them were even more damaged than the first and didn’t give any more information. At least not in the brief glimpses we gave them, and we weren’t going to stop again for a closer inspection. The longer we spent doing this, the more likely it was that we would end up being interrupted by Eden’s Garden reinforcements. So we pushed the bad feelings we were having down and kept descending through the ever-widening tunnel. 

Finally, after what felt like far too long, the tunnel opened into a truly massive underground cavern. Seriously, this place was impressive. And we were able to understand just how impressive it was right from the start thanks to the fact that the whole place was lit up by powerful stadium-like lights hooked up all along the walls. Clearly those had been recently added. The far side of the cavern from where we were standing had to be at least two football fields away, and it was almost that wide. There was a huge hole in the center of the cavern that took up about a third of the floorspace. Meanwhile, to the right was a series of what looked like tubes similar to the ones Sariel, Larees, and the other Seosten prisoners had been kept in when Kushiel was trying to transport them off that lab. They were arranged in three rows of ten, all varying sizes to accommodate a single prisoner held within. Pipes were attached to the bottom of the tubes, all leading out to a single larger pipe that ran straight to that large hole in the floor. 

Asenath sniffed once. “Blood,” she murmured. “The pipes are full of blood.” 

Oh yeah, and that feeling in the back of my head was worse. It was like… voices, almost. Not whispers, and definitely not the Whispers. It wasn’t really voices, or even thoughts. But it was like… trying to be thoughts? I couldn’t explain it, even to myself. It was almost like when you saw someone shouting through a soundproof window, so you couldn’t hear them but you knew they were talking. It was like that, except in my head. 

Yeah, it made no sense at all. And I still didn’t know whether I was imagining it or not. 

“Okay, now I’m really freaked out,” Jazz announced. “The hell were they doing here? There was that warning back there, and now they’ve got all these prisoners in these tubes having their blood drained out to go into that hole? This is a horror movie. We have come into a–” 

“Papa!” Asenath blurted the word, lunging toward one of the tubes. Sure enough, there was a man floating in some semi-clear liquid there. It was hard to make out details, but if she said it was her father, I was willing to take her word for it. 

At nearly the same time, Gordon called out from where he had found his father as well. He was in one of the other tubes. Everyone started looking around, trying to figure out the best way to open those things up to let them out. 

“Um, Flick.” That was Columbus, calling me over to one side. “You see those antennae things sticking down out of the ceiling?” 

I looked. He was right, there were a dozen of the large metal ‘antennae things’ sticking down. “Uh huh.” 

“I’ve seen those before,” he informed me. “I mean, in Charmeine’s memories. They’re supposed to be producing a forcefield in the direction they’re pointing. Which would be over that hole in the floor, where those tubes were taking the blood.” 

“And now there’s no forcefield there,” I murmured. “So do you think–” 

That was when it appeared. In the midst of everyone else trying to figure out how to let the prisoners out of their tubes, a thing launched itself out of the hole. All I could see in that instant was a massive form moving very quickly. Then it landed in front of us, and we all had a good look at it. 

The thing stood on ten towering legs that were spread out around its lower body like a spider’s eight limbs, each as wide around as a school bus and at least twice as long. The body itself was more like a gigantic, very fat crocodile with those thick protective scales. A long neck like that of a giraffe, though also layered with heavy scales rather than fur, extended outward from the body, with an almost humanoid head attached to it. Almost humanoid that was, aside from the scales protecting it, and the fact that instead of two eyes, there was a ring of them all the way around it, so the creature could see in all directions. It opened its mouth, revealing a line of deadly shark-like teeth, and gave a dangerous hiss. 

“I uhh…” My voice came out soft, barely audible, a mouse-like squeak. 

“I think we just found out what they were giving blood to.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

By Blood 17-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Right, so the positive part of all of this was that I wasn’t facing down a full Heretic all by myself this time. I had Avalon and Twister with me. Which was good, because I was pretty sure this guy was more dangerous than the woman back at the truck depot had been. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but something about him just told me I would have been in very deep trouble if I was here alone. Or maybe I was just nervous about how important this step of the mission was. If I had failed back at the depot, someone else could have dealt with her and the rescue would go on. But here, right now? This was it. If he managed to stop Avalon’s device and call for reinforcements, the rescue mission would be over. And, worse, our friends would be captured or even killed. 

But yeah, no pressure or anything. 

With his energy-blade spear still held out toward Seth as though daring the ghost to make a move, the man narrowed his eyes at me. “Does this mean your bitch mother is here, little girl?  Because I would definitely like to have a word with her. Do you think she’ll come if you scream?” 

Well, I certainly wasn’t going to make the first move. If he wanted to waste time talking while Avalon’s device did its thing, I wasn’t gonna object. And I definitely wasn’t going to let him goad me into attacking first. With my staff held defensively in front of myself, I retorted, “I guess I should’ve expected that only the most psycho assholes of you Eden’s Garden people would be put on guard duty in a literal slave camp. Anyone with a shred of decency probably wouldn’t last long here.” 

The man chuckled as though what I had said was amusing for some reason. His eyes moved from me to Avalon and back again, brow knitting slightly as he thought hard. When he spoke, his voice was even. “I hate to rain on your parade, but you’re not breaking this tower, little girls.” 

Break the tower. He didn’t realize that Avalon’s thing was already attached and doing its work. He thought we were here to physically break the tower, or smash up the consoles, or… whatever. The point was, he didn’t know exactly what was going on. And we had to keep it that way.  

Seth spoke up then. “I know I’ve done some questionable things in my…” He paused, glancing down before grimacing at his ghost form. Then the man amended, “I know I did some questionable things in my life, but at least I can safely say I never helped keep a bunch of people as slaves. And I certainly didn’t go around murdering everyone who didn’t look the same as me while pretending I was some sort of hero.” 

I knew what he was doing. He was trying to pull the Heretic’s attention toward him and away from Avalon and me so we could make a move. But the man with the spear seemed to realize the same thing. A slight smirk crossed his face as he focused on me. “Puppeting a ghost to try to distract me, little girl? You’re going to have to try harder than that.”

My mouth opened to say something, but the man was already moving. His free hand snapped up, a wide blast of concussive force erupting from his palm. It caught both Avalon and me, launching us off our feet to fly backwards before we crashed into the glass windows. They were obviously heavily reinforced, because we didn’t go straight through them. Still, the glass cracked under our impact, and I was pretty sure a bit of me cracked too. Owww. 

At the same time, that spear of his sent a lance of bright, crackling lightning at Seth. The ghost man managed to dive downward through the floor, but I could feel the lightning sap at his energy, leaving him almost completely empty. He was barely present, a flickering form at the edge of my consciousness. 

Rebounding off the spider-webbed glass, I could see the Heretic man already lunging toward a console. He wasn’t going to waste any more time with us. He was already calling for reinforcements, his hand a mere couple of inches from hitting that button. And then our whole mission would be for nothing. 

I couldn’t move fast enough. My head was still groggy, still too out of it to focus on summoning my portal power, or anything else. Nearby, Avalon was in much the same state. We were both struggling to fucking move fast enough to stop him. But it wouldn’t work. We were going to be too slow. We were going to fail. 

But we weren’t alone. Twister had left my shirt while that was going on, transforming into some sort of small bug to almost entirely disappear. She reappeared just then, shifting from the bug back to a gorilla with both hands catching the Heretic’s arm. With a loud grunt, she yanked him away from the console. 

Unfortunately, he didn’t go very far. Even with that incredible (relatively speaking) gorilla strength that could lift a thousand pounds, Twister could still barely push him back from the button that would have ended our entire mission. With one human arm against both of her massive gorilla arms, the man still managed to only be pushed back a foot or so before lashing out with his other fist. It took Twister in the face, knocking out several teeth and doing who knew what other sort of damage. She went staggering backward, releasing the man. He followed up with a blast of fire from his mouth, clearly intended to melt the gorilla’s head. 

Thankfully, Twister was faster than that. She transformed into a snake, dropping to the ground while the fire filled the air where her injured face had been an instant earlier. 

The man adjusted his aim to look down at the snake while simultaneously reaching out to the console again. But by that point, Avalon and I were finally moving once more. We threw ourselves that way, the girl beside me snapping her hand out. Her gauntlet created a quick shield that reached out over the button, blocking the man’s hand for that crucial instant. 

At the same time, I opened a small portal in front of the Twister snake, just as the man breathed fire at her once more. The flames reappeared through another portal right in front of his face, making the man attack himself with his own fire. 

Sadly, that didn’t seem to do much. Either he was immune to his own fire, or to all of it.  But at least I managed to stop him from disintegrating Twister. And Avalon had blocked his hand from hitting the button. For the moment, at least, we were still in business. And if my mental count was right, just under half the time had passed. So we still had a minute and a half. We just had to keep this going for ninety seconds. Then he could hit all the buttons he wanted. 

Our lunge had ended with me on one side of the man, and Avalon on the other, closer to the button. Twister, meanwhile, transformed into a leopard, snarling dangerously in front of him. Three of us for one Heretic, keeping him busy for just ninety seconds. Eighty-nine, eighty-eight. 

