Vulcan

Desperate Measures 37-06

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I only had six forcefields.”

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Desperate Measures 37-05

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It would be all of us.

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Desperate Measures 37-04

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nope, but believe me, I understand the distraction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No way, that was, unless….

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

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

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

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

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Desperate Measures 37-03

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“If we get through all of this in one piece,” I announced while Avalon, Shiori, and I crouched in the open doorway leading into the hall, “we should send Manakel a nice fruit basket or something.”

Both of the other girls stared at me for a moment, Avalon finally managing an incredulous, “Why the hell would we do that?”

“Because,” I replied easily while grinning at them, “if he hadn’t offered some big reward, all these people might actually start working together instead of trying to win it on their own. And those guys might have called for help, or let anyone know where we were.”

As Shiori snickered, Avalon started to reflexively roll her eyes while muttering, “Chambers, you—” she stopped, her eyes turning soft while she reached out to gently brush her fingers over my cheek. Catching herself belatedly, the girl coughed and looked away with a blush. “You’re totally going to keep taking advantage of me missing you, aren’t you?”

“Damn straight,” I replied while my grin stretched wider. “You’ve got dumb jokes incoming for as far as the eye can see.”

Making a show of groaning, Avalon straightened up. “Come on, we might as well go kill something or get killed.”

“Best battlecry ever,” Shiori announced, giving me a wink while following Avalon.

Moving out into the corridor, the three of us started heading for the end where the opposite stairwell from where we had come onto that floor was. I glanced back behind us now and then, but between my ability to sense the items of anyone coming near, and Shiori’s ability to sense if anyone was looking at her without her knowing, we were fairly safe.

“Boy,” I murmured under my breath when we were almost to the stairwell door, “it’s a good thing they don’t really have much in the way of cameras in here, isn’t it?“

Avalon was the one who answered. “They say it’s for patient privacy, just like the walls being x-ray proof. But it’s actually so the Seosten can run their experiments and do their work without worrying about all the different ways that cameras could be turned against them or used to expose them.”

I started to reach for the door then, but both of the other girls reached out to catch either of my arms as they shook their heads. “People,” Shiori whispered in a voice that was barely audible even right next to my face. Avalon nodded in agreement while pointing to her ear and then up a bit to tell me that the sound was coming from the next floor up. The floor where the rest of the team was, apparently.

Right, Shiori had her half-vampire senses, and Avalon had apparently killed the vile piece of shit vampire that had been her father. I still needed to give her a high-five for that, but this felt like it wasn’t really the time. Maybe if we got out of this I’d get her a ‘glad your dad‘s dead’ cake or something.

Those two sat silently, clearly listening to a rather long conversation while I basically twiddled my thumbs. Enhanced hearing, I really needed some good enhanced hearing.

Finally, Avalon spoke quietly. “They’ve got one big guy at this end watching the hall, and one big guy at the other end doing the same thing. They’re both huge and heavily armed from the sound of it. The rest of them are going door-to-door one at a time. They’re trying to flush the others out and into a shooting gallery.”

“Thankfully,” I replied, “with my little partner’s help, we can time this really well with the others.”

Avalon looked like she really wanted to ask a lot of questions about that, but stopped herself. Instead, the girl focused on the most important question. “So you’ll know when they’re about to be found?”

After briefly checking with Tabbris, I nodded. “She’ll tell us when they’re right on top of them.”

With a short nod of satisfaction, the other girl replied, “Good. Then we split up. We wait until the others are about to be found, then hit the guys at either end together at once. That should distract the guys in the middle enough for the others to jump them. Can you get that across to them?”

Um. H-hold on,Tabbris murmured. There was a few seconds of silence while I held up my hand for the others to wait. Then her voice came back. Okay, they got it. Doug is really good at fox charades.

I’ll remember to get him on our team if we ever have a game night, I promised her before looking back to the others. “They’ve got it. She’ll let us know when it’s time. But,” I added, “there’s another problem. If we split up, it means that I have to leave one of you out of my sight. And, to tell you the truth, I’d almost rather stab myself at this point. Oh, and before we forget, you don’t have a weapon.”

Avalon‘s hand found my arm. Her expression was soft. “Chambers,” she whispered, “I get it. Trust me. But we have to split up right here. We’ll still be close. You and Shiori go to that end. I’ll wait here. As soon as it’s time, you jump your guy, and when I hear you go, I’ll hit mine.”

With a dangerous smile, she held her hand up as a small blue-green ball of energy appeared there. A second later, the ball transformed itself into a dagger. “And I wouldn’t be so sure about me not having a weapon. Besides, I’ve got this too.” With her other hand, she held up the little silver stiletto that Shiori had tossed to her. “So, I’ll be fine. Now go. Hurry, or this is all going to be pointless. Those guys are already searching the second room. They’re being thorough, but we’ve only got so much time.”

Briefly, I blinked at the energy blade. More powers that I didn’t know about, apparently. Giving my head a little shake, I straightened before leaning in quickly to give her a brief kiss. “Just be careful,” I urged.

That was all that I had time to say before Shiori and I were hurriedly, yet quietly, moving back the way we did come to the stairs at the opposite end of the hallway. Together, the two of us moved up the stairs to right outside of the other door while Tabbris kept me updated on how close the searchers were getting. They were still two rooms away by the time we were set.

Through the door, I could hear annoyed muttering and grunting from the guy stationed there. I could also sense his weapon. It was basically a giant minigun thing that made Vulcan look like a peashooter. These guys definitely weren’t playing around.

On the way down that hall, Shiori and I had decided on our strategy. We’d also grabbed the one thing that we needed to make it work. Now, Shiori held up the item in question, smiling at me as she mouthed, ‘Ready?’

With a matching smile, I gave her a thumbs up. Then we got to it.

When the signal came a few moments later, Shiori… knocked on the door. Only, she did so from an upside down position as she was clinging to the ceiling. Which meant that, when the (very large, very scaly) guy there quickly flung the door open, he saw nothing. At least at first. Then he saw the mop that the other girl smacked down toward his face.

He caught it easily, violently ripping the mop out of her hand before glaring up at the ceiling where she was. “You think you’re pretty cute don’t you?” he demanded while lifting that gigantic gun upward.

And that, of course, was when I popped out of the mop that the guy was carelessly holding down. My bladed staff was already aimed upward, and I drove it all the way through his nicely exposed throat that he was so thoughtfully baring for me by looking up at the other girl.

