Gods of Myth and Midnight
Seeds of Chaos Book 3
The alien queen holds a grudge against Eve and her teammates. To avoid having their throats slit while they sleep, they escape the palace and set out to stop the real cause of the war, which is also slowly killing half her teammates—the incurable alien plague that NIX unknowingly weaponized. To save the people she cares about (and everyone else who happens to live on either world), Eve will have to fulfill an ancient prophecy.
They only have to escape back to Earth, avoid being caught by the queen’s agents or killed in the planet-wide war, and find a greater god that has been missing for millennia. No problem, right?
Gods of Myth and Midnight is the third book in a dark and deliciously violent adventure series that combines science fiction and game elements. If you like electrifying action, flawed characters, and kick-ass heroines, then you’ll love the third book in Azalea Ellis’ Seeds of Chaos series.
Buy Gods of Myth and Midnight to read a tale of darkness, hope, and special powers.
Available as an Audiobook:
Betrayal is the only truth that sticks.
— Arthur Miller
A tingling wave spread through my body, each thud of my heart sending blood rushing through my ears with a drum-like thunder, till it drowned out all other sound. Queen Mardinest had just declared war. On Earth. I drug my eyes away from the screen, where ships were still flying through the array, and looked at her.
She was already staring at me, as if she’d anticipated my response. When our eyes met, she gave me a slow, predatory smile, and dipped her head in a shallow bow.
I drew in a shuddering gasp of rage, and the tips of my fingers quivered. But my claws did not extend. That tingling wave rocked through me again, and, completely against my will, I relaxed. My body moved without my consent, like a puppet on strings.
The sudden lack of control was disorienting. I grew dizzy. I pushed against the relaxation, a reflex as quick as catching yourself when you start to trip. Instead, my body stayed calm, and my face settled into a mask of sober dignity.
Wraith lashed out of me, sending my awareness exploding through the room as I searched for the source of the attacking Skill. The glow of power coming off all the Estreyans present was bright enough to obscure any individual person. However, most of them were looking at the screen. A few reporters had gathered their wits enough to turn back to the queen and my team, and the eyes of the guards on the outskirts of the room roved, but only a few of them showed the flaring glow of an active Skill.
As my mouth twitched involuntarily into a subtle smile, my awareness climbed upward to the inward-facing balcony looking down on the main floor of the throne room.
A blonde Estreyan man, wearing a circlet similar to the one around Torliam’s head, stood there staring at the dais below, power blazing from him.
A Window in front of my face made my heart sink.
—I can’t move, and I can’t use my Skill. She must have planned this.—
I reached for Chaos, but after a surge of Seed-glow indicating Skill use from the man on the balcony, my mental grasp slipped off of my own power. A few thin wisps of dark-tendriled destruction grated against my armor before dissipating, ineffectual and unfocused.
The reporters had regained their composure and turned their attention, and recording devices, back to the queen and my group. The ensuing barrage of shouted questions struck a blow to my already frazzled concentration.
As the last of the ships left Estreyer through the array, Queen Mardinest raised her hands to the room, motioning for quiet.
One of the kiddos let out half a whimper, quickly choked off.
I sent a Window to all the members of the team with VR chips, which only excluded Torliam and Birch.
—We’re being controlled. It’s the guy on the balcony above us. I can feel him fighting back when I try to act.—
—He can’t be stronger than all of us, yeah? We just gotta bust through.—
—Good idea. He can’t keep this up forever.—
I turned Wraith on my teammates.
Gregor flickered for a fraction of a second as he tried to activate Shadow and failed.
Blaine’s suit whirred softly as if preparing for action, but he did not move.
Zed’s fingers trembled as if reaching for something, though I didn’t know if he was trying for his gun or his Skill.
Birch managed to kick up a wind before our controller’s power clamped down on him.
Torliam’s body language was as calm as my own, but when my awareness brushed against his skin, I could feel his pulse running fast through his neck.
He shuddered minutely, and his muscles spasmed, even as my own grip on Wraith slipped away.
My attention frayed and my sensory ability regressed to the limited capabilities of my physical body. The man above was clamping down on his control of me, apparently.
Once the room was suitably hushed, Queen Mardinest ran her gaze over the assembled reporters, shoulders thrown back in arrogant pride.
I reached for Chaos again. My mind seemed to fumble stupidly, and I got so little power that it wasn’t even visible beyond a faint haze close to my skin.
“My people have been working tirelessly to uncover the extent of the atrocities committed by the Earthlings,” she said. “We discovered much. They have stolen our technology and used that to come to our world in secret, petitioning our gods for power.”
A murmur of outrage welled up in the rapt crowd.
“They jailed and tortured a member of the royal family.” She took a deep breath, and, even behind her, I could feel the force of her presence, a righteous kind of anger that encouraged my heart to pound.
—We need to coordinate. Push, every five seconds, together. Maybe we can overwhelm him that way.—
“They have taken the Sickness and mixed it with another disease meant to weaken us. In doing so, they have created a new horror. Their weapon, cruelly tested and grown in their own people, will destroy our blood-borne power so that we are as weak and feeble as them, and as if that were not violation enough, it will infect those who receive it with the taint of the Sickness, purposefully.”
Was that how Chanelle had been infected? Through the meningolycanosis? But I was pretty sure NIX had no idea about the Sickness. I drove the distracting thought away and continued to struggle for command of my body and my Skills as my teammates did the same.
Up above, the man with the circlet pushed back, but my awareness spread out from my body a little further each time, and the air around me writhed with little gusts of warmth created by Chaos.
“These brave warriors have agreed to go through the array to Earth to neutralize this threat before it becomes even greater. In doing so, we also save the Earthlings from themselves. They are too foolish to realize that the Sickness can never be a true ally, and will turn on their own people just as it attempts to drag us down into ruin.”
She paused, and my Skill sensed her eyes flick upward to the spot where our puppeteer stood. “We will not allow their madness to reach our world, to hurt our loved ones and our children. They will not destroy us. We will not rest till their depraved leaders and Sickness-infected warriors are ground to dust.” She bowed crisply, her body held stiff.
After a pause, she straightened. “Questions shall be accepted by my son Reglium, who has returned from his diplomatic endeavors to lend his aid in this time of need.” She gestured to the stairs leading down from the balcony which grew out of the wall behind us.
The man in the circlet descended, then cut across the room toward us. He entered my field of vision as he walked past, stepping onto the dais to stand by his mother.
I raged against his control and felt the hair on the back of my neck tremble from the restrained power tingling in the air around me.
He almost stumbled, but caught himself, breathing a little too hard.
My body stood, along with the others on the team, except for Adam, and bowed to the reporters.
Queen Mardinest lifted a hand in silent farewell and walked away. She stepped through the subtle door behind her throne, which led into a nondescript hallway.
I followed her, my face still refusing to twist into the visage of snarling rage I demanded.
My eyes caught on Adam’s for a moment. He was white-faced with pain, being carried between Blaine in his mecha suit and Torliam. Without access to his Skill, he had no way to move on his own. I took small comfort in the fact that Reglium obviously couldn’t control our Skills enough to use them, only suppress our ability to operate them.
I stumbled as the door closed behind us. My body continued to move under Reglium’s control, but it grew clumsier as we walked further from him and the throne room.
What was Queen Mardinest’s plan? It seemed obvious she couldn’t keep us under direct control indefinitely. Sure, she’d kept us from speaking out against the invasion of Earth and made it seem like we agreed with her decisions. But she’d made an enemy of us in doing so. Which meant she thought she could handle us as an enemy, despite our recent success in killing a god and the political power that had gained us.