With a grunt that sounded like it was half-anger and half-amusement, the Heretic abruptly sheathed himself in skin-tight metal armor. At the same time, his elbow snapped up and back toward my face. I managed to snap my head out of the way, but a wide, wickedly-curved blade emerged from that elbow in mid-motion and that cut across my cheek, drawing blood. Worse, I felt that side of my face go a bit numb, even from that very slight cut. It was poison. I could smell it. And if a tiny bit of it from a glancing cut to my face affected me that much, taking a full dose would have ended this fight for me. 

In the exact same instant that he was cutting my face with his elbow-blade, the man opened his mouth and a new burst of fire emerged. This time, however, it wasn’t a simple ball. The flame poured forth and transformed into what looked like a leopard identical to the one Twister had turned into. Though this one was made of fire. 

From the corner of my eye as I was spinning away from that blade, I saw the fire leopard leap down from the man’s face and almost landed on top of Twister, before she threw herself away from it. She shifted up to a bird to fly backward before turning into a komodo dragon. Both times, the fire-creature followed suit, matching her shift for shift and giving chase. 

And the man wasn’t even done there. Even as I was still in mid-pivot to avoid the worst of the poisoned blade, my gaze caught sight of Avalon being lifted off the ground by some sort of energy coil that came from the man’s left side. It was wrapped around her throat, jerking her back and forth twice before she managed to bring her own gauntlet up with an energy blade extended. Hitting it as hard as she could, the girl still couldn’t make the coil release her. Instead, she was slammed backward into another part of the window. Again, it spider-webbed, and I heard a yelp of pain from Avalon. 

Right, so this was going swimmingly. Three seconds in and half my face was numbed so I couldn’t talk right (meaning casting any spells that required verbal components was right out the window), Avalon was being slammed repeatedly into a reinforced glass window, doing who knew what sort of damage, and Twister was being chased out of the room and back down the stairs by a fire-creature that could match all of her shapeshifting and would literally incinerate her if she tried to fight it head-on. At this rate, we wouldn’t have to worry about the fact that there was roughly eighty-four seconds left before the communications would be locked down, because we wouldn’t last another five. 

Except we had to. Everyone was counting on us. In the midst of that panicked, desperate moment, Avalon and I met each other’s gaze. I was still pivoting away from the blade, just as the man’s energy coil was yanking her backward and bracing to throw her into the window even harder. For a frozen instant, we saw each other. And we knew we had to do better than this. 

The man slammed Avalon toward the glass, a bellow of rage escaping him. At the same time, he spun toward me and brought his hand up to send another blast of concussive force, just like the one that had caught both of us before. If it hit me, I would be hurled clear across the room once more. And if Avalon hit the glass as hard as that coil was slamming her toward it, she would break. 

A portal appeared in front of my hand, and I shoved it through just as the other end appeared next to Avalon’s. She was ready, our hands clasping for just an instant before I vanished. I possessed her. Yes, she had been immune before. Immune to all of it. But as part of the spell that had been done over Christmas, her immunity was adjusted to allow her to let anyone in that she wanted. And in that moment, she definitely wanted me to possess her. 

The incredibly destructive blast of concussive force passed through the space where I had been a moment earlier. But now I was inside of Avalon, and in the very instant that we were about to hit that glass, I boosted the other girl with everything I could, shoving all my Seosten-gained strength and speed into her. 

Just before she would have hit the glass back-first, Avalon snapped her hands back, catching herself against the window with her palms. It was enough to send a shock of pain through her, but with her own enhanced strength and the boost I was giving, she was able to bear it. At the same time, she brought her feet up and pressed them against either side of the energy coil. A snapped word triggered the defensive measures she’d put into her boots, sending a burst of electricity out of them and into the coil. It did enough damage to make the energy construct sputter and fizzle out of existence. 

With the coil gone, Avalon was released. We dropped back toward the floor, as the other girl flipped over to land on her feet. Her arms came up into a ready position, and her gauntlets created a pair of energy gloves over her arms and hands for protection. Cracking her neck, she spoke, voice dark. “Did they put you in this position because you’re tough, or because it keeps you away from anything important?” 

Oh, the man definitely didn’t like that. A snarl escaped him while two more blades extended from his metal form, these ones attached to his wrists. The blades turned from silver to red with white tips to show just how hot they were, before he launched himself at her, at us. He wasn’t playing around anymore. He wasn’t wasting time. He was just going to kill us. 

Avalon didn’t back off or retreat. She met the man’s lunge with her own, energy-sheathed arm snapping up to block his left super-heated wrist blade as he swung for us. I could still feel the heat from it, and it was very clear that Avalon’s energy constructs couldn’t take a lot of hits like that. As it was, the ‘glove’ around her arm flickered just a little. 

Still, it held for the moment, and she was already pivoting and ducking under the swing from his other hand. Her foot lashed out to kick as hard as she could into his leg. It was like hitting a brick wall. Well, a brick wall when you didn’t have much in the way of enhanced strength. The man clearly barely felt it, the blow drawing what amounted to a snort-chuckle from him. At the same time, he made two more energy coils appear. These ones didn’t come from the man himself, but from the wall behind Avalon. They lashed out in an attempt to grab her arms. 

But Avalon was quicker than that. Even as those energy coils lashed up from behind, she was already using her mimicry power to create a pair of her own. They weren’t as strong as his, but they still managed to intercept the coils before they could grab onto her. Meanwhile, Avalon launched herself upward into a flip to carry herself over the man’s head before landing behind him. Her energy-covered fist lashed out toward the back of his head. 

He twisted just in time, catching the blow against his elbow blade to deflect it. In the same motion, his hand snapped down to catch her extended arm, yanking Avalon forward even as his other hand went toward her face, blade extended. 

That was my cue. Lunging out of the other girl, I ended up on one side of the man and caught his arm in mid-swing. Strong as he was, I barely managed to halt its forward momentum an inch from Valley’s face before she jerked her head out of the way. Unfortunately, the second I caught hold of his arm and stopped it, the man gave a soft grunt before a series of razor-sharp spikes emerged from the metal covering his skin. My hands were punctured and cut in several places, though it wasn’t nearly as bad as it would’ve been before I gained a bit of boosted strength from that Heretic woman. Still, it hurt, making me yelp a little as I released him reflexively. An instant later, his metal fist collided with my face in a backhand that made me reel away from him. 

He instantly tried to follow that up by making a pair of spikes emerge from his fist before driving it right toward my throat while I was recoiling. But Avalon made a lasso of energy emerge from her left gauntlet, catching the man’s elbow in mid-swing before jerking it as hard as she could to the side. Which made his eyes snap that way, mouth opening to breathe fire at her. But before he could, I brought my staff around, triggering the rocket-burst power not on myself, but on the top-back spot of the staff itself. The visual-effect flames emerged from that spot, and the staff was suddenly moving much faster than I could swing it by myself. At the same time, I activated the staff’s own built-in kinetic boost, further speeding it up. It slammed into the side of the man’s face just as he was about to breathe fire at Avalon, snapping his head to the side. 

Jerking his arm free of the energy lasso (it sputtered and faded from the force of his violent motion), the Heretic man made a sharp gesture with his hand. A telekinetic force (or maybe just his concussive blast power coming from the floor, I wasn’t sure which) caught hold of Valley and sent her flying upward toward the ceiling, even as several long metal spikes emerged from that ceiling, ready to impale her. 

But I was ready, already flinging my hand upwards while summoning a simple coin to it. As Avalon’s gaze met mine, I hurled the coin to her. It flung that way, flipping end over end before she caught it in one hand. An instant before she would have hit the spikes, the other girl disappeared. She possessed the coin. 

In the meantime, the Heretic was coming after me, swinging with one of his wrist-blades toward my throat while simultaneously making a long spike of metal erupt from the side at a diagonal angle to catch me if I ducked away from the wrist-blade.

So I didn’t duck. Instead, I triggered the kinetic-boost on the back of my staff while my thumb found the little bit of wood that had been embedded in it. My entire body vanished just as Avalon’s had, as I possessed the wood in my staff. It flew up just past the side of the man’s face while he was swinging that wrist-blade, and I popped out of it in mid-air, my foot lashing out to collide with the side of his head before using the impact from that to kick myself up and into a backward flip away from him. 

In that same motion, my hand was snapping outward, as I sent the Avalon coin, which I had immediately summoned back to my palm as soon as the girl possessed it, flying past the man’s head while his gaze was snapping toward me. She appeared behind him, already projecting twin ropes from her gauntlets, which wrapped around his arms before she yanked back as hard as she could. It was just enough to pull his arms away from protecting his chest, leaving him open (well, as open as he could be with metal armor covering his entire body) for a second.

Landing from the flip at that moment, I spun in a full three-sixty. In the midst of that, my hand caught the small mouse form of Twister, who had been saved from the fire-creature by Grover. The ghost boy obviously wasn’t bothered by the flames, and had simply used some of the power I gave him to punt the thing out the window. Now, as Twister leapt off the nearby console toward me, I scooped her up. Then I continued my spin before fastball-chucking her straight toward the Heretic. Sailing straight at him, Twister transformed from a mouse all the way up to a rhino, colliding with the man while maintaining that same speed from being hurled as a mouse with all my strength. 

That was enough to knock the man to the ground and crack his armor, though he gave a wild backhand swing and actually threw the rhino-Twister away from him, cutting her pretty deeply with his blades in the process. Still, the cracks were at least something we could work with.