The blade cut all the way through the guy’s throat and into his head. But I didn’t count on that finishing the job. Instead, I yanked my staff back out, landing on my feet while turning in a spin that sent the blade through his neck from the other side, fully separating his head from his body.

“Trust me,” I informed his falling body even as Tabbris muted the pleasure sensation, “she’s not the only one who thinks she’s cute.”

Dropping from the ceiling to land next to me, Shiori paused. “Are beheadings supposed to be sexy? I think I have an extremely disturbing new fetish. I might need psychiatric help.”

There was no time to respond, as much as I might have wanted to. Instead, the two of us sprinted through the doorway, giving a short hop over the dead guy. We emerged in time to see Avalon finishing off her guy at the other end. Meanwhile, there was a big fight going in and just outside of the room right around the middle of the hall. The body of one unidentified guy lay haphazardly in that doorway, while another guy had just yanked Rudolph out, spun him around, and slammed him against the opposite wall while lifting a sword. I could hear even more commotion going on inside.

Without missing a step, Shiori flung one of her discs down the hall. It went spinning that way before literally cutting right through the arms of Rudolph’s attacker. Both limbs (and the sword he had been holding) dropped to the ground. An instant later, Shiori activated the energy tether line that connected the disc to her glove. Instead of pulling it back to herself however, the girl gave a sharp gesture to the right, which made the disc fly that way, embedding itself into the wall. At the same time, the length of the energy-tether was jerked in that direction, straight into the stomach of the man.

It bisected him. Where once the line would have simply electrocuted the man, now it literally cut him in half just above the waist. The tether wasn’t just electrified anymore. It was like one of those energy blades. Which clearly explained how Shiori’s last opponent had ended up cut in half as well.

For an instant, I cast a glance at the other girl while she yanked the disk back by that same coil. “You’ve upgraded.”

“Columbus,” she replied while catching the disc. “And Seth. They wanted me to be more dangerous. Namythiet helped.”

Together, we kept running, pausing to help Rudolph up. Avalon had already made it into the room, and the three of us followed her in, only to find that the fight was over. There were five bodies on the ground in there, and a handful of our heavily breathing friends.

Scout immediately dropped her gun, moving to embrace Avalon tightly, who accepted that with about as much patience as she possibly could, actually letting the other girl hold on for a few seconds before she pulled back. “Okay, okay. Time to talk later. Right now, we get the hell out of this room before they send reinforcements or something.” She was already pointing out the doorway. “I mean it, no reunions and no explanations yet. Just go, go, go!”

They moved, though Doug took a moment to look at me with a bloody sword in his hand. “Thanks for biting that guy,” he announced with a brief nod over his shoulder before continuing out the door.

Following the way he had gestured, I saw one of the dead guys there with my little fox-form crouching nearby with blood on its mouth.

Tabs?

Doug was going to get hurt, she replied, so I jumped on the guy and bit his ear.

Smiling briefly, I sent back, Good girl. See, you are part of the team. And they’ll know just how much you contribute soon enough.

We followed the others. Rather than changing floors again, we headed deeper into the hospital, away from the back stairwell area and into a maze of corridors that Rudolph could actually lead us through.  We went left, then right, then left again, as the boy led us to an out of the way room tucked behind a lab somewhere, where we could crouch down and catch our breath. There was a whole other large room for any attackers to come through to get to us, and some kind of vent that we could squeeze into in an emergency. For the moment, we were clear.

“Okay,” Sean finally started, “does anyone want to explain what the hell is going on?” He looked to Avalon then. “I mean, super amazing awesome that you’re back, seriously. But when did this hospital turn into enemy territory? Who are all those guys, and how exactly are you here? Did you escape? What happened?”

Taking a breath, I started to explain. At least, I explained as much as I could without talking about Jophiel and Elisabet or Tabbris. Avalon and Shiori interjected where needed, and I gave the brief Cliff’s Notes version of just what situation we were in.

Once we finished, everyone else just kind of sat there in silence for a few long seconds. In the end, Rudolph was the first to find his voice, weak as it was. “So Grandpa Donald really is one of them…”

Wincing at the look in his eyes, I started to speak. But Shiori beat me to it. “I didn’t even see him until he was just laying there on the floor next to me. Maybe he was trying to warn us and got knocked out or something?” She bit her lip, looking to me quizzically. “I don’t understand.“

Oh God, I wanted to tell her. I wanted to tell all of them so much, but especially her and Avalon. I wanted to tell them. It ached so much, it was almost a physical pain to stop myself.

Before I was forced to say something, Douglas spoke up instead. “I suppose you already tried calling out?”

My mouth opened, but Shiori spoke first. “Oops.” The other girl was holding her phone up. “I mean, not that much oops because yeah, there’s no signal or anything. But I have a text message. Err, two of them. They’re from Koren, like… a minute before everything started. The first one says ‘Pixie’s awake’ with three exclamation marks. And the second one says ‘She said Manakel’s decorating.’”

That made me blink at her. “Decorating? Manakel’s decorating?”

“It must be a mistake,” Shiori replied. “She spelled Manakel wrong too, and only used s and d for said. She was typing fast. I don’t think she meant to say decorating. And that must’ve been when they shut down the phones.”

“Well, that’s not… Damn.” Sighing, I shook my head. “Okay, Manakel’s decorating. I… I wish we had time to figure that out. But we’re kind of on a time crunch here.”

“Speaking of that time crunch,” Douglas put in, “You guys know what’s going to happen here, right? I mean, the big bad you were talking about, Manakel? He’s probably just sitting up in that office waiting for his guys to either grab us, or for us to be stupid enough to walk into his office trying to turn off that jammer so he can take all of us at once. Seriously, why would he waste his energy looking when there’s only one place for us to go?”

Sean shrugged then. “We’re kind of hosed either way. If we just sit here, enough of those guys are going to find us eventually, and then we’re dead or enslaved anyway.”

Avalon nodded. “Exactly, it’s not like we have much of a choice. But, you know, anyone who wants to sit this out, feel free. No judgment. It’s too dangerous and no one‘s going to blame you for taking the duck and cover to wait for rescue approach.”