—Is she taking us somewhere to kill us?—
—No. Don’t worry. She would never get away with that. She’s going to threaten us. She needs our cooperation.—
* * *
Queen Mardinest led us to a nearby room with a thick stone door and no windows. Four Estreyans waited inside, one woman and three men. They bowed to her when we entered.
I sensed the glow of their power and knew we couldn’t win against them easily.
The door closed behind us with an ominous finality, and I almost fell on my face as Reglium’s tingling Skill released my body. My claws slid out as I regained my balance.
Adam jerked his arms away from Blaine and Torliam, spilling ink from a cartridge at his waist. The ink swirled up and wrapped around his legs and torso, supporting and stabilizing them, then sprouted eight spider-like legs to hold him aloft.
Blue mist wafted off Torliam as he took in the waiting Estreyans and then looked to the queen. He spoke in his native language, his words deliberate and tightly controlled. “What are you doing, Mother?”
Jacky grew to match my height and a little more, stepping up beside me with a quick glance to make sure she stood securely in front of the kids.
Blaine’s mecha suit loaded ammunition into the arm thrusters.
“I am doing what must be done,” Queen Mardinest said, her clenched fists nearly white with tension. “The humans are helping the Sickness to destroy us all. I will stop it, even if I must raze that vermin-infested planet to the ground.” Her voice dripped with vitriol. “I will not allow you to stand in my way.”
Torliam shook his head. “We, too, wish to stop the Sickness! Why are you acting against us? We could have spoken of this—”
She slashed her hand through the air, and he clenched his jaw shut. There was no Skill at work to silence him, only her authority and the granite-like hardness of her expression.
I ran my eyes over the other Estreyans in the room. To be there, Queen Mardinest must have believed they could subdue us. We were strong, but I couldn’t unleash Chaos’ full destructive capabilities while trapped in a room with my teammates, and I knew that we still weren’t a match for a group of elite Estreyan warriors. “Is diplomacy not an option?” I said. “You have assaulted my team without warning, without an attempt to come to an understanding. Have you done the same to the humans of Earth?”
“We are humans,” Blaine said, his voice steady. “Earth is our home, and we are the very solution to that Sickness you so want to eradicate.”
Queen Mardinest laughed.
Birch growled, a low rumble I could feel as he pressed himself against my leg.
“There is no cure to the Sickness.” Her voice held no doubt, and I knew things were about to get worse. “The best of us have been trying to find an answer, for thousands of years. The Sickness is now defeating even the gods. And what can you do? You killed the God of Knowledge, yes. Do you now know how to cure the Sickness? If so, show me this miracle. You have infected among your own teammates, surely you would heal them if you could!” She slashed her hand toward Chanelle and the kids, who stood half-hidden at the back of the group.
I steeled myself against the crushing power in her words. “I do not have the cure, that is true. But I also have one gift remaining from the Oracle, and we have not yet found the Champion. Who, if I may remind you, is likely on Earth. It is the reason your son came to my planet in the first place.”
She spat on the ground.
Torliam flinched, as if she’d slapped him. “Mother. There is hope. The Goddess of Testimony and Lore has marked us. Eve is a descendant of the line of Matrix. We have defeated a god.” Torliam’s voice shook. “I knew you did not believe me before, but I have proof now.”
She turned to Torliam. “My son, I know you do not want to believe this. However, I realized when your sister Tonila died that there is no future for our world. How many times have our people found some new hope, only for it to be crushed? It is a cruel game.”
Ah. Well, that changed things. If Queen Mardinest did not believe in a cure to the Sickness, there was no incentive for her to ally with us, no influence we could use to adjust her actions.
* * *
Torliam stared at his mother, blinking a little too fast, as if trying to understand what he was seeing.
“So why did you act like you believed?” Adam burst out.
“I could not do otherwise, unless I wished to kill you all before word of your presence spread. As a ruler, it cannot be said there is any possibility of curing the Sickness which I do not attempt. It is not expected for these attempts to truly succeed. I needed to buy time and political goodwill for myself. You are my son,” she said, her voice softening only a little as she looked at Torliam. “I did not wish to have you killed, though I did not believe any of you would survive your ill-conceived attack on the God of Knowledge.”
I narrowed my eyes, the tips of my claws scraping against my armor. “But we’re still alive.”
“Indeed. This puts me in a difficult position. I still have no wish to kill you, if I do not have to. Nevertheless, I cannot allow you to interfere with the ruling of my people, or to try to stop me from doing what must be done out of sentiment for your parent race or fanatical belief in something that will never be.”
I knew we’d finally arrived at the threat. She couldn’t just kill us, not while we were so high in the public eye.
She gestured behind her, to the Estreyans who hadn’t yet called attention to themselves. “These warriors are bound to me in blood-covenant. They are loyal to me, and me alone. They will be your new guards and escorts, along with my son Reglium. You will do my bidding as loyally as they, or I will be forced to kill you all. First, I will reveal to the public that the Sickness has infested members of your team.” She let out a sharp bark of laughter. “Ironically, that is even the truth. I will show the public your crazed frenzy as it takes over your minds and bodies, just as I showed them your calm acceptance of my leadership today. You will have no choice in the matter. That is, if you do not succumb to the Sickness on your own. Each of these warriors has been picked specifically, their abilities chosen to ensure you will not defy me. Ni,” she pointed to the woman, “will keep track of you at all times, San and Shi are fighters so mighty you will not stand against them long, if you manage to somehow escape immediate death in an attempt to defy me. And Ichi…”
One of the Estreyans, a man slightly paler than seemed healthy, stepped forward.
“He has the ability to transport any living being he can see to any point within the many levels of Estreyer.” She snapped her fingers.
Ichi nodded, and in the space of a blink, I was underwater, pressure crushing down on me. The breath left my lungs, drifting away in bubbles barely visible in the darkness. Wraith pushed out sluggishly through the liquid, and found my teammates around me.
Torliam’s blue mist expanded to encircle us, and ink spilled into the water around Adam, and then we were back in the stone-walled room.
I dropped to my knees, gasping for air. The water dripped onto the stones beneath me.
Gregor was in his Shadow state, and he pushed forward to stand beside me, his daggers held threateningly above me.
I rose to my feet, letting Chaos boil out an inch or so over my skin and armor, the tendrils of smoke-like darkness writhing like angry snakes. “Sam?” I said, grabbing Gregor’s shoulder and urging him back. He didn’t need to protect me.
Zed’s fingers disappeared into the air and the water on his hand turned to ice, but he glared at the four guards and Queen Mardinest, then withdrew his hand, letting the rip to the Other Place close.
Jacky had grown until her head brushed against the ceiling. She snarled, and Ichi raised his hand to her.
I placed a hand on her side and shook my head silently. We couldn’t afford to turn this into a real fight.
Jacky turned and smashed her fist into the wall. Stone flew outward from the point of impact, the sound thunderously loud in the small room.
Queen Mardinest still stood where she’d been before the threatening display of power. “You are cunning, Eve-Redding, and you are all very resourceful as a group. Perhaps you will find a way to survive all that. So I won’t take any chances, if I need to kill you. Ichi will transport you directly into the Voids of Tartarus. Since you are an Earthling, you may not know what that is. Suffice it to say, nothing that enters has ever left.”
Sam touched the others, and after a short second of examination each, sent a single nod my way. At least no one had been seriously injured by that little stunt, though I noted that Sam returned to Adam, who was white-faced and trembling. The crushing pressure of the ocean depths on Adam’s mangled spine must have hurt like hell.