And work with them we did. Before the man could finish pivoting from his knees to drive his blade into the briefly-prone Twister-rhino, I was there. My foot lashed out, using a bit of rocket-burst against my leg to make it go even faster and harder, colliding with his arm to knock it off-course.  

Some sort of kinetic force or wind slammed into me, just enough to make me stagger backward. By the time I caught myself, the man was back on his feet. Avalon’s foot was already colliding with the small of his back hard enough to make him stagger forward a step. He pivoted that way, blade lashing out toward her while he simultaneously raised his opposite hand to send a concussive blast my way. 

But I was already running forward, diving into a feet-first slide with a little boost from my staff to carry myself under his blast before I popped back to my feet. As Avalon caught his blade against the side of her newly-reformed energy gloves, I was there to slam my staff as hard as I could into one of the slight cracks we could see from the rhino’s collision with him. Before impact, I used the rocket-burst on my staff once more. The armor didn’t break, but it was hit with enough force to widen the crack somewhat.

Before he could recover, Avalon shoved his arm out of the way with both of hers, just as her foot snapped up. In mid-kick, this weird gel substance appeared over her leg before instantly hardening. It was almost like my resin stuff, but clearly tougher. I’d seen her use it a couple times before in training, and it was hard enough to take a full barrage of shots from either Sarah or Sean’s guns. Unfortunately, it only lasted for a few seconds at a time. But a few seconds was all she needed to shield her leg from the impact as it collided with the same crack in the man’s armor. It was just along his left side, where the lower part of his ribs would be. 

While the man was spitting curses, Avalon’s hand met mine. I vanished once more, possessing her and giving the other girl a new boost. Our opponent lashed out with a swing, but with the added speed and strength my boost gave her, Valley ducked and spun under the blade, her energy-sheathed fist lashing out to hit that crack yet again. It was widening with each blow, though slowly. 

The man’s hand was snapping down to catch Valley by the hair as she was half-crouched in front of him. But I was already popping out from her extended-fist. My form materialized right there, our hands still touching. Which meant Valley disappeared right as the man’s hand was about to grab her hair, as she possessed my glove. 

I could possess her, and she could possess any item, including my clothing. And over the next few seconds, we used that. My hand caught his elbow to stop the man’s swing. Of course my arm buckled under the force, but Valley popped out of my glove, appearing on the other side of his arm so she could yank it back. Which gave me an opening to drive my staff into that crack once more before snapping it around under his extended arm so Valley could catch the end and possess it, vanishing even as his head turned that way to breathe fire on that spot. In the same motion, I brought the opposite end of the staff snapping upward before projecting a cloud of sand into his face to try to block his vision. I was pretty sure he had plenty of extra senses, but every little bit helped. 

While he was grunting from the sand flying into his eyes, Avalon popped out of the staff, holding it for me as my hand caught her elbow so I could possess her once more. But I immediately popped out on the opposite side of her, even as Valley was triggering the boost on my staff to send the bladed tip of it rocketing hard into the man’s chin. It didn’t cut through, but the force knocked his head back a bit while I appeared on the opposite side of him from where I had been an instant earlier. My arms wrapped around his arm, yanking backward so Valley could rear back with a violent kick into that same crack on his side. 

The man screamed in blind rage, still reeling from the sand in his face as I sent as much as I could into his eyes. They were shielded with some weird transparent metal too, but I was still able to coat them with the sand and block his vision. With that bellow of anger, four different metal spikes erupted from the floor where Valley had been. But she had already possessed my staff, which was still in her hands. And in that second, I recalled it back to my grip, spinning while triggering both the boost on the weapon and the rocket-burst to drive it into the crack. Which, by that point, had spread out over almost his entire front. 

For ten more seconds, we repeated that a dozen times, Avalon constantly popping in and out either my staff, glove, or some other item, while I, in turn, took turns possessing the girl herself. Sometimes I boosted her and helped attack, other times I simply went in and immediately out again from her extended arm, behind her, in front of her, or from some other angle. I threw my staff with Valley inside it, letting her pop out behind the man before recalling it, or hit him and let her pop out to take the staff in her own hands so she could hit him a second time while I possessed the wood spot briefly. Sometimes I let the staff go all the way past him before she popped out, while other times I recalled it immediately and we hit him when he twisted to anticipate the attack from behind. He never knew what was going to happen. Every move he made to attack one of us, we weren’t there anymore. At one point, we both possessed the staff (her possessing the staff itself and me possessing the small wooden spot on it), just after I used my object-resizing power to shrink the staff down to about the size of a slightly large toothpick and threw it that way. Before the guy could figure out where we had both vanished to, I popped out of the tiny flying staff in front of him and drove my knee into his face, just as Avalon popped out of it once it passed his head, appearing behind him so she could bring both gauntlet-covered fists in to slam hard into his ears. 

It was ten seconds of total chaos, but chaos the two of us had trained at over and over again. We had practiced these maneuvers, and our opponent had no idea how to deal with it. Every time he tried to counter attack, every swing, every blast of fire, everything he did met empty air as the person he was targeting had already vanished. 

Finally, the man screamed, “Enough!” His hands came slamming together, sending out a burst of kinetic energy that made Valley and me both stagger away from him. Snarling in rage, he went to drive his hands together once more, only to stop as there was a loud beep from the nearest console before every single one of them went dark. The antennae itself made a groaning sound as it clearly shut off. 

“What–what did–what was that?!” The man demanded, his gaze snapping around. 

“That,” I informed him, “was your time running out.” Already, I was rising, gripping my staff. Valley’s hand found it, before she disappeared into the weapon once more. 

As I reared back, the man was focusing on me. His mouth opened to scream, attack, or… or do something. But before he could, Twister caught both of his arms. Or rather, the octopus she had transformed into did. Eight long, red octopus arms caught his two, four for each one. In that instant, she yanked backward, holding his arms out of the way and leaving an opening. 

The staff left my hand, sailing spear-style straight at the man as I triggered the last of its kinetic boost. It slammed into his side, and that was finally enough to finish what the crack had started. A small chunk of his armor fell away, leaving a glimpse of his exposed torso. 

It wasn’t a huge opening, but it was an opening. And Valley took advantage of it, popping out of my staff while it was rebounding off the man. She caught the weapon before it could fall, then drove it as hard as she could, blade first up into the opening we had created. The staff went all the way into the man, driven as far as Avalon could shove it at an upward angle. 

The man staggered, slumping a little. With Twister still gripping his arms in her octopus-form, and my staff driven almost halfway up through his torso, he faltered. The rest of the armor he had encased himself in broke apart, and he lifted his gaze enough to snarl, “You’ll burn in–” 

“You first,” Avalon interrupted, spinning around as she projected a blade from her gauntlet to cut straight through the man’s newly-exposed neck. 

His head hit the ground a second before the rest of his body. And Avalon, a shocked gasp of pleasure escaping her, wasn’t far behind. 

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By Blood 17-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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And there it was. The communications tower was directly in front of us as we crouched in the bushes just a few feet away from the path leading up to the door. The tower itself looked like a lighthouse with a huge radio antenna on top. One of the metal statue guardian things, like what had been in front of the dorms at Crossroads, was perched up beside the door as though ready to deal with any threat that approached. And something told me it was probably stronger than those ones. Either way, it was a problem we were going to have to deal with, because we certainly weren’t on the list of people allowed to go in there. The only way we would be able to shut down the communications was by getting in that building. The antennae itself was surrounded by a powerful forcefield. It might have been possible to get through it, but not without drawing far too much attention first. We had to do this the quiet way for as long as we could. Our best-case scenario was the bulk of the people here having absolutely no idea that anything was wrong until the truck with all our friends in it was already in the compound. 

All of which meant we needed to sneak into this building and disable the communications without setting off every alarm in the entire prison facility.  We wanted them to have no idea the communications were even down until the moment they tried to use them. Because the longer it took them to realize there was a problem, the less time that they would have to come up with a solution. 

Kohaku had been scanning the building ahead both visually and with all of her relevant powers for the past minute. Finally, she spoke in a low voice. “One Heretic inside. From what I can tell, they’re alone and not connected to anyone. They seem to be watching a movie in there. But if we pick a fight with the guardian…” She turned her gaze to the currently-motionless statue. “Give me a moment, I may be able to disable it without a fight.” 

“That’d be nice,” Twister put in. She was back in her own form, crouched on the far side of Avalon. “You sure I can’t get up there and take a peek?” 

Avalon’s head shook. “I still haven’t seen any animals around here. There was nothing in the forest. No birds, no squirrel or rat-like things, nothing. I didn’t even see a butterfly. Or a regular fly. You turn into anything and get close, they’ll know something’s going on.” 

“Exactly,” Kohaku agreed. “The Heretic in there is distracted, but we don’t know how distracted. And we don’t know how sensitive the detector on the guardian is.” With that, she paused to consider for a moment, frowning thoughtfully. “Avalon, how long will your device take?” 

Yeah, Avalon had been part of the Developer’s track, of course. On our way over to this planet, she and Columbus had both been tinkering a bit and came up with a toy that could be plugged into the computer system. Assuming it all worked out the way it was supposed to, the device would shut down the entire network with some sort of virus or whatever. The point was, it would quietly destroy their ability to call for off-world help. At least until they could get into the system and flush out the virus. Which we weren’t planning on giving them a lot of time to do.  