There was a brief pause then while everyone thought about it before Doug sighed. “You know your best shot at pulling this off is numbers, right? There’s no way any of us can take on that piece of shit. No way in hell. So the only chance we have is if there is at least one person too many for him to deal with instantly, so that person can break that jammer. That’s gotta be the target, stop the jammer and let the cavalry come in and save us. That’s all we really need, just one person to be able to pull that off. But that means that the more people you’ve got in that room, the better chance everyone has.”

Columbus nodded, his own face unreadable. “He’s right. If there’s not enough people in there to break the jammer before he takes all of us down, the whole thing was pointless anyway. Don’t play to win, just play to knock over the board so someone more powerful can save us.”

“How do we know we can break the jammer?“ Scout pointed out then in a soft voice. “What if it’s in a vault or something that we can’t get through in time?”

Before I could respond to that, Tabbris’s voice spoke up silently in my head. I can show you how to make a spell that’ll break it. It’s quick and dirty and obvious, but it should work. As long as everyone has one and uses it within a few feet of the jammer, it should make it at least flicker long enough for Mama and the others to get through. It’ll only be a few seconds, but if they’re trying to break the shield, they’ll make it in.

Somehow resisting the urge to once more gush about how amazing she was, I instead focused on the others and spoke up, explaining everything she had just said. Only, of course, leaving her out of it for the time being. As crazy as everything was, I really didn’t want to take the time to explain her presence. Everyone besides Doug and Rudolph probably instantly figured out what was going on anyway. Particularly as Columbus gave me a brief look of realization before his gaze snapped to the fox sitting there and then back to me. He didn’t say anything, but I knew he understood.

Avalon was nodding slowly, a thoughtful frown touching her face briefly before she announced, “Right, so we take a crash course in jammer disruption grenades, then make our way up to that office. We get one person close enough to set their disruptor spell, which should open a few seconds worth of time for Gaia and the others to get through.” To me, she added, “You learned some pretty impressive stuff while you were gone.”

I grinned back at her. “You don’t know the half of it. Turns out, Athena is a really good teacher.”

The other girl started to nod absently at that before doing an almost comically sharp double take. “I bet she—wait, what?!

Looking to her seriously then, I replied, “I’ve got a lot to tell you about, stuff that would just distract you too much right now. But believe me, it’s a lot. And some of it is good news, I hope. The point is, there’s a lot to talk about. Too much to go over right this second.

“For now, let’s just focus on getting that spell down so we have a chance of surviving through the next hour.”

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Desperate Times 36-06

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We couldn’t explain much to Professor Tangle in the short time that we had, of course. The Seosten troops may have left, but we didn’t want to risk them coming back. I couldn’t very well tell Dare anything about Jophiel and Elisabet or what was going on there, so we had to hurry.

Instead, we promised (or Dare did, rather. Tangle had no real idea of who I was or any reason to trust anything I said) that she’d get answers soon, but that she had to get out of there right then.

First, Dare searched the woman for any tracking spells. She found seven of them, and disabled each. She then used some kind of special scanning spell that Wyatt had created, and that found another one. Only then was she satisfied.

Through it all, Tangle was still recovering. She clearly had questions. And so did I, to be honest. I had so many questions that it was almost impossible to restrain myself from blurting them out. But the woman clearly wasn’t in any condition to answer them yet. She looked dizzy and disoriented still. It would take awhile for her to get over that. So, I just filled a glass in the nearby bathroom with water, letting the woman drink it carefully. That seemed to help a little.

“Virginia,” Tangle pressed, once half of the water in the glass was gone, and the last tracking spell had been removed. “What happened? Why am I in the hospital? How long–”

Holding up a hand, Dare shook her head. “Giselle, I’m sorry. As I said, we have to get you out of here before someone comes back. I’m going to send you somewhere safe, okay? I’ll be there as soon as I can, and we’ll explain what’s going on. But for now, I’m sending you to Gabriel’s camp.

“Gabriel?” If anything, Tangle looked even more confused. “Ruthers? Why–”

“No, not Ruthers.” Dare shook her head. “Prosser. I’m sending you to Gabriel Prosser. You’ll be safe there, and I promise, we’ll explain everything. But you need to get out of this room right now.”

With that, Dare used a teleportation spell that Wyatt had set up that would bypass any of the security restrictions about transportation within the hospital, and Tangle was sent directly to the Atherby camp. She would be safe there, safe from Seosten retaliation or recapture. Which meant that Avalon would be safe from being killed until we could actually find her. Only once Tangle was actually gone, only once she was sent safely away from here and we’d received confirmation that she’d arrived rather than her teleport being intercepted to send her somewhere else, did I finally breathe.

Why? Why had Jophiel and Elisabet actually helped right then? They had to be desperate to keep us from actually getting into that blood vault and using the spell that would prevent any Heretics from being possessed by them, didn’t they? Maybe they thought that I would be just as opposed to it, given my relationship with Tabbris? I didn’t know. I had no idea if they were expressing that kind of trust, or if they have some other kind of game going on. It was all very confusing.

“Felicity?” Dare was watching me, a slight frown touching her expression. “Are you alright?” She sounded concerned, raising a hand to touch my shoulder gently. “I know there’s a lot going on, and you’re worried about Avalon. But is there anything else you want to talk about now?”

Swallowing despite myself, I shook my head. “They could be back any minute, we should finish.”

Finish, in this case, meant setting up yet another spell that Wyatt had provided. This was a modified version of something that he himself apparently used sometimes. When the spell (which had been put onto a small plastic ball) was triggered, it created what amounted to a very advanced dummy of another person. In this case, Professor Tangle. The ‘dummy’ looked like her, breathed in and out very slowly as if sleeping, and would fool most casual inspections. It wouldn’t stand up for an extended time, of course. But we didn’t need it to. Apparently, Wyatt used it to ‘draw in attackers’ by making them think that he was helplessly lying in bed, while he waited to ambush them. He’d made the one for Tangle, and asked if I wanted one, just in case. I had politely declined.

But in this case, it was helpful. The Seosten might know that she was gone, but they couldn’t openly do anything about it. The way Gaia had put it, as soon as they exposed that they knew that the thing in the bed wasn’t actually Tangle, they would be revealing themselves.

As soon as that was set up, Dare and I quickly left the room. The professor escorted me back to where the others were in the waiting room, before quietly promising to check in later. Then she left, to go explain to poor Tangle exactly what was going on. And, hopefully, to get some actual new information out of the woman. God, how I wanted to be there. But I wasn’t sure I’d be able to avoid barking a million demands and questions at her. Which, as wrecked as the woman clearly was, would clearly have been a bad idea. So it was better that Dare be the one to talk to her. And even if she couldn’t remember anything, it was possible that Sariel would be able to help with that.