“My people may cry your names in the streets now, but if they knew you harbored the Sickness, they would call instead for your bodies to be cleansed beyond ash with a fire as hot as the sun. If you force my hand against you, I will ensure they mourn only the loss of a few more victims of the Sickness.”
“And if we comply?” My voice was hoarse.
She gave the most humorless of smiles. “I will allow you to be your own destruction, over time. You will be seen continuing your attempts to cure the Sickness. You will act as diplomatic envoys to those who wish to meet the godkiller. You may even petition the minor gods for Bestowals, though no more of my warriors will die on your behalf while you do so. However, do not think I am unaware of your true nature, Eve-Redding. You will plot and scheme within your heart, seeking to sting me with deadly poison when my attention is diverted. I know this, because I can sense it within you even now.”
She stepped forward. “The line of Aethezriel did not always rule. Did you know that? I wrested this crown, and with it my seat of power, from another family before me. They had many secrets. Now, I am known as a warrior-queen, and the blood-borne ability the people know is my godlike skill with the blade and bow. Yet the ability that gained me this crown, and the one which allows me to keep it among the skirling-infested court members who wish it for themselves, is my sense for the secrets of others.”
I did not step back from her, even as I sensed the glow of her power tugging at my body and repressed a shudder.
“It is necessary that I keep this power secret, both so that it might be used against those who are unaware, and so that my enemies cannot use the instinctive fear of one’s secrets being revealed against me. I can smell the things you keep hidden like the misty ghost of an idea. It has always been enough. If I believe you plan to become my enemy in any way, I will be forced to act against you.” She stepped back, but didn’t bother to smile toothily like I might have done. She was serene, confident in her own power without the need to revel in it.
“Mother. We need not be enemies.” Torliam’s words were choked, but he held himself straight and with dignity despite the water still dripping from his hair. “Even if you do not believe in us, or that the prophesied cure exists, we might still prove you to be wrong. Let us go to Earth, so that Eve may find the Champion, and bring him back to Estreyer.”
She scoffed. “This one,” she pointed to me, “is only using you. The Champion is not on Earth. He is dead, and has been for thousands of cycles. I will not allow one as treacherous as her the potential to ally with our enemies, which she has already done once, before she discovered the power you might provide her in their stead. You will remain on Estreyer. I will give you time to reconcile yourselves with the new order of things. I have many demands on my attention. Return to your assigned quarters. Ichi may relate to you your duties henceforth as you walk.”
One of the other Estreyans stepped forward and opened the door behind us, seemingly unperturbed by the threatening stares of my teammates.
When the queen motioned dismissively toward the open doorway, they glanced at me. I nodded, and they filed out, along with three of our four new guards.
Jacky glared at one of the guards and feigned a lunge toward him, grinning when he flinched, and then swaggered off down the hallway.
I moved to go with them, but the queen placed her hand on my shoulder.
Torliam stopped, frowning, but she waved him on. “Go. Eve-Redding will not be harmed. I merely wish to speak with her a short while longer.”
“I am in blood-covenant with her,” he said, the words heavy with an insinuation I didn’t quite understand. “It is the duty of the line of Aethezriel to guard and serve the line of Matrix.”
Her hand tightened on my shoulder, and before she could retort, I spoke. “It’s alright. I’ll speak with her, and meet you in a little while.”
I could almost hear the creak of his jaw as he clenched his teeth together, but he nodded and walked off after the others.
Queen Mardinest waited an uncomfortably long time with her hand silently on my shoulder, undoubtedly used to the superior eavesdropping senses of the Estreyans. Then, she leaned in and murmured into my ear, the warmth of her breath tickling me. “I know your secret. You are a desperate liar and a charlatan.” She breathed in deep, an exaggerated sniff. “I do not know how you managed to convince my son these sparkling gifts mean you are all tied into the destiny of a savior, but I know that you came to the both of us with lies. Every time someone spoke of curing the Sickness in your presence, I smelt the hint of it. When you returned, I understood. You meant all along to kill a god, but it was never anything to do with altruism. There was never any Bestowal offered, either of a cure or information leading to one. There is no cure for the Sickness. We are in agreement on that, I believe. But if your precious teammates, and my son, were to learn of your duplicity, I do not think they would be so understanding as I.”
There is no passion so contagious as that of fear.
— Michel de Montaigne
The hallways, normally spacious and bright, seemed to close in on me. I walked with the remaining guard, one of the warriors, following the same path the others had traveled ahead of me. I took deep breaths, but it didn’t feel like I was getting enough air. The world spun, and I reached out to brace myself on the wall.
I found myself staring at my left hand. It was an alien thing. The fingers were a little too long, and one too many of them grew out from my palm. If it were just the darkened skin, or the hardened, scale-like segments stretching out from under the armor at my wrist, I would have still been able to look at the hand and think of it as my own. But the shape of it had changed altogether.
I clenched my fist and brought it down to my side, closing my eyes. “Get it together,” I mouthed to myself, hoping the guard hadn’t taken too much note of my moment of weakness. After successfully surviving the fight with the God of Knowledge, I’d still been adjusting to the changes in myself and my life. I hadn’t yet figured out my new path going forward. This development, and its possible ramifications, had given me whiplash when I was already struggling for balance. But I was adaptable. I had to be.
Queen Mardinest’s threat to reveal my duplicity was meant as another layer of binding around me, but it was only effective if I gave it power. If she tried to expose me to my teammates, I could just lie. After today, they wouldn’t trust her over me without damning proof, especially with so much evidence to the contrary. Even if the original quest had mentioned nothing about curing the Sickness, after that it was like the world was bending itself into contortions trying to make my lie into truth. Whether it had succeeded in making me what I claimed or not, I wasn’t going to let my teammates die to a curable disease. She’d been wrong. I believed in a cure to the Sickness. I’d create one, even if I had to form it out of the very ether or the bones of my enemies.
Unfortunately, things had just gotten a lot more difficult. If the god with the cure was on Earth and not Estreyer, we’d need to bypass the queen’s new authority over us. Without getting tossed into the Voids of Tartarus.
The image of ships flying through the array asserted itself in my mind again. War on Earth? What did that even really mean? If she was trying to eradicate the meningolycanosis, Queen Mardinest would go after NIX, right? Except I knew they had more than the one base, and other countries might even have their own versions. And NIX was part of the government, at least to some degree. One which had been preparing for just such an invasion for the last seven or eight years.
This couldn’t end well.
A small “Mrrp?” drew my eyes, and I saw Birch peeking around the corner ahead. He padded over to me, bumping his forehead into my knee.
“You waited for me.” I reached down and ran a hand over his head, giving him a few scratches behind the ears and at the base of his wings. When the guard motioned impatiently at me, I started to walk again.
Birch kept his shoulder pressed to the side of my leg in silent support.
He let out a grumble that was half growl, ears flicking around alertly while keeping his hostile gaze on the warrior walking slightly ahead of us.
“Yes. This was a very unfortunate development,” I said. I couldn’t understand cat speech, but his body language and tone of voice were usually enough to get a good idea what he was trying to convey. When they weren’t, he could communicate telepathically with skin contact.
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I hadn’t yet met a truly unsolvable problem. This would be no different.
We couldn’t trust Queen Mardinest. We were a threat to her, and would become even more of one if we made progress in curing the Sickness. If we stayed under her control, there was no future for us. Some of my team would die from infection, and once the rest of us weren’t so beloved, it wouldn’t be so hard for an “accident” to kill us all. She’d insinuated as much to our faces.