Considering the question briefly, Avalon tilted her head a little before answering, “Conservatively speaking, three minutes. Just to make sure it disables all the alarms first before shutting down the network itself. Once we get to a spot where I can plug it in.” 

“Okay,” Kohaku replied, clearly coming to a decision. “Felicity, take this.” She turned a bit, passing a small silver disc the size of my fist, with several runes on it that glowed faintly. “Hand that to one of your ghosts. From what I can tell, they shouldn’t be detected if they carry it over to the guardian and place it on the back of its neck. That should temporarily disable it. Just make sure they take it slow and easy. There is no need to be in a rush.” 

Nodding, I summoned Seth once more, quietly informing the man of what he needed to do while giving him enough energy to make his hands solid so he could take the disc itself. “And Seth,” I added, “you don’t have to taunt the thing first. Stay out of its line of sight, even if you are invisible. Just to be on the safe side. Go out and around, then come up along the side of the building.” 

“Eesh, okay, Mom,” the ghost retorted with a wink as he took the disc, before his voice softened. “Don’t worry so much, Chambers. I want to get Tiras out of here as much as you do, without making all these jumpy Heretics decide to execute the prisoners. Give me a minute, babe.” His eyes passed over the others before he belatedly amended, “Babes.” 

Despite his words of assurance, I still found myself holding my breath as the ghost-figure took the disc and began to make the long, circuitous trip around toward the back of the guardian. Luckily, I could hold my breath for a long time. Ten–no, fifteen minutes. I’d gotten an upgrade from killing that Heretic lady back at the truck station. Now I could hold my breath for fifteen full minutes. And, beyond that, I was able to share that ability with anyone I was touching, though the length I could hold it for went down by about a quarter for every person I did that with. By myself I could last fifteen minutes. Holding one person’s hand dropped that to about eleven and a half, and holding two people’s hands made it seven and a half. But assuming they could hold their own breath for awhile, we could keep it going for longer.

The point was, I could hold my breath much longer than it took for Seth to work his way around to the back of the statue. And I did, staring that way while half-expecting the guardian to jerk itself into motion any second. Not that I doubted the old vampire’s ability to be stealthy. It was more about doubting our luck to actually pull this off without everything blowing up. So far so good, but we were only doing this well because the Eden’s Garden people had no reason to suspect there were any problems. Seriously, they were on a tiny, out-of-the-way planet in the middle of unknown space, far from any threats that they knew of. They were probably alert for Fomorian invasion if those fucks happened to find this place. But a tiny, quiet incursion force set to rescue their prisoners? Yeah, I doubted they had the slightest inkling that anything like that was on their doorstep. Yet one tiny mistake on our part could change that, and make this entire situation a hell of a lot harder. 

But for the moment at least, that mistake didn’t happen. As we all knelt there and watched, Seth made his way around to the back of the statue and carefully placed the disc there. The second it was in place, the guardian’s eyes started to glow, as if it had detected that there was something wrong. But before it could do anything, Kohaku spoke a single word. There was a slight puff of smoke from the disc, and the guardian immediately froze once more. Its eyes dimmed, but didn’t entirely go out. It was paralyzed, not off. For the moment, we didn’t have to deal with it. 

“Go,” Kohaku urged while tugging another coin out, triggering a new stealth spell to hide us from any extra senses the Heretic in the building might have. “Don’t worry,” she assured us as we all started to jog quickly and quietly toward the door, “it won’t be a problem.” 

No sooner had the woman finished saying those words, than her hand caught hold of my arm and yanked me to the side. In that instant, my item-sense caught the presence of something very sharp moving incredibly quickly through the air right where my head had been. It was a knife, which embedded itself deep into a nearby tree.  

I was still realizing what had just happened, even as Avalon and Twister were pivoting toward the source of that knife. But Kohaku was even faster. In the exact same motion as when she had yanked me away from the incoming blade, the woman had pivoted and brought her other hand up, sending out an invisible and mostly silent bolt of force that way. 

A radio, clutched in the hand of the man who had emerged from the trees to throw that knife at me, burst apart. It didn’t so much explode as basically break into all of its component parts when that blast from Kohaku’s hand hit it. 

The man was an Eden’s Garden Heretic, obviously. He stood a couple inches under six feet, with a blond goatee and mustache, gray eyes, and a smooth bald head. He was wearing black slacks, a loose dark green button-up shirt, and a white tie. When the radio broke in his hand, he hissed and dropped it, eyes narrowing. “Kohaku. Should’ve thrown the knife at you instead.” 

“You would have had even less luck than you did with her, Howff.” she flatly informed him. “And you couldn’t resist trying to kill Joselyn’s daughter.” 

“Eh, would’ve been pretty fun,” came the retort as his eyes briefly glanced my way. “But I guess it can wait. You people aren’t getting out of here anyway.” 

Kohaku lifted one eyebrow. “I assume you’ve already realized you can’t call for help.” Her hand rose, showing a small gray stone that was pulsing with power. As she held it, I could see the edges of a shimmering silvery dome that filled the clearing briefly glow. “As long as this spell is active, you can’t summon any friends or send any messages. Nothing you do can get beyond the walls of the dome. Even your friend upstairs can’t hear you.” She nodded toward the tower behind us. 

The man, Howff apparently, narrowed his eyes. “All that means is that I need to take that stone from you.” 

“Good luck with that,” she informed him. Her next words were for Twister, Avalon, and me. “Go. You can get through the dome. Do what needs to be done. You can handle it. I’ll stop Howff.” 

If he had thought about it more, the man probably would have focused on stopping the rest of us. Or at least slowing us down. We were the ones who would be screwed over if this took too long, after all. But his attention was centered on Kohaku. I could tell there was some sort of personal history there that was clouding his judgment. Whatever it was, I was just glad it gave us this opening. Without missing a beat, or even looking at one another, Avalon, Twister, and I pivoted and ran toward the door. The statue was still frozen in place, with that disc keeping it motionless. Meanwhile, I could hear Kohaku and Howff start to go at it behind us briefly before we passed through the edge of the magic dome and the sound was cut off. Whatever happened back there now, it was up to Kohaku to handle. We had our own job. 

The first step of that job was the door. It was locked, of course. And there were several alarm spells on it. Beyond that, the door was made of solid metal and set into thick concrete. For a lot of people, it would have taken far too long to break through quietly, and make entirely too much noise to do so loudly. 

But we weren’t a lot of people. Even as we approached the door, Avalon was producing Seth’s knife (making the ghost-man raise an eyebrow from where he was lounging next to the guardian statue). She cut straight through the spot on the door where the alarm spells were, disabling them in two quick strokes so that anything happening to the door wouldn’t alert everyone in the prison. 

Meanwhile, I stopped in front of the door. It was still locked, and according to Kohaku, the security they used here would be too strong for my auto-unlocking power. Still, I had another way of dealing with it. Taking a breath, I raised my hands up to my face with one palm facing down while the other faced outward to the right, and focused on one of the new powers I had picked up from the Heretic back on Earth. She had ripped massive slabs of concrete out of the ground. I wasn’t that strong. But I could reshape the concrete. Which, I was pretty sure, was helped along by the rock-manipulation power I’d already had. With those two combined, while I couldn’t throw huge slabs of concrete through the air willy nilly, I could manipulate and play with it almost like clay. Maybe later I would get better at lifting it up, but for now, I was a bit more limited. Thankfully, it was enough for our purposes. 

With a grunt of effort, I shoved one hand down and the other to the side. With those motions, I used that stolen power to push the concrete below the door down, and the concrete to one side of it to the right, out of the way. It took some effort, given how thick and strong the concrete happened to be, and how new to using this power I was. But the cement finally moved, and the door started to fall with those two sides no longer holding it up. 

But Twister was there, already having shifted into a gorilla form. She caught the door before it could fall and alert the guy inside, shoving it out of the way to lean against the guardian statue. 

Now we had our opening, and we didn’t waste any time. Hoping that Kohaku was doing okay, I went through the entrance first. 

There was very little immediately in-view. The room beyond the door was circular, with a few consoles along the rounded walls, and a set of stairs that spiraled upward higher into the lighthouse. We could hear the television that the Heretic guard was watching, so none of us spoke just yet. Instead, I raised my hand to point at the consoles while looking toward Avalon. Unfortunately, she took a quick glance that way before shaking her head. Those wouldn’t do. We had to get up into the main control room. Of course, I knew it couldn’t be that easy. But I’d had to at least check. 

While I was reacting to her response, Avalon tugged out a small gray stone identical to the one Kohaku was using outside to create that dome of silence. As soon as she activated it, our friend upstairs wouldn’t be able to summon help or warn anyone either. 

Rather than move directly to the stairs, I tilted my head to look up at the ceiling. At the same time, I summoned Seth, Grover, and several other ghosts who were still with me. They’d all agreed to come on this trip and help out, so I silently let them know what I wanted. The assembled group of incorporeal figures looked at one another, noded, then flew up through the ceiling. They were on their way to burst out through the floor to attack the Heretic there. Not that I or any of them expected a few ghosts to be able to win against him, but they would serve as a pretty good distraction while we made our way upstairs. I just hoped they lasted long enough. 

Grover went last, catching the activated stone as Avalon tossed it to him. He flew up the stairs to get it within range of the man up there from the moment the other ghosts ambushed him. 