I just hoped that they hadn’t bothered to use that super-memory spell bullshit on her. Please, God let us get something we could use out of all this. Just keeping her away from the Seosten so that they couldn’t kill Avalon was reason enough to wake her up and get her out of there, of course. But still, some actual information would also be pretty damn useful right then.

“Flick?” Columbus was there, watching me curiously along with the others (except for Sean, who was apparently being examined). “Everything okay? You want a snack?” He held up candy from the vending machine in each hand, a chocolate bar in one hand and fruity licorice in the other.

I took the chocolate, which was the sign that everything had gone okay and that Tangle was safely in the Atherby camp. That was the signal that we had set up ahead of time. If I had taken whatever fruit-based candy the boy had offered, it would mean that there had been a problem.

Everyone who was watching relaxed a little then, and I munched on the candy while starting to explain that Dr. Therasis wanted me to stay there for the night for further examination.

“So,” I finished up, “who wants to play sleepover in the hospital with me?”

*******

The answer, as it turned out, was everybody. My entire team, plus Shiori, wanted to stay in the hospital that night. And, given the situation that was going on, Gaia wasn’t exactly going to object. As for Dr. Therasus, he was surprised, but he didn’t really have any way to object either. Especially not after Gaia signed off on it. So, we were all there in the hospital that night. Shiori, Scout, and I stayed in one room, while Sean, Columbus, Rudolph, and Douglas stayed in the one directly next door. We were all together in one room for a good part of the evening, just talking about everything. We used several privacy spells to keep things safe, and talked through absolutely everything possible. Despite what they either knew or assumed already, Rudolph and Douglas were understandably shocked through a lot of it. Especially when I told them the truth about Fossor, and the whole thing with my mother.

“God damn,” Doug remarked, “you’ve had a busy year.”

“Tell me about it,” I muttered before returning my attention to the boy. “But what was all that about Whispers? It sounded like there should be a capital W in that.”

So, Douglas explained. He told us everything that had happened back on his colony world. He explained how he and his Great-Great-Grandfather Sulan had accidentally released a bunch of invisible creatures they called Whispers, which were only partially present in this reality. The Whispers had driven many people in their colony crazy and made them do horrible things. A lot of people had died, including most of Douglas’s family. Only his mother and eldest brother had survived. And, of course, Sulan, who had been disgraced and banished from the colony for unleashing those things.

Once he finished explaining all that, the boy showed us the inside of his hat. He seemed reluctant to take it off, but finally did. I saw the symbols that were drawn in it, symbols that, according to Doug, protected his mind from those Whispers. He and Sulan had found them in the same place that they had accidentally released the creatures from, realizing too late that the symbols contained them, trapped them. And now, the ones on his hat prevented the Whispers from getting into his head.

“I know they’re not anywhere near Earth,” the boy muttered, affixing the hat to his head once more. “But it makes me feel better.”

I barely heard his words. My attention was on that hat. Slowly, I reached out to touch the brim of it gently while murmuring, “I wonder…” When the others all looked to me curiously, I hesitantly continued. “I wonder if something that could keep the Whispers out of people’s minds might keep out… other things too.”

“Other things like… Seosten possession?” Columbus was right there too, his own eyes staring intently at the cap. “It couldn’t be that easy, could it? The Seosten would have destroyed anything like that. If there was a simple spell that could keep them out, they’d destroy it.”

“Probably,” I agreed. “But still, there’s umm… there’s one quick way to check.” Even as I said the words, I winced a little, looking to Doug.

“What?” The boy looked confused for a moment before getting it. “Oh. Oh, wait, you got that–you said you had the power to–you want to try and–oh.” Yeah, he got it. He realized that I wanted to try and possess him while he wore the hat, and what it would mean if I did.

“Give me the hat.” That was Scout, holding her hand out while raising an eyebrow pointedly. “She can try to possess me. I don’t care.”

Oh, right. Doug didn’t have to be the one wearing it. I didn’t have to invade his private thoughts. The hat was the thing that mattered, not whoever was wearing it. We just wanted to know if it protected the person who happened to wear the thing from being possessed.

Doug looked a little uncertain and nervous about taking the hat off again. I had the feeling he rarely ever did so. And given what he had told us about those Whispers, I couldn’t blame him.  Finally, however, he pulled the thing off his head and handed it to Scout, who carefully put it on her head and nodded to me.

So, with a glance toward  the others, I reached out and touched the girls arm before focusing on trying to possess her. Instantly, I was there. The hat had not protected her at all. I had possessed her just as simply and easily as anyone else.

Except… maybe not. I was possessing her, that much was true. I could see through her eyes, see the disappointment and resignation in the expressions of the others as they realized that the hat hadn’t stopped me from possessing the girl.

But I couldn’t hear her thoughts. I couldn’t get into her head. I could make her hand move, and did so right then, lifting the hand in front of her face. But I couldn’t hear anything from the girl herself. Her mind was just as closed to me as it had been before I possessed her.

And then her other hand moved. I hadn’t told it to move, but it did. We stood up–she stood up. I hadn’t told her to do that either. I tried turning her head to the left, and it turned that way.

Then it turned to the right, and I hadn’t told it to.

With a gasp, I threw myself out of her, stumbling a little before turning to face Scout. “Did you–were you–?”

She nodded quickly. “You were…” As I nodded back at her, the other girl blinked. “Huh.”

“What?” That was Rudolph, speaking up for the others, who were all just as confused. “What happened? You… possessed her, didn’t you?”

“Yeah,” I confirmed. “I possessed her, but I couldn’t read her mind. And she could still control her body. I controlled her body too, but so could she. We were both controlling it at the same time.”

Sean whistled low at that. “It’s not a perfect solution, but… that’s still something.”

I nodded. “And maybe someone who understands magic a lot better could make something else out of it, could use the symbols as a start to make something better, a stronger defense.”

Shiori started to nod at that, her mouth opening. But before the other girl could say anything, Scout put up a hand to stop her. A moment later, the rest of us heard what she had: footsteps approaching, and we all clammed up.