She had gotten too used to getting what she wanted. It was time we served her a healthy dose of disappointment.
* * *
We arrived at a part of the palace I hadn’t explored before, on ground level. I pushed Wraith ahead to sense my teammates, who milled like a small swarm of angry ants outside a door with runes carved into it, across from an open room with metal melted into the floor in a complicated diagram and some lounge-type furniture. I could hear them arguing in semi-hushed voices before I even turned the corner.
“I am not responsible for my mother’s actions,” Torliam growled.
“You’re the freaking prince! You can’t do anything about this?” Adam said.
“I am the youngest, I am a son, and I am not even favored enough for my mother to attempt to rescue from imprisonment and torture! Only people too ignorant to know better think I have any political power!”
“If not for you, pushing Eve to be your ‘chosen one’ and then telling your mother all about her and that people tried to kill the kids, we wouldn’t be in this situation at all!”
“If not for me, Eve would be dead!”
I rounded the corner to see blue mist rise and lash at the air around Torliam futilely. Both he and Adam turned to look when I arrived, and I wasn’t sure if Gregor’s huge sigh of relief was for my wellbeing, or for the end of the argument. I frowned at them, and Torliam, at least, seemed abashed.
The queen’s new watchdog Estreyans stood in the open room across from the door, doing something with the rune-carved floor. If I had to guess, it had something to do with locking us into the adjacent room, which was undoubtedly a cell to keep us from escaping or doing anything rash. So much for the new, fancy bedroom I’d been assigned.
Adam’s ink carriage skittered around on its legs, turning him to face me. “What did she keep you behind for?”
Torliam scanned me with his eyes. “Are you unharmed?”
“How can she do this?” Kris said. “Earth is our home. She knows we’re from there, and she acts all supportive to our face, then suddenly—”
Gregor squeezed her hand, and she cut off.
I resisted the urge to let my claws slip out and bare my teeth at my guard as he moved past me to join the others. I settled instead on a stony glare. It wouldn’t do to seem too complacent, after all.
I rubbed my neck, trying to release some of the tension there. “She took the opportunity to threaten me in some more detail.”
One of our guards opened the door and shooed us into the large, windowless room. It had a few bed mats spread directly onto the floor, and there was a small walled-off area I assumed to be a bathroom. The ceiling glowed, mimicking the brightness of the world outside.
I noted more metal runes and designs sunk into the stone and felt the muscles around my eyes tighten with stress. I let my awareness swirl out into the open room behind us. When the female guard, Ni, who now sat in the middle of the design carved into the floor, let out a slow breath, I felt the buzzing barrier in our new windowless cell snap to life and couldn’t help but flinch.
Displayed on the surface of one of the tables outside I caught a blurry image of the room and us within it. They weren’t incompetent, it seems.
Adam paced back and forth on his ink spider. “Is the Estreyan justice system corrupt enough that she can really get away with this?”
“Well, obviously she can,” I said, flopping onto one of the thin bed mats and rubbing my palms across my face.
He moved to loom over me like some horror-film amalgamation of spider and man. “What are we going to do?”
“There’s nothing we can do. Just try to get some rest while we have the opportunity. I know I need it.”
Adam frowned, exchanging a look with Zed. “We just got threatened and blackmailed into servitude, and you’re too tired to talk about it?” His eyebrows raised high, and his voice tightened, growing angrier as he spoke.
I suppressed my smile as I read the Window message. He’d understood exactly what I was going for. I sent my response to everyone who had a VR chip, and hoped that Torliam, who didn’t, wouldn’t push the issue.
—Yes. We’ll talk when it’s too dark for them to see, since we’ll need Torliam’s input on this.—
Outwardly, I pressed my lips together in an expression that reminded me of my mother. “There’s nothing we can do about it, is there? We can talk in a couple hours, once I’ve had some time to wind down. If you want to keep that stick up your ass till it gives you a heart attack, be my guest.”
Sam’s eyes were wide. “Guys, uh, we’re all a little on edge right now. Let’s just take a deep—”
Adam rolled his eyes and whipped off toward the other corner of the room, lowering his body onto another of the bed mats while pointedly not looking at me.
Chanelle sat next to me, her gaze tracking with the lucidity it sometimes lacked. “Do you have any food?” she said in a small voice.
I dug some fruit and dried meat out of my pack, grateful that I’d carried it with me even to the queen’s announcement out of ingrained, paranoid habit. As she began to eat, I took out the Oracle’s final gift and fiddled with it. With mental commands, I sent Zed a Window.
—We’re trapped in here by some sort of energy barrier that’s flush with the walls. Investigate it, as innocently as you can. It’s okay to act curious, that’s normal, but they’ll be watching me specifically to make sure I’m not planning an escape.—
Zed moved to the wall and pressed his palms against it. It produced an audible zap, and he jerked back in surprise, shaking his hands.
Torliam paced back and forth and he clenched and unclenched his fists. “This cell is meant to hold prisoners of significant strength. It has been modified with a barrier powered from the ritual circle in the room outside. Nothing will leave this room.”
Zed poked the wall again. “Not even air?”
“I doubt they mean to kill us. The air will refresh itself through the orb on the ceiling.” Torliam gestured, barely sparing a glance toward it. He caught my eye for a second and seemed to notice something in my expression. He stopped pacing.
Zed narrowed his eyes, lowered his hands to hang at his sides, and poked a finger into the air surreptitiously. His finger disappeared. I felt the pinprick spot of cold seeping through the tiny rip he’d created in reality.
Outside, the woman in the middle of the circular diagram gasped, then hunched over. “It’s sucking too much power!”
I kept my face expressionless and pushed Wraith through the opening Zed had torn, into an almost perfect replica of the room we stood in. Except, in the Other Place, there were no bed mats on the floor, and the doorway was empty of the stone door keeping us enclosed. The buzzing barrier still existed, though.
Another guard moved to the gasping woman’s side in concern.
Ichi stared at her for a few moments, then strode toward our cell.
—They’re about to open the door. Act natural.—
As soon as the door opened, the barrier broke, in both the real world and the Other Place, and the woman straightened with a sigh of relief.
“What are you doing?” Ichi snapped, his eyes tracking over us.
Zed poked the wall again lazily, then looked up at Ichi. “Oh, hey. Since you’re here, could you get us some food? I’m thinking maybe some cheesy bread?”
“I want meat,” Jacky said slowly, enunciating the Estreyan words carefully.
Ichi glared at the two of them, looked around again, and slammed the door shut with a shuddering boom.
Zed turned to Jacky. “He didn’t acknowledge our food order. Do you think he’ll manage to get it right?”
Gregor huffed. “Maybe they’re trying to force us to resort to cannibalism.”
We passed a couple hours with talk, trying to seem as natural as possible, which meant being angry and worried while also not acting as if we planned any betrayal.
“Do you think Mom is safe?” Zed asked, propped against the lightly buzzing wall with me on my bed mat.
Sam and Chanelle both turned toward us at his words, no doubt wondering the same thing about their own parents.
My claws fumbled, dropping the puzzle band into my lap. I retracted them and clenched my left fist together to conceal the extra finger from my sight. “I hope so,” I said. “Even if we did try to hide our families, once NIX had us back in the system, they shouldn’t have had as much trouble as they did finding them.” I sent them a Window for the remainder of my response.