Silently wishing them luck, I held a hand out toward Twister. She shifted into a tiny mouse once more, landing on my palm before running up to my shoulder. Giving Avalon a quick glance and thumbs up, I ran to the base of the stairs and then jumped. Rather than run up the steps, I used the rocket burst power I had also inherited from the Heretic woman. The flames that came out of my feet and the middle of my back weren’t actually hot. As far as I could tell, they didn’t really do any damage or anything. They were just a visual effect, showing where the kinetic force was pushing outward to shove me in the opposite direction. 

I couldn’t fly with them, unfortunately. I could get a pretty good lift off and use the power as what amounted to a rocket jump to get myself maybe thirty feet into the air before coming back down. And that was it without using my Seosten boost or added lift from my staff. With both of those, I could get even higher and further. Beyond that, the rocket burst could act as what amounted to a hover power, keeping me a few feet off the ground while moving me forward (or in other directions if I shifted where the ‘flames’ were emerging). 

I could use the rocket burst on the ground for about twenty seconds at a time before it needed to recharge. Which, with the added Seosten boost and the speed-up rings that I placed in front of me on the way, was more than enough time. I was a blur as I hover-rocketed up the stairs. Without the werewolf-enhanced reflexes combined with what the Seosten boost also gave me, I probably would have slammed right into the curved wall almost immediately. But I managed to keep going around every bend, even as Twister the mouse shoved herself inside my shirt and clung for dear life. 

I also hadn’t left Avalon very far behind. She was using the power she’d picked up awhile back to copy versions of other people’s powers in order to use the same rocket burst, and was right behind me. The two of us rocketed up the spiraling stairs, past several other floors where various unimportant rooms were. What we wanted was the very top floor, where the light would have been if this was an actual lighthouse. 

On the way, I could sense my ghosts having problems of their own. A couple of them had already been disintegrated. Not that it was permanent or anything. The magic holding their ‘bodies’ together was simply dispersed and it would take some time and effort to pull them back together. Still, I felt a pang of guilt about sending them up to get hurt like that, even if they had volunteered. I was going to have to do something nice for the ghosts for helping out so much on this trip. Even Grover, who wasn’t fighting but was floating just close enough to keep the communication-blocking spell up. 

Still, there were a few left in the actual fight, including Seth. Unsurprisingly, the dead vampire seemed to be doing the best against that Heretic. He had, after all, been the Wonderland Tiebreaker for a reason. If he had still been in his vampire form, he might even have stood more of a chance. Might have. But as it was, in this ghost body, the best he could hope to do was hold out and keep the man’s attention a little bit longer. 

Thankfully, it was long enough. I heard the Heretic cursing and threatening my ghosts just ahead of us as we reached the top of the stairs. Then we were in a wide-open circular room, much like the one at the bottom of the stairs. But this one had a lot more consoles around it, along with a central machine right in the middle that was clearly the base of the radio-like antennae. 

The Heretic was immediately visible as well. He had his back to us (I was going to assume that Seth was responsible for that), and seemed fairly unassuming in appearance. He wasn’t that big, standing only a few inches taller than me, with short blond hair and a wiry build. He wore a pair of dark cargo pants and a white muscle shirt. 

Oh, and he was holding a spear with an energy blade at the end, which he was busy driving into another of my ghosts, shattering him into ectoplasm-like stuff that quickly disintegrated. Which seemed to leave Seth as the only one left (aside from Grover out in the stairwell), having just spun out of the way from the back-handed blow that the Heretic followed up with after skewering the other ghost. 

The man instantly reacted to our arrival, sending a burst of what was clearly incredibly dangerous fire flying backward at us. But Avalon and I were ready, diving to either side as our rocket-burst wore off. The flames filled the air between us, sending a wave of almost nauseating heat over my body. Yeah, not a good idea to be hit by that. 

Avalon was already rising after that dive, pulling herself up with the help of the nearby console. Even as she rose, I could see the spot where she had stuck her device. It was out of sight from where the Heretic was standing, and already silently doing its job. 

Speaking of the Heretic, he had moved to the center of the room, his eyes darting between Avalon and me while he held his energy-bladed spear toward Seth. “Ah, traitors through and through, I should’ve known. You won’t be getting out of this alive.” 

“We’ll see,” I replied flatly, trying to keep the nerves out of my voice. Three minutes. We had to keep this guy busy for three minutes so Avalon’s device could do its thing. 

If we failed, the Eden’s Garden people would be able to summon reinforcements. And then this whole rescue mission would be over. 

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By Blood 17-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The noncanon chapter for Heretical Edge was posted over the weekend and is now available for everyone to read right here

The evil-looking forest didn’t get any better when we were inside it. Actually, I was pretty sure it got worse the deeper in we went. The place really was like something out of a horrifying fairy tale, of the Grimm Brothers variety. We had yet to see or sense any animals or anything, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was watching us. Even though Tangle and Kohaku both insisted that they couldn’t feel anyone or anything and none of their warning spells were going off, it still felt like there were eyes on us. Twister even turned into an owl and took a quick flight around, but couldn’t see or hear anything. But she did agree that it felt creepy. 

In any case, creepy or not, we had a schedule to keep. And a long hike to get through. The only way we had felt safe making that portal jump was by doing so far enough from the prison that it was going to take hours for us to walk that way. Any closer and we would have run too much of a risk of detection. 

So, eyes, ears, and other senses peeled for anything more substantial than just a creepy feeling, the seven of us kept moving. The rest of the group was waiting for us to take down those scanners and the communication tower, and we couldn’t let them down. This was too important. Asenath and Gordon were counting on us to have the next step ready so they could rescue their fathers. And I’d be damned if I was going to let feeling uneasy about this forest screw that up. 

There were ways we could have moved faster, of course. But we were leaning heavily on the ‘don’t be detected’ side of things. So most of the magic that Kohaku and Tangle could use was focused on shielding us. Which meant we were sticking to some good old-fashioned hiking. 

Of course, the forest being uninhabited and hours away from the prison meant that there wasn’t really a path. We just had to stay together and work our way through the thick trees while doing our best not to end up tripping over raised roots or falling in any holes. And there were plenty of both. To say nothing of all the sharp thorns. 

All in all, it was pretty far from a walk in the park. As I hopped over a deep ditch full of what looked like long vines with dagger-sized spikes sticking out of them, my attention turned toward Sands, who was hopping over right beside me. “Not exactly what you signed up for?” 

Snorting, she reached back to catch her sister’s hand, helping her across before looking toward me. “Let’s just say that if I could tell the me from before last year what I was doing, she’d think I’d completely lost my mind. Our mind. Whatever. Or she’d think I was possessed by a body snatcher, which is pretty ironic when you think about it.” 

With a small smile, Sarah spoke up. “But we have Mom back.” 

The words made Sands brighten, even as we turned to keep walking with everyone else. “Yeah,  We have Mom back. And we’re not on the wrong side of all this, that’s a plus too.” Her eyes turned it to me once more as she quietly added, “I would not want to be on your bad side. Or the bad side of your mother. But can you imagine if we weren’t friends? If–” Her face twisted a little. “Never mind, that sucks to think about.” 

“Aww.” Reaching back, I caught her hand and squeezed it. “Don’t worry, I like having you as a friend better than an enemy too. I wouldn’t want to take that mace to the face, lemme tell you that much. And having Sarah shooting at me from all directions outside of training was bad enough just the one time.” Even saying that made my face twist a little. That was when Ammon had told everyone in the dorm to hurt me that one night. That… yeah, I shouldn’t have brought it up. 

From the look on her face, Sarah didn’t like to think about that time either. She took a deep breath before pushing a branch out of the way for Sands and me to move past. When she spoke, her voice was troubled. “It could have gone the other way really easy.” Stepping past the branch and letting it go, she added, “Which side we were on, I mean.” 

Sands grimaced. “Tell me about it.” She ducked under a much larger branch that was in our way, glancing to the rest of the group before turning her attention back to me. “When you first started bringing up the whole Strangers aren’t all evil thing, I…” She hesitated before admitting, “ I almost didn’t react very well. I mean, I know I didn’t react very well as it was. But I almost did something really stupid. I was almost…” She sighed. 

“You almost talked to your dad about it,” I finished for her. “Trust me, I get that. I know how hard it was not to–okay no I don’t. I’m not going to try to say I know how hard it was not to talk to your dad about that, because I’ve never been in that exact situation. But… but I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you’re both here.” 

Taking her sister’s hand, Sarah nodded. “We are too. Even if we have to go on long, boring hikes.” 

“The long, boring hike is the easy part.” That was Tangle, speaking up from about ten feet off and a bit ahead of us. “Don’t forget, once we actually get to this place, things get a bit more dangerous.” 

“And that’s if we’re lucky,” Kohaku pointed out from behind us where she was keeping an eye on the rear of the group. “If we’re not and they realize they have company, things will get dangerous and exciting.” 

“Let’s try to make it take as long as possible for things to get dangerous and exciting,” Avalon put in from just behind Tangle. The two of them had been having their own quiet conversation through most of this hike. From what I have been able to pick up, they were talking about their whole family situation, given they were distantly related. Which was definitely a thing. I was pretty sure they hadn’t talked very much about that before now, but it wasn’t like there was much else to do while we were stuck walking through this forest. 