It was Nevada, along with a couple nurses. The latter made noises about how we needed to separate for the night, that the boys were going to go to their own room right then. They sounded almost scandalized by the thought that we had been sitting in the same room even that long.

Nevada, meanwhile, moved to me. From the way she moved her hand, I had a feeling she was keeping our conversation private. “Are you doing okay?” the normally bright, bubbly woman asked in a subdued voice. “I know I wasn’t there when you got back, but… I’ll be around tonight. Risa, Virginia, and I, we’ll all be around to make sure you’re alright.”

Smiling faintly, I nodded. “Thanks, Prof–Nevada. Sorry. Thanks. We–we’ll be okay.” I had to swallow back words about how we just wanted to find Avalon, not wanting to make the woman feel even more guilty than she already did. She had been closer to Avalon than to me, given the time the other girl had spent in the Development track in the first semester.

“We’ll find her, Flick.” Nevada’s gaze, and her words, were firm. “We’ll find Avalon, I promise.”

It was all I could do not to blurt a bunch of demands about Tangle. If there was anything to report, she clearly would have told me. It was going to take time for the woman to recover and for anyone to get actual useful information out of her.

So, instead of pushing the issue, I thanked Nevada, and then watched as the boys were escorted out to their own room, right next door. Scout, Shiori and I were left alone, with Nevada promising to check in on us now and then. I almost said that we needed to talk to her, wanting to share the bit about those anti-Whisper symbols. But in the end, I simply told her that I’d want to talk later that night. It would be easier then, without the other nurses right there. I didn’t need much sleep, and there would be nothing to stop me from telling Nevada everything about the symbols, rather than rushing it right then.

“Well,” I started once just Scout, Shiori, and me in that room by ourselves.

“Anyone know a good ghost story?”

*******

Apparently, I really needed sleep. I was reminded yet again that emotional exhaustion was a thing too, because I ended up crashing for just over two and a half hours. Actually, when I woke up, Shiori was the one who was awake. Lifting my head from the bed, I saw the other girl sitting up, using the light coming from the nearby doorway to read a book of some kind.

She saw me sit up, raising a finger to her lips before nodding to where Scout was sound asleep.

Nodding, I silently slipped out of bed and dressed before padding across the room. Shiori had closed the book, and the two of us stepped out into the corridor together. The place was eerily quiet, as we moved away from the room.

“Couldn’t sleep?” I asked quietly, keeping my voice down while we passed the room where the boys were.

She shook her head at that, grimacing. “No. I mean, I did a little bit, but I kept tossing and turning. I… I’m worried about Avalon.”

Swallowing hard, I nodded. “Me too. I hope they get something out of Professor Tangle. If not…” My head shook quickly at that, as I refused to entertain the possibility that that was a dead end too. “We need that pixie to wake up, we need…” Sighing, I finished with a weak, “we need a win.”

“No kidding,” Shiori agreed. “A win would be really nice right now.”

Deciding that changing the subject before I started obsessing again would be a good idea, I instead leaned over as we walked so that I could look at the title of the book that the girl held under one arm. “Is that a medical textbook? You thinking about being a doctor?”

Wiggling her eyebrows at me, Shiori asked, “Maybe I just want to play it.”

We both blushed, embarrassed by our own flirting. And maybe a little guilty. Or a lot guilty. Still, I kissed her. We stood there in the hallway of the hospital, gently kissing for just a moment before pulling away.

“We’ll find her,” the other girl promised me. “We’ll find Avalon. I–” She coughed, lifting that book she had been looking at. “I was just looking up those Mesches things, the ones that Li–err, Theia mentioned. I thought there might be something useful in here about them.”

“Find out anything interesting?” I asked, head tilting curiously while we continued down the hall together.

She shrugged. “I guess so. Their poison aura can be countered by a few things, like the Adarna, the Caladrius, hell, there’s these Tabilten things that are so good at healing that kind of thing, just their smell can chase away poison. Then there’s the–”

“Wait.” I stopped there in the middle of the corridor. “What did you just say?”

The other girl blinked at me. “What? The Tabilten?”

My head nodded quickly. “What did you say about a healing smell?”

“Well,” she corrected, “I mean, it’s not really a smell. It’s just sort of a… an invisible gas or whatever. Heretics use it to–”

She stopped talking then, because I was already sprinting away. With a noise of surprise, the other girl dropped the book with a crash before racing after me. Together, we sprinted. Not back the way we had come, but to the stairs. I was running for the fourth floor.

Words and scenes jumped through my head, screaming their importance to me. Healing. Jophiel and Elisabet’s note had said I should find Avalon and heal. I’d dismissed it at the time, but why would they say that specifically? There would be psychological healing, of course. But still… we were in a hospital. Healing. Hospital.

Then there was the fact that those men had been there to take Tangle right then. Again, something I had dismissed as coincidence at the time. But what if it wasn’t? What if they were there right then because we had shown up? What if…

“Flick, what happened?” Shiori blurted, running alongside me as the two of us made our way down the hall. “Are you okay?” She sounded (understandably) worried about how I was acting.

“I just have to check something, before it’s too late,” I replied shortly while giving a quick look around. No one. There was no one in the hallway. It was late, sure. But shouldn’t there still be people around? It hadn’t bothered me before, while I had been distracted. Now, it did. Why were the halls so empty?

“Where is everyone?” Shiori had clearly noticed the same thing I had, as we reached our destination: the specimen lab. The doors opened right up for me, thanks to Doxer’s power, and we made our way to the Tabilten room that Professor Dare and I had visited earlier, when we were bringing Nurse Redd that present from Gaia.

The place still smelled a bit like lilacs. The six-eyed Cocker Spaniel-sized gecko creatures with feathered tails were still laying in their cages, looking exhausted. I’d noticed that earlier, but hadn’t really noticed it. Not until now.

“Flick?” Shiori’s voice was soft as she stepped into the room with me. “What’s going on?”

Biting my lip, I raised a finger to my lips before slowly moving to that vent that I had seen earlier, the one that the wind spell had been set up to blow the smell of the cleaning supplies into.

Except, now I knew that wasn’t true. That wasn’t why the wind spell had been set up at all. That spell wasn’t blowing the smell into the other room, it was blowing their healing gas into it. Doctor Therasis had told us about it the very first time we had been to the hospital. He had told us that the Tabilten had cleansing powers that healed toxins. That was what I had been thinking of back on the island when the Mesches had been mentioned.