—We’ll search for them when we get back to Earth. Ironically, it’s probably best for us if NIX managed to find them after we left. Unless they’re holding them hostage.—
—So we’re definitely going back to Earth?—
—We have to.—
Aloud, I said, “We’ll have to talk to Queen Mardinest about it. Maybe she’ll help us find them.” I resisted the urge to put obvious sarcasm into the words, despite the ball of anger that rose up in me.
I thought back to the last time we’d gone to NIX, an Estreyan group of warriors coming along as an incentive for Commander Bragg to agree to our demands. My heart thumped with sudden, sickening realization. I turned my head to stare at Zed. We’d gotten meningolycanosis and their research on it, but I’d never thought to ask for more of the nanite booster my brother needed.
“How much of the nanite paste do you have left?”
Zed didn’t answer at first, fingering the spot at his waist where he kept the vial-like containers. “A couple weeks. Maybe three, if I stretch it out and don’t mind feeling a little sick.”
I was silent. This was my fault.
He pressed his lips together. “I thought, once we were finished with the God of Knowledge, I’d have time to bring it up. Blaine could probably make more, with access to a lab. I never imagined something like this would happen.”
“Blaine can make more.” The words were just as much to reassure myself as for Zed. “We’ll make sure he gets the chance to do so.”
I meditated to pass the time till we could talk more openly, examining my body and the castle around us. Jacky played with Kris and Gregor, Blaine fiddled with a piece of his armor that kept shooting sparks despite his intense glares at it, and Adam worked on the ever more intricate, fractal tattoo growing from his wrists up to his shoulders.
Fretfully, I browsed through my VR chip’s Windows.
PLAYER NAME: EVE REDDING
TITLE: BEARER OF TESTIMONY
CHARACTERISTIC SKILL: SPIRIT OF THE HUNTRESS, TUMBLING FEATHER
SKILLS: COMMAND, WRAITH, CHAOS, VOICE
MANUAL DEXTERITY: 10
MENTAL ACUITY: 29
My official level hadn’t changed since we broke from NIX, since it was determined by them and only noted the number of Seeds they’d awarded, not my actual Attribute levels, which could be increased through training.
If NIX had wanted to forcefully push me to this Attribute level, they would have had to award me almost four hundred Seeds. Granted, I had planted a huge number of stolen Seeds in my healing-related Attributes. Still, I knew the self-sustaining growth of Attributes through training was probably why NIX decided to create a lot of Players rather than just loading up a handful of people with their limited Seed supply. Sure, they probably created or enhanced their Thinkers via direct Seed influx, but for the rest of us, NIX wanted the Skills more than anything, since superhuman physical abilities could only take you so far.
Someone could have Attributes much higher than mine, but it didn’t matter if I caught them with Chaos. Then again…if I couldn’t manage to catch them, even a godling-class Skill could do nothing.
TUMBLING FEATHER (KINETIC CLASS): INCREASES GRACE AND AGILITY. IMPROVES SENSE OF BALANCE AND MOTION. SKILL EFFECTS WILL EXPAND AND STRENGTHEN WITH PLAYER GROWTH.
SPIRIT OF THE HUNTRESS (SPIRIT CLASS): INCREASES GRACE, AGILITY, PERCEPTION, FOCUS, BEAUTY, AND STAMINA. NAILS EXTEND AND SHARPEN ON COMMAND, ALONG WITH PHYSICAL RESTRUCTURING OF HANDS AND FEET. FEET PERMANENTLY AUGMENTED FOR INCREASED PERFORMANCE. INCREASES CHANCE TO LAND ON FEET AFTER A FALL. AGGRESSIVE TENDENCIES INCREASE. SKILL EFFECTS WILL EXPAND AND STRENGTHEN WITH PLAYER GROWTH.
COMMAND (MUNDANE CLASS): ALLOWS LEADER ACCESS TO THE TEAM MANAGEMENT WINDOW. LEADER CAN COMMUNICATE WITH TEAM MEMBERS THROUGH GAME WINDOWS AND ACCESS BASIC GAME INFORMATION OF TEAM MEMBERS.
WRAITH (PROJECTION CLASS): INCREASES PERCEPTION. SENSES EXTEND BEYOND THE BODY, GIVING A COMPREHENSIVE UNDERSTANDING OF SURROUNDINGS, AND MARKING AREAS OR BEING OF POWER ACCORDING TO DEGREE. SKILL EFFECTS WILL EXPAND AND STRENGTHEN WITH PLAYER IMPROVEMENT.
CHAOS (GODLING CLASS): LATENT ASCENSION POTENTIAL. GIVES ACCESS TO THE PRIMORDIAL POWER OF THE GODDESS OF CHAOS.
VOICE (SOVEREIGN CLASS): INCREASES CHARISMA. ACTS AS A BEACON FOR BEINGS OF POWER. ALLOWS PRESENCE AND WILL TO BE IMPOSED ON SURROUNDINGS. SKILL EFFECTS WILL EXPAND AND STRENGTHEN WITH PLAYER IMPROVEMENT.
When the ceiling had been dark for several hours to match the world outside, and the screen displaying us to our guards showed nothing but darkness, I knew it was time.
Silently, we gathered in the center of the room.
Adam spilled ink on the ground, and with a silently mouthed “Animus,” it rose up around us in a protective sphere of darkness.
“We need an anti-eavesdropping buzz, if you’d be so kind,” I whispered, my words barely more than a breath on the air.
Torliam heard me without difficulty, and blue mist wafted out from him ever so faintly, setting the surrounding air to vibrating with pseudo white-noise.
* * *
“I’ve imbued the barrier with as much intention to block sight as I can,” Adam said. “It might help, even if one of them can otherwise see through walls.”
Blaine turned on one of the lights on his mecha suit so we could all see each other.
I raised my eyebrows, testing the ink barrier’s resistance. “Good job.”
One side of Adam’s mouth quirked up into a smirk, and he gave Torliam a pointed look.
Torliam crossed his arms across his broad chest and turned away.
“So what the hell?” Jacky burst out, clenching her fists.
Blaine pushed his glasses up. “I have to agree. This is a completely unacceptable outcome, Eve. I will not give up on the search to find the cure.”
“Not only that,” Adam said, with a glance at Torliam. “But your mom’s going to kill us, the first chance she has.”
“We’ve gotta kill her first, then, no?” Jacky said.
Torliam snorted. “Did you not see the guards? Or realize that my mother is no simple pleasant face for the royal crown to frame? She is a warrior-queen, with both sword and tongue.” He looked around at the others, then uncrossed his arms, looking down at the palms of his hands. “I…did not know she would do this. If I had known…” he shook his head. “How else were we to get the forces necessary to attack the God of Knowledge? We needed her alliance. Nevertheless, Adam is right. She may be my mother, but…I cannot help but wonder how soon a horrible ‘accident’ will befall us.”
“You are merely stating the obvious,” Blaine said. “I am more interested in solutions than recriminations at this point, though recriminations are surely warranted.” He gave me a pointed look.
I met his gaze until he looked away. “We’re obviously not going to keep working with, or for, her. But we don’t have much time, and it won’t be easy.” I ignored Jacky’s small whoop of excitement and continued. “Tell me about this Skill for sniffing out secrets, Torliam. Did you know about it?” If he had, it was gross negligence that he’d never mentioned anything.
“I grew up knowing my mother was incredibly insightful. It was as if she could sniff guilt, but that does not mean I never escaped blame for something. I was also at times blamed for something I did not do. I have been thinking on this issue, and I believe there is a solution of sorts. She may know when a secret is being held, perhaps even be able to tell when it weighs most heavily on your heart, but I believe she may only make thoughtful deductions as to the nature of this secret. Perhaps, we could hide one secret within another?”