Besides, I was glad Avalon was actually talking to her. Tangle and Dries were the only two blood relatives she had, as far as we knew. And the woman who had become her mother, Gaia, was still locked up. Given how worried she was about the woman, she deserved to be able to talk to what other parts of her family she still had access to. 

Yeah, Gaia was a whole other situation we needed to deal with. I hadn’t expected it to take this long to find and rescue the headmistress, and I was pretty sure Avalon hadn’t either. I knew she got more worried about her the longer she was kept prisoner, and I couldn’t help but think about my mother’s imprisonment. Not with Fossor, but with Crossroads. She had been held prisoner by the loyalists for… decades without being rescued. That wouldn’t happen to Gaia, right? We would find and save her quicker than that. 

Of course, the whole idea of this war going on for decades made my stomach twist itself in knots. I can’t even fathom something like that. And yet, it was possible. More than possible. It was not completely out of the question that we would still be in a stalemate two decades from now, or three, or even more. I had to start thinking about all of this in much longer terms. After all, the Fomorian-Seosten war had been going on for hundreds of thousands of years. Sariel, Athena, and the others had been alive for thousands of years themselves. My mother started this war around 1920-ish. Even with a break of a few decades, it had been going on for a long time. 

The point was, expecting to be done with it anytime soon was really dumb. We would be doing this sort of thing for a long time. Gaia being held prisoner for a few months was probably nothing in the grand scheme of things. But telling myself that didn’t really make me feel any better when I saw how much her absence hurt Avalon.

Still, right now we couldn’t focus on Gaia. We had to work on one rescue at a time. Or, well, two in this case. One rescue location at a time. The time to save Gaia would come eventually. For now, we had this one to deal with, and I couldn’t let myself get too distracted. That strange feeling of being watched was still making the hair on the back of my neck stand up. And yet, a glance over my shoulder toward Kohaku was met with a slight headshake. She knew why I was looking that way, and still didn’t sense anything wrong. 

Somehow, that still didn’t put me at ease. Maybe it really was nothing. I certainly couldn’t think of any reason why none of our powers or magic had been able to detect any actual observers. Given the situation we were in, my mind playing tricks on me was certainly understandable. And yet… yeah. I didn’t like any of this. The worst part was that I had no idea if I was anxious for a real reason (beyond the obvious), or if the whole situation was just making me really jumpy. 

Still, I shoved those thoughts out of my mind and did my best to focus on walking and paying attention. I didn’t want to give into my paranoia, but staying aware of things was just common sense. So, hiking onward with my senses straining to pick up even a hint of a problem, I went back to quietly talking to the twins.  

Because Tangle and Kohaku were right, we should probably enjoy this quiet part for as long as we could. Creepy though it might be, this was still a peaceful hike through the forest. The dangerous part, where we had to sneak around the prison and take out their communications and scanners without getting caught would come soon enough. And it would rapidly be followed by the loud, violent part. 

So yeah, for the time being, I was going to enjoy the hike. And hope that if there really was something watching us with ill-intent, it would have the common courtesy to attack long before we reached the prison so that we didn’t have to deal with it and the Eden’s Garden Heretics at the same time. 

******

Well, if there was something watching us, it didn’t cause any problems throughout the rest of the hike to the prison. And yes, it did obviously occur to us that it could be some sort of security system letting the guards at the prison themselves know we were coming. But Kohaku and Tangle insisted that they weren’t getting that impression. They weren’t sensing any communication going anywhere and while they did agree that there was a strange sensation all around us, it didn’t feel malevolent or dangerous. Just… watchful. It was sort of like the feeling one would get when someone was staring at them from behind with curiosity rather than anger. 

In any case, we stayed on guard, and would be approaching the facility even more carefully than we already would have (which itself was pretty carefully). If there was something wrong, we would deal with it as best as we could when the time came. But for the moment, there wasn’t a lot we could do with ‘strange feeling.’ It wasn’t like we could call the whole mission off. We had to press forward and handle whatever happened. 

Finally, after several hours of hiking, we were approaching the edge of the prison complex security grid. It was still a good long distance from the prison itself, since the people inside wanted ample warning of anyone or anything approaching. Not to mention wanting to be able to track prisoners who got away from them. So, the initial alarm and monitoring spells were set up almost a mile away from the main fence. 

We stopped our march well-away from the spells, still hidden by the dense forest around us. The monitoring spells were obviously invisible. It wasn’t like we suddenly saw a dome or wall of energy telling us where not to go. At least, I didn’t. But apparently Kohaku and Tangle both had the sort of power needed to do just that. The two of them focused on the space between two trees just ahead of us, and began quietly murmuring to one another. They were both listing off the various bits of magic they could detect, comparing notes in case one of them missed something. The names and words they were using didn’t mean anything to me–okay that wasn’t true. I had been doing this stuff for long enough that I could follow some of it. But they were very obviously far more experienced and were using a sort of shorthand that left me completely clueless. And a glance toward the others showed that they were in much the same boat. Suffice to say, I was glad that we had them here with us. Otherwise, this would have been a pretty short rescue mission. Or at least, it would’ve turned into an open fight a lot more quickly. 

The rest of us stayed quiet while the other two began to work their way through carefully disabling the warning spells. It took almost an hour, but we weren’t going to complain. Better to sit here and quietly watch them work than end up alerting all of the guards inside that we were here. Patience was the name of the game. Taking the guards inside completely by surprise was the best chance we had at getting to the prisoners safely. If we could sneak in there and take down their communications tower, making it much harder for them to call in help (especially from their Victor), this whole thing would be a hell of a lot more doable. 

Eventually, they had done all they could. The actual alert spells had been disabled, which meant I could do my part without setting off any alarms. Or, to be completely accurate, my ghosts could do their part. I summoned Grover and Seth, both of whom had made it clear they wanted to be involved in this rescue mission. Grover because he was bored and wanted something interesting to do, and Seth because Tiras was important to him too. After all, he had been the one to save Seth’s life and turn him into a vampire in the first place, back during the American Revolutionary War. He was practically as much a father to Seth as he was to Asenath. 

With the alert spells down, the two ghosts were able to get through the actual forcefield parts of the shield to where the main sources of those shield spells were. It was very similar to the situation back at the Auberge, when I had sent Seth in to break the forcefield source so we could get to where Kushiel and Denny had been. Except in this case, we had to break two different spells in separate locations at the same time. It wouldn’t drop the entire shield, just this portion of it. Hopefully not enough to draw immediate attention, thanks to the work that Tangle and Kohaku had done. 

Once Seth and Grover were in position, I had them wait for the moment, looking over at the two teachers as I waited for them to give the go-ahead. They were straining their senses and magic to see beyond the barrier, checking for anyone who was paying too much attention our way. There were roving guards, and we wanted to wait until the nearest set had passed to give ourselves the most amount of time to get inside and do what we needed to do before they came back around. 

Finally, I saw Kohauku raise her hand while looking at me. She counted down from five, lowering a finger each time before finally making a fist. As soon as she did, I sent the impulse for Seth and Grover to do their thing while giving them enough power to become solid. Instantly, the two of them broke the part of the runes that had been carved into their respective trees, bringing down almost all of the shields that had been keeping the rest of us out.  

Almost all of the shields. There was still a single, emergency one left whose power wasn’t easy to get at. It was projected all the way from inside the prison complex. But, of course, we had plans for that too. Specifically, Seth’s anti-magic knife. Avalon already had it in hand as she cautiously approached that spot, flanked by Twister on one side and me on the other. The three of us got close enough for Valley to drive the knife into the very slightly glimmering spot in the air where the last barrier spell was. She drew the blade up and around, then down, cutting an opening into the shield. 

It was done. After all that work, we had our way through the ‘fence’ of protective spells. And, at least as far as we could tell, the guards had no idea we were here. Everything seemed quiet and normal from their side. Still, we had to keep our eyes open. It would be way too easy to get ahead of ourselves and screw this up. This was probably the most dangerous part of our part of the mission, aside from the actual fight. 

Now we were going to split up. Tangle was going with Sands and Sarah to do something about the scanners that would identify the fact that the people in the truck weren’t supposed to be there. Meanwhile, Twister, Avalon, and I were going with Kohaku to take down the communications tower. Or at least, get it set to go down. The moment the fighting broke out, we wanted to be able to shut off their contact with the outside world. Or outside worlds. 

To that end, we all exchanged good luck wishes and embraces. Then our groups split apart. Ours went north from the entrance we had made while Tangle and the twins headed south. Not that we could actually see anything yet. As far as I could tell, we were still just in the middle of a creepy forest. But Kohaku assured me that the prison was less than a mile to the west.

Now more than ever we had to be as quiet and careful as possible. So she was using several active camouflage spells to stop anyone from noticing our group unless they were basically right on top of us. 

We didn’t talk on our way to the tower. We could have, given the privacy and protection spells that we had around us, but it didn’t feel right. So, we marched in silence. Well, most of us did. Twister turned into a tiny mouse and perched on my shoulder, her ears and nose constantly twitching and turning in all directions while Avalon and I walked side by side with Kohaku ahead of us. 

Eventually, the Asian woman stopped and beckoned for us to get closer. Avalon and I exchanged silent looks before walking that way, moving up beside Kohaku. And from there, I could finally see our target. 