But if the Tabilten gave off a healing gas, like the Mesches gave off poison gas, why would the hospital be getting rid of it? Why would they be scrubbing the room and blowing the smell into the vent?

Unless they weren’t getting rid of it. Unless they were using it. And unless the reason the orderlies had been cleaning was to get rid of another smell, one that was much worse, and that I would have recognized, so they had quickly worked to get rid of it. Because they knew that I knew that smell, that I would have fucking remembered it. That’s why they were cleaning. And it was why Nurse Redd had ushered us from the room so quickly. Everything, every little hint and clue that I should have picked up on earlier, it was all slamming its way through my head like a pinball bouncing wildly back and forth in a machine.

Crouching there by the vent, I leaned over, peering through it and into the room on the other side. There was another room there, a place similar to this one, with a bunch of cages. Only instead of more Tabilten, these particular cages housed these giant caterpillar-looking things that had what looked like cat heads instead of what you might expect caterpillars to have for faces. It was creepy, to say the least. But at least I knew immediately what they were. I’d never seen them before, but I knew. Mesches. That was what Mesches looked like.

How did I know? Well, the fact that Avalon was chained to the floor directly in the middle of those cages kind of helped me figure it out.

Avalon. My heart leapt the second that I saw the other girl, through that vent. She was there. She was unconscious, but there. She was there! We’d found her. We found her. We… we found her. I found her. I found Avalon. I’d been right there earlier, right on the other side of the wall. Dear God. I had been right there, right there.

My mouth opened to tell Shiori to call for help, to tell everyone they needed to get here now. But before I could say anything, a voice interrupted.

“You needed help.”

I spun that way, toward the door where Shiori was. The girl was still there, but she looked frozen, a blue field surrounding her while Doctor Therasis stood beside her with one hand out, that blue glow projecting from his palm. Stasis. Shiori was frozen in some kind of stasis field.

His other hand had punched through the body of an armored guard, another of the Seosten soldiers and now held the body suspended in the air a bit. Clearly the guard who was supposed to have been watching this room.

“We cannot do more than this,” the man announced. Or rather, the women announced through him. Jophiel and Elisabet.

“Even this is more than we should, more than…” There was a brief pause, before the man’s head shook. “We are not on Earth, will not be there for some time. Casting our power this far, to puppet this man, is an effort. This is all that we can do for you, all that we will do for you. We gave you this opportunity. We gave you this nudge, kept you here for this night so that you would have a chance of discovering, of realizing the truth. This was a favor, but it was also a test. It is a test. And we will extend ourselves no further for it. The rest is up to you.

“Do not disappoint us.”

The man collapsed then, falling to the floor, just as Shiori jerked and stumbled. At the same time, the body of the man that he had killed vanished, apparently to avoid leaving evidence.

“What the–” the girl blurted before blinking down at the unconscious doctor. “Where’d he come fr–”

Then the lights went out, both in this room and the one that Avalon was in. And, I realized, in the hallway behind us. The hospital itself had gone completely dark.

And suddenly, I was pretty sure, unconscious doctor aside… we wouldn’t be alone for long.

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Desperate Times 36-05

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“Don’t be weird.”

My words were punctuated by a soft kick against Rudolph’s shin, making the boy gasp a little under his breath, a soft hiss. He looked to me, blinking as he echoed, “Weird?”

I nodded subtly across the waiting room of the hospital where we (and the rest of the team) were… well, waiting. In the distance, Gaia and Professor Dare were there, talking to Doctor Therasis. They wouldn’t be telling him the real reason that we were here, of course. That was too dangerous. If the Seosten thought we could actually wake up Tangle, they’d be there in force.

Instead, Gaia was asking Therasis to check me for any medical issues that might have arisen thanks to our time away from the school when I was supposedly fighting in that arena. Tristan and Vanessa would be brought in later for the same purpose, but I had been there for a lot longer, and thus could have more problems. Or at least, that’s what Gaia was telling him.

“You’re staring,” I murmured at Rudolph, keeping my voice low despite the privacy coin that was, of course, active. “You’re trying to figure out if he’s possessed. Stop it. There’s no way to check right now without being obvious about it. Not without that choker. And if he is possessed, you staring at him is going to let him know that you know more than you should.”

Not that I didn’t totally understand the boys’ reactions. It was a hell of a lot to deal with. First, the idea that their entire society was that fucked up, and that there were Seosten around secretly possessing and controlling people? And the revelation that Isaac had killed both Paul and Professor Katarin? Yeah, they were actually coping with it better than I would have imagined just through the fact that they weren’t gibbering wrecks.

Maybe Avalon preparing them with that whole ‘spare lesser threats to deal with bigger ones’ had helped prepare the way. Not to mention everything else they’d been dealing with all year, all the questions and inconsistencies. Maybe, in a way, it was a relief just to have some answers.

Nearby, Sean nodded. “Just take it easy. Trust me, once you stop wondering if people you know are possessed and just assume everyone could be, it gets easier. And man was that a depressing sentence.”

“They’re not going to possess everybody,” I pointed out. “They’ve got limited numbers everywhere, let alone on Earth. They won’t just possess some random person. Not that your uncle’s just a random person, Sean, but you know what I mean. He’s off the grid, he’s not participating in Heretic stuff, he’s… you know. There’s plenty of things that prove he’s not possessed. He’s not the right kind of target for them.”

“But Grandpa Donald is,” Rudolph put in. He had, at least, looked away from the man to glance my way. “He helps run the whole hospital. All the medical issues that could pop up that those guys don’t want to get out, the Heretics they could say ‘died’ so that they can use them somewhere else, the… there’s plenty of reasons they would possess him.”

I grimaced, unable to refute that. “Yeah, maybe. Plus there’s the fact that the Seosten felt comfortable leaving Tangle here. I… I dunno. Maybe it’s one of the other important doctors. But the point is, we can’t do anything about it right now. So please, stop staring at him. Okay?”

“It’s hard,” Doug murmured with a quick head shake. “Thinking that some alien monster thing is controlling your friends, controlling your family? It’s…” He swallowed a little. “It’s just hard.”

Biting my lip, I glanced to the boy. “Okay, you have definitely got to tell me what that whole ‘Whispers’ thing is that you were talking about earlier, next chance we get. And… you’re right. It is hard. Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that it shouldn’t be. It’s hard, it’s fucked up, it’s… awful.” My gaze moved back to Rudolph, and my voice softened. “Are you going to be okay?”