“A lesser rebellion to mask the greater,” I said aloud, nodding as ideas spun to life in my head. Torliam’s assessment of his mother matched what little she’d revealed to me about how her Skill worked. “Hide the unexpected within the anticipated.” I caught Adam’s look of irritation and everyone else’s confusion, and clarified, “I’m pretty sure she’s expecting, even hoping, for us to act out, so she can smack us back down even harder and make sure the lesson has really set in. At the least, I’m sure she doesn’t believe this situation is sustainable.”
Torliam’s eyes widened. “She did not so much as ask us to state our agreement to her terms. As sobering as this Ichi’s Skill may be, that seems…reckless. An Estreyan’s word is their bond. Perhaps she does not trust a human to hold any honor, but as it is, it seems she does indeed not expect our current arrangement to last for any length of time.”
The words put a cold weight in my stomach. If we didn’t act now, while the situation was hopefully still malleable, it might be too late. I needed to put myself in a position of strength. But how? If I denounced the queen, she would retaliate both physically and politically. With nothing to lose, there was nothing to stop her from siccing Ichi on us. Plus, denouncing her put both of us in political hot water. Once that hand was played, she would still be queen and have the power to hurt us, but our own influence—which came in part from her—would be greatly diminished.
I could try to ally with one of her enemies as a shield against retaliation, but I would need to find someone powerful enough to match her, and then try to keep the plan secret long enough to meet with them and ensure they could counter her plans. Even then, I would potentially be stepping into a situation just as treacherous as the one I’d be leaving.
We could try and kill her, but surely she’d be prepared for that. I glanced at Torliam. Would he agree to murder his mother? Even if she had betrayed us, matricide, combined with regicide, still had to be a big deal. Probably better not to bring it up unless I could find no other workable option.
If I could just buy some time… My eyes widened. “She can’t just kill us right away because she’s already tied her name to ours so thoroughly. The public eye is on us. We can’t fight back overtly without fear of reprisal, but she also can’t simply remove that link, either. I just need to make sure she can’t sever it easily. So what’s her plan for our next move? What did Ichi tell you guys?”
Blaine was the first to speak. “We are to visit a monkish temple, to learn from them their method of avoiding the Sickness.”
Torliam’s jaw clenched. “The monks do not speak, and devote their entire lives to enlightenment. Out of one hundred that would usually fall to the Sickness, only ninety of their number succumb. The method, if there is any beyond mere coincidence, is unknown, and has remained that way since the temple was founded. We are not meant to learn from them. It is merely a way to remove us from the public eye for a time.”
Blaine pushed his glasses up. “It may be prudent to mention that Queen Mardinest is not entirely wrong about the danger NIX poses. However, this may in fact be a boon to us. I took some time to examine the medical reports that we ‘obtained’ from NIX along with the meningolycanosis samples which we used against the god. There is a strong correlation between those infected with meningolycanosis and those who show physical signs of the Sickness, and at the later stages, cannibalism.”
“You’re saying the meningolycanosis is a consistent infection vector for the Sickness?” I said. “If a ‘wolf’ with the disease bites someone, they’re likely to spread it to their victim.”
“Oh, gods help us,” Torliam said when Blaine nodded. “How is this a boon?”
“As far as I know, this is the first time the vector for the spread of the Sickness is trackable. Perhaps, if we are able to research what makes the meningolycanosis such a convenient carrier, we can better understand the Sickness itself, and take a major step towards curing it.”
“That is, ironically, good news,” I decided. “But we still have to get out of here to do anything about it.” I resisted the urge to pace back and forth within the crowded sphere of darkness. “She wants to take us out of the public eye and find a way to dissociate herself from us. So we need to mix her image up with our own like ink in water, and publicize the hell out of it.”
Zed nodded “That means we need a reporter or three. Shouldn’t be hard for the godkiller.”
Adam’s ink construct wavered and then disintegrated under him, and, if not for his quick reflexes in creating another, he would have dropped to the floor. “But that still only buys us time.”
I smiled toothily, uncaring that perhaps I didn’t seem as regal as the queen. “Time enough to subtly discredit her, or cast doubt on her good intentions toward us. Time enough to find some other way out from under her thumb. Time enough to maybe figure out how the Seal of Nine is actually meant to come into play, or where we might find the Champion on Earth. Time enough to figure out how to get to Earth without her stopping us or getting killed in the meantime.”
Zed gestured to Torliam. “You can find anything with your Tracker Skill, right? Could you find a missing god?”
“Given enough time, I believe my Skill will lead me to anything, as long as I understand what it is that I am looking for. Which…may be a source of difficulty. I do not know in what detail and to what depth I need to understand the thing I am searching for. I have not had the Skill long enough to experiment with it.”
“Great!” Adam scoffed, throwing his hands up.
“Don’t gotta get so worked up,” Jacky said. “We’re in a tight spot right now, but one way or another, we always find a way to bust through, no?” She looked to me.
Adam followed her gaze. “No offense, Eve, but we barely manage to scrape through even when we do have a plan. And sometimes, we lose more than we win.”
I felt the significance of his words clearly. We’d been struggling against seemingly insurmountable odds from the beginning. We’d won when it should have been impossible, but along the way China had died, Zed had become a Player, the kids and Chanelle were infected with the Sickness, a powerful alien species had declared war on Earth, and we were now being blackmailed into submission. Not exactly a great track record. “I understand,” I said, trying to think, to come up with a solution that wouldn’t backfire on us. “The Oracle’s third gift might help us figure out our next move. But I’m not sure how quickly I’ll be able to solve it. In the meantime, we need to work on keeping the team safe—”
Torliam’s eyes widened dramatically, and he straightened, drawing our attention. “There is a way to gain information about the prophecy of the Spark, and the Seal of Nine.”
“Why didn’t you mention this before?” Adam snapped.
Torliam grimaced. “This method usually…always ends in death, and it is extremely forbidden. I did not previously consider it a viable option. But I believe we would be fine. Probably.”
I flinched as a Window flashed into being in front of my face, opaque enough to block out my view of my teammates.
THE SPIRE OF PROPHECY
TRAVEL WITH THE OTHERS BOUND BY THE SEAL OF NINE TO THE SPIRE OF PROPHECY AND ENTER PAST THE GUARDIANS.
COMPLETION REWARD: KNOWLEDGE
NON-COMPLETION PENALTY: IGNORANCE
“Err, does this method happen to involve traveling to the Spire of Prophecy?” I said.
You cannot run away from a weakness; you must sometimes fight it out or perish. And if that be so, why not now, and where you stand?
— Robert Louis Stevenson
Torliam’s eyebrows raised. “You have heard of it?”
My eyes flicked over the words again. So the Oracle hadn’t renounced me after all. I’d had my suspicions, after we succeeded in dispersing the God of Knowledge and cleansing him of the Sickness. She’d been playing some twisted game of reverse psychology, not actually trying to teach me how to lose. It didn’t endear her to me any further. “I just got a quest to go there.”
“Is it from the Oracle?” Sam said. “Maybe she can help guide us out of this mess.”
“To the place that ‘usually always’ ends in death?” Adam drawled, raising his eyebrows.
Torliam kept his attention studiously focused on me, but his voice was chagrined. “Well, yes. The Spire is a place where those who are the subject of prophecy may gain glimpses of the workings of the universe, as it pertains to their place in it.”