The prison was essentially built into the side of a low mountain. A large chunk of that mountain had been hollowed out, with the entrance to the prison and main courtyard taking up the open valley in front of it, while the buildings and actual mining operation were inside the mountain itself, leading deep underground. We were standing at the edge of the forest roughly halfway up that hillside, with the open courtyard and just a bit of the interior prison complex visible below. I could see a tall, visible forcefield wall surrounding the outer edge of the valley in a semicircle. Various magical traps filled the area in front of that wall leading out to the thick trees beyond. 

Once you got past the forcefield, there was a twenty-foot dirt space all the way around before you hit a solid steel wall, about fifteen feet high and covered by automated weapon turrets every few feet. Beyond that was another twenty-foot space filled with more magical traps set to go off, before a second fifteen foot high metal wall. That one had its own automated turrets, but also had several guard towers along it. Guard towers with actual Heretics in them. So we had to stay as far away from them as possible until we were ready for a fight. 

Beyond the guard towers was the actual open courtyard of the prison, where I could see several long, low buildings that looked like they were portable and able to be packed up and moved easily. There were a half dozen of them all along the eastern side almost directly below us, which looked like administration and guard quarters. Meanwhile, on the far western side away from us was a larger building with its own protective forcefield. The armory. A handful of prisoners in bright neon red clothes that would be easy to see in the forest were moving between buildings, escorted by watchful guards. But most of the prisoners would be inside the hollowed out mountain area that we couldn’t see much of yet. 

Once we had taken all that in, Kohaku touched Avalon and me on the shoulder before pointing upward. The communication tower was at the top of the mountain, its antennae visible sticking out just above the trees. That was where we had to go. 

Glancing back down, I focused on a relatively innocuous-looking building near the edge of the second interior wall. It was only about thirty feet wide and two stories tall, with what looked like a radar dish angled downward into the facility. That was where the scanner system was, which meant it was where Tangle and the twins were going. 

“Good luck, guys,” I murmured under my breath. 

Then I turned and started to hike up the mountain. Hopefully they would be able to do their part. But for now, it was time for us to do ours. In about twenty minutes, this whole rescue operation would shift into the next phase. 

I just hoped our luck would last through the end. 

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By Blood 17-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The next several days felt increasingly odd, to say the least. Not because there was anything specifically wrong, but because there was basically nothing to do. Nothing important, anyway. Our days basically consisted of using the truck to make a single jump in the morning to the next moon or asteroid that was used as a recharge point, and then waiting around twenty-four hours until the truck was ready for the next jump. Of course, we could have used extra power to recharge the jump system faster. But the people at the prison camp knew how long the trip was supposed to take. Plus they had a system showing them when each recharge point was used. If we suddenly started coming much faster or making longer jumps, they would know that something was going on. And the last thing we wanted to do was give them a reason to call in for help or be on guard when we got there. We needed them to be as bored and convinced that this was a routine trip as possible. 

So, we did it the slow way, and spent hours just sort of hanging out and talking, playing games, or training. A lot of training, especially whenever Avalon got to choose. She made sure we trained as much as we could in the various alien environments we ended up waiting around in. There was one small moon that had this greenish-gray stuff all over its surface that alternated between being very sticky or slippery seemingly at random. Avalon had a field day getting me and the rest of the people our age (Shiori, Columbus, Sarah, Sands, Jazz, Douglas, and Gordon) to run exercises and drills across that stuff. Hell, it was even a good way of testing that rocket-burst power that the Eden’s Garden Heretic I killed back at the truck station had had, the one that projected flames from her feet and back to launch herself forward. And I wasn’t just limited to boosting myself that way. I could use the power on anything I was holding to make it swing faster and harder than I was capable of swinging it by myself. That was one of several new ones I’d picked up from her. I’d gotten a list from Tabbris when she did a partial recall to touch base with me, and used some of the downtime to practice with them a bit. Suffice to say, I would have a couple new tricks up my sleeve when the time came. 

In any case, as far as training on that weird surface went, Asenath and Twister played along too. They even got Bobbi to run some drills with us. Jiao didn’t participate with either our training or the other adults when they tried it out, but she watched all of us with quiet interest. 

In any case, Avalon really liked that stuff, even though we could never figure out exactly what made it shift from sticky to slippery or if there was any sort of pattern. She even managed to convince Deveron to dig up some of it and put it away in a sealed extra-space container so we could use it later. I’m pretty sure she was hoping to find a way to duplicate it so she could put the stuff in a real training room or even a combat arena. It was cute watching her be so excited about it. She got all science-technical about figuring it out. 

We trained, we watched movies on the televisions they had set up in the truck, played some card games, told stories (though that one was mostly us listening to stories the older people told), and in general just did whatever we could to kill time. At least the others were able to sleep more. I, of course, was awake through ninety percent of the day. Or rather, what would be the day on the planet we were heading toward. The relative time at each base didn’t really matter much. The point was, we slept during the prison’s daytime to stay on Asenath and Jiao’s schedules, and because we wanted to hit the camp in the middle of the night. But thankfully all of the adults in the group, including Deveron, Seamus and Roger Dornan, Klassin Roe, Professors Kohaku and Tangle, and Tribald Kine, had enough stamina powers of their own that they barely needed sleep either. Actually, in Kohaku’s case, I was pretty sure she didn’t sleep at all. Not even for a few minutes. I’d never seen it, anyway. So, I basically sat around with them and listened to the stories they told. It meant that I heard a lot about the first rebellion from Mom’s old teammates, and a good bit about Mom herself. Especially about when she was a student. Klassin talked about when he had still been Jonathan Ruthers, the spoiled, entitled asshole son of the one and only Gabriel Ruthers. He and Mom had really not gotten along, to the point of her punching him. Which is probably what initially led to then-Headmaster Ruthers not liking my mother very much. At least the first thing.  

I spent the week hearing all sorts of stories about all that and more. It was fun. It was… different. And yet it still didn’t detract from the utterly strange feeling that came with the fact that there was nothing important to do aside from wait to get there. We were, with any luck, going to take these prison guards by surprise. It just meant taking this long, boring, careful route to do it. 

Maybe the issue was that I felt like I had been on the opposite side of this situation. Not being a prison guard watching over a bunch of slaves doing hard labor, of course. But doing normal things while other people plotted sneak attacks against me and the people I cared about. I had been in the position these guards were about to be in, being hit by surprise in an area that was supposed to be safe. Maybe that was what made me feel odd about it. 

But then again, these people were guarding slaves, so maybe I wouldn’t spend too much time comparing myself to them. Aside from hoping that they wouldn’t be nearly as lucky as we had been when it came to reacting to being taken by surprise, of course.

The week seemed to be magical in and of itself, because it passed simultaneously agonizingly slowly and blindingly quickly. I had absolutely no idea how it could manage something like that, what sort of time magic was involved in twisting reality that way, but there it was. It took entirely too long for that single blink of an eye to pass, or something. The quick eternal week was gone before I even knew what was happening and after I spent what felt like months silently pleading for it to be over. Yes, those were utterly opposing concepts, and yet…

To be completely accurate, we weren’t at the prison camp yet. We were at the last jump point before we would get there. The jump points themselves mostly amounted to wide garages just large enough to accommodate the truck, with what looked like enormous silos to one side. There were storage rooms full of food and drinks that were kept stocked by a different truck that went through every once in awhile. None of them had living guards, but there was some sort of alarm system that was supposed to summon reinforcements to protect the station if anything happened to it. The biggest defense they had was basically being in the middle of nowhere in deep space. The odds of anyone accidentally tripping over them were literally astronomically low. And apparently there were sensors set up to detect anyone approaching them aside from those on the approved list. Like the truck we were using, for example. 

So, we were at the last station before the prison. We were all out of the truck at the moment and had been walking around the open garage area stretching our legs a bit. I was watching Shiori and Asenath talking a short distance away, when I felt Professor Kohaku approach me from behind. 

“Are you ready for this, Felicity?” the Asian woman asked, stopping a few feet back. 

Turning that way, I offered her a somewhat weak smile. “You mean am I ready for our extra little field trip? Boy, I sure hope so. Otherwise, this is gonna be a pretty short and disappointing rescue mission. Okay, it’s already not short.” Shrugging, I added, “I think I’m ready. I mean, we’re not gonna get another chance at taking these guys by surprise, so we’ve gotta do this.” 

The ‘extra little field trip’ I was referring to was an advanced jump that I and several others needed to do. The prison may have been expecting our truck, but it also had special scanners that would have detected that the wrong people were driving it. Our forward scouting group had the fun job of sneaking in ahead of time and disabling both those scanners (in a way that wouldn’t instantly alert everyone in the camp), and the communications tower. We were pretty sure that they would eventually find a way to call for help anyway, but taking out the tower would make that a lot harder and give us time to operate. And then, assuming we pulled that off without setting off a bunch of alarms and warning everyone there, we would be ready to hit the prison from a second angle the moment everyone who arrived in the truck did their thing. 

Kohaku, who was one of the people who would be going in with me (though to be entirely accurate, I was one of the people going with her), chuckled softly. “I suppose you are right about that. We don’t have much in the way of do-overs. A lot of power between all of us, yet nothing like that. Still, you have been through much worse with less. As long as we are careful, stick to the plan, and don’t… rush things, I believe we will make it through. And we will leave there with the prisoners.” A faint smile touched her face before she added, “I believe there are a few who are more nervous about this rescue than you.” As she said that, the woman was already turning to look in the direction of Shiori and Asenath, before her gaze shifted to the front of the truck where Gordon was standing by himself. 