His head gave a slight nod. “Yes. I… I’ll be fine. I’ll stop staring. But when they get back with that choker–”

“We’ll check,” I promised him. “I’m sorry we don’t have the choker right now, but… but when it’s back, when they get here, we’ll check anyone you want.”

Just then, the adults turned to face us, and Doctor Therasis spoke up. “Well, okay then. I’m glad to see your team was so willing to come provide moral support, Miss Chambers.”

That was Rudolph’s cue, and he spoke right up just as planned. “It’s more than moral support, Grandpa Donald,” the boy immediately put in. “We umm, we’d like you to check all of us for anything else that the kidnappers might’ve, you know, put in us.”

The man looked a little surprised by that, blinking. “Put in you, Rudolph?”

He nodded once more, playing his role perfectly. “Well, yeah, all that time we spent with the fake Paul and with Isaac, they could’ve planted something to… like, monitor us, teleport us to them, or… or anything. We didn’t think about it before, but since Flick says they’re organized… it couldn’t hurt to check, could it?  Since we’re already here.”

This was our distraction. Instead of just checking me, they were going to be examining each of us in turn. And even if Therasis wasn’t the one that was possessed, we were damn sure that any Seosten agents in the hospital would be watching Gaia like a hawk, and now she had a reason to stick around drawing their attention: her students were being examined.

Before, the role of asking to be checked over would have fallen to Sean. But Rudolph worked even better. After all, how could Therasis deny his own great-something-grandson?

“Of course,” the man replied with a smile. “It shouldn’t take too long. Ahh, who’s first, then?”

“Me,” I replied, walking that way. After all, I needed to get my part done with so that I could get the cure to Tangle while the others kept any Seosten agents occupied.

So, I went through the examination. Gaia came with me, and watched while Doctor Therasis ran me through a litany of tests. This ranged from the kind that I totally understood and that were basically the same as a normal Bystander doctor visit, to the magical kind that seemed completely absurd.

In all, the examination took about twenty minutes. There were a couple of blood tests that apparently would take a few days to examine, but in the end, Therasis announced that he couldn’t see anything immediately wrong with me. Aside from the fact that I was clearly upset about Avalon being kidnapped, and stressed about all of that (he didn’t know the half of it), I was physically healthy. Healthier than he had expected, the man said.

I just mumbled something about the abductors wanting us to be healthy so we could fight for them, and in response, Therasis frowned a little. Pursing his lips thoughtfully, he spoke up. “Your immediate tests seem well enough, as I said. But I would like you to stay here in the hospital for one evening, while we run a few more examinations that may take a bit longer.”

“Stay here?” I echoed, blinking once.

“Yes,” the man confirmed, giving me a soft smile. “I understand your hesitation, and given the sort of things you’ve been through, you may of course have a friend or two stay as well to keep you company. If you would like.”

Thinking of Shiori and the others, I slowly nodded. “Um, okay, if that’s what you think.” It wasn’t part of the plan, of course. But in that moment, I really didn’t want to give him any reason to be suspicious, whether he was part of the Seosten conspiracy or not.

Gaia gave me a brief, reassuring nod. “Don’t worry, Miss Chambers, you will not be alone. Oh, and…” The woman gestured, making a small, wrapped present float across the room and into my hand. “Would you please take that to Professor Dare and ask her to ensure that it gets to Nurse Danielle Redd? She graduated last year and I’ve been meaning to congratulate her on already making it here.”

“Ah, Nurse Redd,” Therasis immediately spoke up, “she would be on the fourth floor, I believe.”

“Oh, uhh,” I managed to make myself look surprised, nodding. “Sure, Headmistress. Whatever you say–I mean, yes, ma’am. And thank you, Doctor.”

With that, I headed out of the room. The others watched expectantly, and I gave them a slight nod and thumbs up before turning right. Dare was there, at the far end of the corridor. On the way there, I heard Therasis asking if Rudolph wanted to be next.

Tuning that out, I went through the whole song and dance with Dare, pretending that I was relaying Gaia’s message. Then the two of us made our way through the hospital together.

We really did deliver the present, since Gaia had been serious about wanting to deliver a congratulations to her former student, who she had apparently been fairly close to.

As promised, we found the nurse on the fourth floor. She was supervising a pair of orderlies who were using some kind of magically enhanced mops and rags to scrub the floor and walls of one of the specimen labs, the Tabilten room that I had seen the last time we came to the hospital. They were carefully cleaning every inch of the cages, leaving the room smelling pleasantly of lilacs. Some kind of magical wind spell had been set up to direct any of the excess fumes to the vent in the wall.

Nurse Redd was surprised at our arrival, and escorted us from the room quickly to avoid disturbing the animals. But she at least seemed happy enough to get the present from Gaia, thanking us profusely, and even promised to check in on me later when she found out that I would be staying the night.

In any case, once we were done, rather than heading back the way we had come, we instead headed for Tangle’s room. Which, thanks to the Blemmye power, I could still find easily.

On the way there, however, Dare spoke up. “Felicity,” she started quietly after assuring me that no one would overhear us, “your recent physical examination aside, how are you doing? How… how are you feeling?”

Blinking at that, I hesitated before answering honestly. “I’m scared,” I admitted. “If they kill Avalon, if th-they… I…” My eyes closed and I gave a little shudder, only to feel Dare’s hand on my shoulder, squeezing it.

“We will get her back, Felicity,” the woman assured me. “They can’t kill her until the spell runs out. And no matter how fast they can make that happen, they definitely won’t kill her after we take Giselle out of here. Okay? I promise you, we are going to find her. We have everything that we pulled out of the places that Theia sent us to, and I’ll be going over them until something comes up. We have the pixie. We’re about to have Giselle, who might be able to give us even more answers. We have leads. And they won’t kill her as long as she’s the only way they have of getting into that vault.”

Swallowing hard at that, I gave a little nod. “I… I know. But I’m still scared. And…” The next admission came in a tiny whisper. “I miss Tabbris. It’s weird not having her in my head. It makes me feel funny, like I’m not totally myself.”

The woman’s expression softened even more at that, and she gave a little nod. “Yes, I suppose that would be a very strange feeling, after becoming accustomed to that… situation.”