“This is not a good thing!” Blaine said, the tendons in his neck standing out as he clenched his jaw. “Based on my knowledge of our past experiences with the Oracle, let me guess the contents of the quest. We must go to this Spire of Prophecy, and, upon arriving, place ourselves in mortal danger? She has already betrayed us before. Have you forgotten how she sent us to the Goddess of Testimony and Lore, trapping even the children in her games? Or how she turned against us in the final battle against the God of Knowledge, attempting to remove Eve from the quest given to her, and leave all the rest of us to die?”
“The gods have their own agendas,” Torliam said. “Many times, those may not align with the wishes of us mortals. But in this case, I have no doubt that the Oracle wishes to cure the Sickness. Is that not also what we want?”
“If only staying alive and going along with the Oracle’s crazy quests were mutually compatible,” Adam said.
“Exactly my point,” Blaine said. He turned to face me directly. “The Oracle’s goal might be to stop the Sickness, and I want that too. But she has proven she does not care if we die along the way, if it increases her chances of success.”
“That’s true.” If I were the Oracle, I’d undoubtedly act the same. Sometimes, sacrifices had to be made to reach a goal. It’s just that I might choose the specific sacrifices differently than she would, because I cared about my team members more than the myriad people I’d never met, whose lives didn’t converge with mine. “But the kids have the Sickness. Chanelle has it. Maybe others of us do, too, and don’t even know it yet. The problem is, we don’t have any better alternatives. The Oracle knows what we need to do to fix this, whether or not she cares about us. She’s our best bet.”
“I think we should go,” Zed said. “It’s too big of a risk not to go, and like you said, Blaine, we’re kind of flailing blindly right now. We need answers to some questions before we try to fix all this.”
“But the Sickness must follow the rules of nature, even if the discovery of Seeds and ‘gods’ does change our understanding of science. That means one person can’t hold the answer secret forever. We do not need her.” Blaine’s jaw clenched repeatedly, but his tone wavered, almost as if he was pleading with himself.
“Do you really think we can ‘science out’ the answer ourselves, before it’s too late?” Adam said.
Blaine spun toward him, already glaring.
Adam held up a hand to stop him from speaking. “I know you’ll try. I also know this conversation is pointless, because you won’t risk being wrong. We’ll do our best to protect the kids and keep them away from whatever danger might arise. We’re not just going to rely on the Oracle to solve this. Anything and everything that might help, we’re going to do. But this is part of it. We have to go…and it’s not like the kids will be any safer separated from us. Not under these circumstances.”
Blaine was silent for a long moment. “You are not wrong,” he finally said. “I cannot truly remove them from danger.”
Jacky walked over to Blaine and nudged him with her shoulder. “We’re just gonna have to help them get strong enough that they can handle a little danger on their own, yeah? That’s the only real way to protect someone.”
Adam rolled his eyes and turned to Torliam. “How do we get to this Spire, then? I’m sure your mom won’t let us go. Unless she decided a visit would be a good excuse to kill us off believably.”
Torliam raised a deliberate eyebrow. “We may travel there by ship. However, seeing as she has access to Ichi’s Skill and can transport us about the world in an instant, there is no reason for her to allow us access to a ship.”
“No reason except politics,” I said. “I don’t think that will be a problem. And once we have access to both publicity and a ship, we’ll have access to the arrays, and everything gets a lot easier. So we need a reporter who’s willing to ask the questions we want to answer, a ship with enough eyes on us that nothing can go wrong, and a plan to tie it up in a bow perfect enough that Queen Mardinest can’t stop us without cutting her own neck. To make this work, we need to know what you know. Start off with everything you can remember about our new guards and your brother Reglium.”
* * *
Our scheming was interrupted by one of the watchdogs checking in on us. I’d kept Wraith active, so we had barely enough time to scramble back out of the many-times renewed ink bubble and to our respective bed mats.
Still, by that time we had a plan, and we wasted no time implementing it. It was likely the queen would want to see us again the next day, and if she did, she would almost certainly discern enough of our plans to ruin them. We didn’t have time to wait.
Adam tried to get an ink construct out of the room, but there was no opening in the barrier for it to slip through.
Instead, we ended up using a combination of Wraith and Summon. Kris’ marionettes were halfway across the castle, but with some concentration that was firmly within Wraith’s range. Kris hadn’t experimented much with Summoning a spirit into a body she couldn’t see, but we knew she could do it. So I curled up with the girl inside another concealing ink bubble and talked her through the mental travel to the room where her marionettes were, describing the setting in as much detail as possible.
The Summoner Skill granted her a vague ability to sense the bodies of marionettes even when they were empty of a spirit, and along with her imagination of the path I described, it was enough for her to reach out to the one next to the table in her bedroom. She was sweating and pale by the time the distant marionette twitched with seeming life.
I resisted the urge to cheer as I sensed its metal body climb shakily to its feet. It took a few steps across Kris’ bedroom and grabbed the Estreyan datapad lying on the desk. The marionette jerked around at first, touched several commands at once, and altogether flailed like someone trying to thread a needle with a foam noodle after guzzling an entire bottle of vodka. But with painstaking slowness, and plenty of correction, she was able to operate the datapad through her artificial servant.
Some whispered instructions from Torliam guided her in sending off a few messages to various important contacts, flagged as urgent correspondence with his royal code. The people on the receiving end would get the messages, middle of the night or not.
There were no obvious signs of surveillance on our old rooms, but the danger of being caught was enough to wind us all into a state of quivering tension.
Finally, when a few more hours had passed and dawn arrived, we knew we could wait no longer.
Kris began to move her marionette through the halls and out onto the palace grounds, with my help to avoid notice from the early risers, mostly servants. As it moved closer to her, its jerky, puppet-like movements smoothed out, and her labored breathing grew easier. She had it hide inside a large bush outside the closest outer wall to us, and could only hope no one noticed it.
Torliam began to do some sort of martial kata, blue mist wafting off him and through his armor. It illuminated the room, both for us and the guards outside keeping track of us through the display screen.
Adam grumpily pushed his upper body up from his bed mat. “Some of us are still trying to sleep. Do that some other time.”
Torliam continued to move, his power now causing gusts of winds to buffet the room. “How long do you puny humans need to sleep? Your lives are too short to waste a moment. Consider me to be doing you a courtesy.”
I couldn’t help the upward twitch of my eyebrow. He was laying it on a bit thick.
Adam spilled ink, the liquid supporting his torso and legs and sprouting spider legs beneath him. “Doing us humans a courtesy?” His voice rose into a yell. “You’re just like your damn mother!”
Outside, the Estreyan guards shared a look with each other. The woman who had been powering the barrier was now on monitor duty instead, and Ichi sat within the circle.
“I am nothing like her!” Torliam roared, face twisting with anger as his glow increased and his hair blew outward from his head.
Birch growled at Torliam, puffed out his wings and fur, and, with a shriek, unleashed a gust so strong it literally blew the huge man off his feet and into the wall.
Torliam cushioned himself from the stone with a gush of his own power.
As soon as Torliam hit the wall, Zed’s fingers dug into an invisible crack in the world, just enough to open the room up to the Other Place.
Ichi grunted, then began to pant. “It pulls too much power, again!”
Torliam recovered from Birch’s attack easily and lifted his hand for a retaliatory strike.
Adam dashed ink out into the air with a dramatic arc of his hands, and it burst into a barrier that cut off most of the room from Torliam, shielding the rest of us away from his attack. The barrier also happened to cut us off from the faint dawn light of the ceiling where the monitoring device was, and thus from the sight of the guards outside.