“Yeah, getting the prisoners out of that place would definitely be nice,” I agreed. “And you’re right, they are more nervous than me. They’ve got a lot more to lose.” Once again, the thought of being like Senny and losing one of my parents for hundreds of years flashed through my mind. It made me shudder a bit. We had to find her dad, and Gordon’s dad, in that place. They had both waited more than long enough. 

Before Kohaku could say anything else, we were joined by Professor Tangle, along with Sarah and Sands. The five of us, along with Twister and Avalon, would be the forward scouting group responsible for dealing with that communications tower and the scanners that would alert the people inside the prison that we weren’t on the up and up. Asenath and Gordon both wanted to be included in that group, of course. As did Jiao. And they all would have been useful. But both Kohaku and Deveron, as the leaders of this expedition, had decided that they should stay with the main group. With their missing loved ones so close at that point, there was some fear that their judgment might be a bit impaired. Which was a point that none of them could really argue too much against, considering how important this was to them. 

Besides, they wouldn’t get to the prisoners any quicker by going with the scouting group then they would by staying here. They might be physically closer, but they wouldn’t be able to actually get to their fathers until the main assault happened anyway. Being that close and still having to wait would probably be worse than if they were back with the truck. Probably. 

“So,” Sands started, “Are we ready to head out there and play Neunrei or what?” 

Blinking at her, I held up a finger. “Uh. I think we’re ready to do something, but I’m not sure if Noon Ray is the right term for it. Actually I’m not even sure what that means. It’s definitely not noon. Or I mean, it won’t be when we go there. At least if we’ve worked out the planning on that right. I think it’s supposed to be barely–” 

Sands and Sarah were both snickering. The latter spoke up quietly. “Not Noon Ray. Neunrei.” She spelled it for me, making it clear it was one word. 

“Alexis Neunrei was a Heretic,” Tangle informed me. “He was known for being very sneaky and laying traps, for sabotaging enemy defenses. He designed some of the trap spells that we still use today. Like the one Crossroads has around the Pathmaker.” The black woman, who was in much better shape these days than when I’d first met her (once she was conscious), nodded toward the twins. “Some of the kids call it ‘playing Neunrei’ when they run around in the forest laying traps and ambushes for each other. I believe the Bystanders call it ‘going commando.’ 

My eyes widened and I quickly blurted, “Playing commando. Playing commando. Not going–just–” Coughing, I shook my head. “Just trust me, stick with playing commando.” 

The others were giving me weird looks, but before they could say anything, Twister darted over in rabbit form before shifting back to her normal self. Which meant she had that long fluffy tail that a part of me still wanted to pet, even without Tabbris’s influence. Her voice was cheerful. “So, is the Cool Kids Club ready to head out?” She paused, considering. “We need a better name than that. I’ll workshop a few and get back to you.” 

“I’m pretty sure we’re the Neunreis,” I informed her primly before looking back to the others while she was busy trying to figure that out. “And yeah, I think we’re about ready. Right, guys?” 

With a murmur of agreement, Kohaku looked over toward where Deveron was talking to Tribald Kine. She must have been using some sort of silent communication, because he immediately held a hand up to stop the other man before looking over at her. They looked at one another for a few seconds, clearly having a silent discussion. Then he nodded and whistled loudly to get everyone’s attention. Once he had that, his finger twirled in a circle over his head, as he called for everyone to gather up. It was time to go over the whole plan one more time. Then the others could wish our little group luck before we headed out. 

As everyone was gathering, Asenath caught my arm and stepped back a bit. Her voice was soft. “I know I said this before, but thank you, Flick. You know, for… well everything. I guess what I should really thank you for is listening to me that first night.” 

“If you hadn’t been there, my father would be dead,” I pointed out. “And I… well, I don’t know what I’d be. I still don’t know what Ammon was hoping to accomplish there. But… but the point is, if I hadn’t listened to you, everything would be a lot worse for both of us. So let’s just be glad you were there and that I’m stubborn enough not to be totally indoctrinated after a month or so.” 

She chuckled, but I could tell that most of her attention wasn’t on what I was saying. She was focused on what was going to happen a few hours from now, on how close she was to finally seeing her father again.

“How’s your mom doing?” I asked, glancing over to the corner of the room, where the woman in question was standing by herself. Jiao was friendly enough to everyone, but she didn’t really participate in the group stuff very much. She just stayed out of the way and did her own thing. I was pretty sure she wasn’t accustomed to working with a group. 

Asenath glanced that way as well. Her mother didn’t react, but I felt confident she could hear what we were saying. “She wants to see him even more than I do. Which is saying a lot.” Those words came dryly as she gave me a brief look. “I’m not sure what I’m looking forward to more, just getting to see and touch him again, or getting answers about what the hell happened. Has he been locked up all this time? Did he go back to his homeworld? Did–” She cut herself off, head shaking while her lips pressed together tightly to contain herself. Finally, she finished with, “Let’s just say I have a lot of questions for him.” She glanced to her mother once more. “We both do.” 

“Well, don’t worry,” I informed the vampire girl while putting a hand on her shoulder. “Or, you know, do worry a little bit, because that’s healthy. I mean don’t worry too mu–never mind. We’ll handle it.” 

“She’s right,” Shiori agreed, moving up on Asenath’s other side while giving me a quick smile. “Flick’s here, your mom’s here, and I’m here. We’re gonna get your dad back.” 

They stepped away to join the group by Deveron, and I turned my attention to Gordon. The quiet boy was watching me with his arms folded. There was a grim expression on his face, but then again, that was normal. When our eyes met, he spoke flatly. “You remember the picture.” 

His father. He’d shown me a picture of his dad during the trip, so I would know what he looked like. Immediately, I nodded. “I’ll let you know if we see him, but we’re probably not going to get a look at the prisoners any faster than you do.” 

“I know,” he replied, shifting his weight very slowly from his left foot to his right. It was only that single motion, but as far as Gordon went, it was basically fidgeting. He was nervous, and if it was enough to make him visibly show it even that much, I knew it had to be pretty bad inside. 

If I had seen most people like that, I would have embraced them, or at least squeezed their hand, or… something. But Gordon wasn’t that sort of person. Even now that we knew why he didn’t like being touched, with the whole ice thing, it wasn’t like he had suddenly become physically open. It just wasn’t who he was. So, I gave him a thumbs up instead. “We’ll keep an eye out. If they’ve got the prisoners beyond the boundary for work, or whatever, we… if we see him, if I see him, we’ll make sure he’s safe. I promise.” 

For a few seconds, it looked like Gordon wasn’t sure how to respond to that. He very slowly moved his weight back from his right foot to his left before giving a single nod. “Thank you.”

“Hey,” I replied, “just be ready to come charging in with guns and ice giant powers blazing. We hit these guys hard and fast and get out with all their prisoners, right?” 

“Right,” he confirmed. I could see just a little bit of emotion behind his eyes with that word. He was as ready to get his father back as I had been to get my mother back. 

The two of us nodded one another, just as Deveron started to speak. Turning my attention that way, I stepped up beside the others. My stomach was already trying to twist itself into knots. Despite all the ridiculous situations and the amount of training I had been through already, to say nothing of all the planning we were putting into this, I was still nervous about the whole thing. I wanted my friends to get their dads back. I wanted to free all those prisoners. 

And in just a few short hours, I’d either get what I wanted, or we would end up in a hell of a lot of trouble.

******

A short time later, our little group emerged through the portal. A little group, in this case, consisting of Tangle, Kohaku, Sands, Sarah, Avalon, Twister and me. According to the adults, the portal was far enough away from the prison camp (and shielded enough) that we wouldn’t set off their alarms. One of the reasons we had to go in a smaller group right now was specifically because sending any more people through would have raised the risk of being detected. We were pushing it a little bit as it was. Which was another reason why we’d set the portal so far away. Avoiding much magic or power use, it would take hours for us to hike to where we needed to be. And that was assuming we didn’t run into too many problems along the way. 

We had a little bit of leeway, at least. Deveron’s main group wouldn’t make the last jump until we sent the signal that their communications and scanners were down. But they could only stall so long before the prison people would get suspicious. So we kinda had to keep moving. 

Still, we had a moment to get the lay of the land. In this case, that land was a deep orange color. The dirt, that was. We had arrived in what looked like a shallow crater from an impact of some kind. It was a good three hundred feet across, though only a couple feet deep. That orange dirt was basically a fine powder, almost like sand. Behind us to the west I could see a sheer cliff face leading up and up several miles. To the south (our right), there was a deep, somehow unnaturally blue river, wide enough to need a boat to cross normally. Straight ahead to the east was a steep dropoff. And to our left, north, a dark, foreboding forest of thirty foot tall dark black and gray trees, too-deep shadows, and probably about a bazillion things ready and waiting to kill and eat us.

Yeah, we were going into the evil-looking forest, naturally. 

“We’re here, and there’s no sign of any alert,” Kohaku finally announced after taking a few seconds to assess the situation. “Let’s move.” 

“Well, okay,” I replied a bit reluctantly while my gaze turned to that forest. I could swear the trees were suddenly grinning. “But I’m telling you guys this straight up.

“If we run into a gingerbread house, I am done.”  

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