I started to say something else to that, but then Dare held a hand up to stop me. Frowning, she looked ahead, through the entrance into the long-term care wing. “Wait,” the woman murmured before drawing her sword from its sheath.

Resisting the urge to stupidly ask what was wrong, I instead focused on manifesting my staff into my hands. Dare, by that point, had triggered something on her sword, waving it around us. I saw her and myself go partially translucent. Invisibility spell. She had put an invisibility spell on us.

Together, we moved closer, only to find the thing that had been bothering her: soldiers. Lots of soldiers. They were dressed up the same way that the guys who had attacked us outside of the transport back to Earth had been, in that armor. Which itself kind of freaked me out for how open the Seosten were being. Where were the nurses that should have been here? Where were the doctors?

I didn’t have time to think about that too much. Because we had more pressing problems. Namely, the fact that these guys were clearly here to retrieve Tangle. Apparently Manakel wasn’t leaving anything to chance. He’d had the same thought we had, and was trying to preemptively deal with the situation.

We had to stop them. If they took Tangle, we’d have no way of stopping them from killing Avalon the second they managed to make that spell run out. Damn it, damn it, damn it! They couldn’t do this! We… we wouldn’t let them do it. Whatever it took, we wouldn’t let them take Tangle.

Eight guys. Eight of them. Well, to be fully accurate, it was five males and three females. Either way, all eight of them were standing between us and the room where Tangle was. And who knew how many were inside the room itself. Even with Dare’s help, this was going to be tricky. Especially if we wanted to actually do it without giving them a chance to just grab Tangle and go.

“Can your timestop help?” I quietly asked, keeping my voice to a whisper despite the professor’s privacy powers. Between the invisibility and everything else she had been doing to keep our conversation private, I knew they wouldn’t hear us. But still.

Her head shook a little then as a very slight grimace crossed her face for a moment. “They’re using some kind of spell to bypass it. I already tried. It didn’t affect them. We’re going to have to do this the direct way.” Her eyes found me, and softened slightly. “Stay right behind me, Felicity,” she advised. “I’ll take the brunt of it, you clean up. We can deal with them together, okay?”

Swallowing, I gripped my staff tighter before giving her a quick nod. “Yes, Profess–” In the middle of answering that, I blinked and looked past the woman. “Err, where did they go?”

Dare spun that way, only to see the same thing that I just had: an empty corridor. In the span of however long it had taken me to blink, all eight figures that had been blocking our way had vanished entirely, disappearing as suddenly and completely as if they had never been there.

“No…” the woman murmured, before breaking into a spring. I was right on her heels, as we raced to the hospital room itself, already expecting to find the worst: an empty bed.

But we didn’t. As we reached the doorway, the two of us found Tangle still lying there, just as she had been the last time I’d seen her. And other than the comatose woman, the place was completely empty. There was no sign of the Seosten forces anywhere in the room itself either.

Holding a hand up for me to wait, Professor Dare stepped into the room first. She was carefully scanning, looking over the whole room for any kind of trap. While she was doing that, however, I noticed something for the first time. There was a tiny scrap of paper in the palm of the hand that I wasn’t using to hold my staff. I had no idea how it had gotten there or how long I had been holding it, but there it was. With a confused frown, I glanced down at the paper scrap. The message was short, and to the point: Use the time this buys you to find your girl and heal. – J/E.  

J/E. I knew the answer as soon as I read it. Jophiel and Elisabet. This was them. They had… either recalled or eliminated the Seosten troops who had been in the hall. Either way, however they had done it, they had cleared the troops away from Tangle before they could take her. They had stopped Manakel from retrieving her and gave us the chance to keep Avalon alive by making sure that he didn’t have Tangle to help him get into the vault. As long as we had the woman with us, he would have no choice but to spare Avalon so that they would still have some chance of getting into that vault.

I didn’t know why they did it, exactly. I didn’t know what their precise motivations were. But in that moment, I was grateful. As angry as I had been at the two of them for forcing us into accepting their deal, this, at least, was something they had given in return for it. I had no doubt that it was at least partially selfishly motivated. After all, they wanted me to keep working with them, and they had to know that I would be ‘reluctant’ (to say the least) to do that if they let Avalon die. But still, they’d gone out of their way to help at least a little bit. It was… something.

As soon as I finished reading the note and processed it, the paper itself completely vanished, leaving behind nothing but a tiny poof of smoke that itself dissipated quickly. A moment later, Professor Dare turned back to me with a slight headshake. “Nothing,” she reported. “They’re gone. Why…” Frowning, she slowly looked around the room once more. “Why are they gone?”

“Maybe they all collectively realized that they left the oven on?” I offered a bit weakly, earning a brief, strange look from the woman. Coughing then, I shook my head. “Let’s just take the chance we’ve got before they come back.”

After a brief hesitation to consider that, Professor Dare nodded. She stepped over to watch the doorway, one hand gripping her sword while her other hand gestured for me to go ahead.

So, I did. From my pocket, I tugged out that vial of small blue liquid that Fahsteth had given me back when we’d had our little… discussion. Taking a breath, I stepped over to the bed.

If the shark-mercenary had been lying to us, tricking us, fucking with us, this could just kill Tangle, of course. But Gaia, Wyatt, and Dare had gone over the contents with a fine-toothed comb, and insisted that it wouldn’t hurt her. I didn’t trust Fahsteth, but I did trust them.

With that in mind, I popped the top off the vial and whispered a mostly-silent prayer before carefully using my other hand to tilt Tangle’s head up and open her mouth. Without wasting any more time, I put the open vial to her lips and slowly poured it in, making sure to keep her head tilted back so that the liquid went down her throat.

It took almost a minute. Through that time, Tangle twitched and shifted a few times. I saw the movement of her eyes behind the closed lids, and she made a couple deep-throated noises.

Then her eyes opened. For the first time in what had to be almost a year, Professor Tangle opened her eyes, taking in a deep, sudden breath.

“Easy,” I quickly advised. “Take it easy, Professor.”

She blinked blankly at me, her mouth opening. “Jose–no, wait…” That confusion remained as her eyes focused on my face.

“It’s okay, Giselle,” Dare spoke up then. “You’re safe.”

“Virginia?” The dark-skinned woman stared past me for a moment before stammering a confused, “What happened? Where am I? What’s going on?”

“Boy,” I couldn’t help putting in then, my voice drawing her wide-eyed attention back to me.

“Is that ever a complicated question.”

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