“Coward!” Torliam yelled. “Come and face me!”
Zed pulled the rip wider, and grey light spilled out of it.
A careful check reassured me the guards’ display showed only black ink over most of the room.
I stepped through the rip gingerly, one foot and then the other, careful not to touch the edges just in case. The cold was biting, more like a full body blow than a mere temperature change. But I didn’t die. I motioned for the others to follow, tucking my hands under my armpits and trying not to make any sounds of pain as I hurried toward the doorway, where the barrier rippled and buzzed despite being untouched. Little pieces of gray fluff lay on the floor around it, like dust accumulated by static electricity.
Chanelle’s vacant look cleared as Jacky helped her through the rip. “Wow. Please tell me this is only temporary.”
The female guard looked between her fellow, gasping on the floor as the Other Place affected the barrier, then back at Torliam, the only visible figure within the cell. “We must stop him,” she said. “They have somehow damaged the barrier again, when the tailos attacked him.”
“Damnation,” the remaining guard said, but he nodded. They rushed forward, hands ready on their weapons, and opened the door. As soon as they did so, the buzzing barrier around the room in both the normal world and its counterpart cut out.
I lunged into the hallway of the Other Place through the doorless opening, turning to face the place where the guards stood in the real world.
As the rest of the team, except Torliam, rushed out of the cell, I pointed to a space in the air, and Zed opened up the nearest rip in the world with a grunt.
I looked through the little portal into warmth and color, and reached my hand through. As Adam’s ink barrier dropped, and Torliam threw himself backward toward the larger rip, my clawed, too-long fingers pierced into the back of the female guard’s neck.
She barely had time for a gasp before Chaos ate into her, tearing apart skin, muscle, and bone between my fingers, leaving me holding a still-disintegrating mush as I tore backward. She was the one who could supposedly track us. Not anymore.
Torliam made it through the opening to the Other Place, and, with an exhale from Zed that hung visibly frozen in the air, the large rip inside our cell closed itself up again.
As soon as my hand was clear, he closed the second, smaller tear, and we ran. The Other Place looked like a replica of the palace, though a few of the smaller pieces of furniture and almost all the doors were missing, the color was completely washed out, and the vague grey light seemed to suffuse the air rather than emanating from any specific source.
It would have been fascinating, if the cold hadn’t been so savage.
Gregor stumbled, and I picked him up, hugging him to the already-cold armor covering my chest as I pushed ahead harder. “It’s almost over.” I puffed, my feet slapping into the painfully cold stone and scoring little claw marks with every step.
“What is this place?” Blaine asked, squinting against the cold until his frost-laden eyelashes stuck together. His suit was wheezing more than normal, and I assumed it struggled to continue, just like the rest of us.
“There!” I pointed to what would have been a window looking out onto the grounds in the normal world, but here was just an empty opening in the outer wall of the palace.
We hurried through it, and with trembling hands, Zed opened another rip.
I jumped through with Gregor, and the others followed immediately. I collapsed onto my knees, coughing as I sucked in heaving breaths of the sudden warmth, painful in its intensity. I allowed myself a few moments of recovery, then forced myself to stand. I looked around and met the shocked gaze of one of the gardeners, clippers frozen in his hands as he looked at us. “We have to move,” I said.
Both Blaine and Chanelle were woozy to the point of dizziness and required support to move. As we stumbled off through the grounds toward the outer wall and the main city, I watched with Wraith as the gardener moved over to the spot we’d appeared from. He waved his hands through the empty air with wide eyes. Maybe it was the adrenaline making me loopy, but I couldn’t help but gasp out a laugh.
* * *
We ran through the streets at first, then hid for a little while to recuperate and measure the response to our escape. I used some water from my pack to wash the blood and little chunks of meat off my hand as thoroughly as possible, suppressing a shudder at the origin of the sticky red coating. Without the female guard, Ichi wouldn’t be able to teleport himself or anyone else right to us. And both Ichi and Reglium required line of sight to affect other people with their Skills, so, as long as they didn’t know where we were, we’d bought ourselves time.
After a short recuperation, we hurried toward the airbase. I knew Queen Mardinest would be able to track us eventually. We didn’t have the resources or preparation to avoid that. But, if things went according to plan, soon it would be too late.
As we neared the huge, flat patch of land that was their equivalent to a civilian airport, the mammoth cylindrical ship taking up most of the launch pad came into view. It looked more like a shelled clam than most of the other Estreyan ships, which tended to take the forms of more maneuverable “sea” creatures like crustaceans or stingrays. People scurried around it, obviously preparing for takeoff.
Adam’s mouth fell open. “You can’t be serious. We’re supposed to escape in that thing? It doesn’t look like it could out-fly a chicken!”
Torliam shrugged, a very human gesture. “It is meant for comfort over long distances and pleasure journeys, not speed.”
I spoke before Adam could continue. “It doesn’t matter if it’s fast. We care about the people inside, not actual escape capabilities. That is the right ship?” I turned to Torliam, my eyebrows raised. If I were honest, I, too, felt a little underwhelmed by the cow of a ship.
“My mother has been foisting off half her duties onto me for the last few days as she dealt with or avoided the passengers of that ship,” Torliam said, drawing my attention back to the bags under his eyes. “The leader of the Panacean is aboard, as well as dignitaries from a few of the smaller countries and a couple people rich enough to think they’d get an audience with Queen Mardinest and her godkiller if they came along.”
Jacky grinned up at me, bouncing lightly on her feet. “There’s no way she messes with us when all those people are watching.”
I nodded vaguely, looking around till I spotted the other recipients of the late-night, urgent messages we’d sent out. “There,” I said, jerking my head toward the group of reporters milling about the edge of the takeoff pad. Their broadcast equipment and looks of excitement labeled them clearly. Some of them noticed our group in return and pointed the pen-like recording devices in our direction. “Let’s go,” I said, checking my posture and facial expression for proper camera-readiness.
Torliam sent me a pointed look, and I nodded reassurance. My Charisma wasn’t high enough to lie convincingly on camera, not when people with Skills in lie-detection would be watching the three-dimensional recording taken by the cameras once we got closer. Whatever I said had to be at least a version of the truth, if I didn’t want to be caught.
We strode up to the group of reporters as confidently as possible, ignoring the double takes and stares from the workers preparing the fat clam-ship for takeoff. I gave a shallow bow and they shined their recording devices toward us with quivering anticipation. “Thank you for meeting us here today—” I cut off, as movement at the edge of my vision caught my attention, and Wraith identified the person peeking around the corner of a building out onto the airstrip as Reglium.
“Shields!” I snapped, jerking my head toward Adam.
He responded with lightning-quick reflexes, well-conditioned in the art of creating almost instantaneous barriers at the slightest provocation.
One of the reporters actually screamed, as the ink engulfed them along with us, their recording devices now emitting the only light within the barrier.
“They’re already here,” I said. “They must have been waiting, anticipated our next move.” I resisted the urge to curse. Queen Mardinest was intelligent. It wasn’t such a leap to assume we’d be trying to escape from the capitol via ship. If she’d been able to deduce which way we were moving through the city, either from surveillance or the occasional civilian spotting, it would be easy to get Reglium in place before we arrived.
And what better set-up to make us look crazed with the Sickness than in front of a group of hastily assembled reporters rabid for the next news on the godkiller?
The only redeeming fact was that I didn’t sense anyone besides Reglium, and he needed line of sight to control his victims.
“Change of plans,” I announced, to both my team and the reporters. “We have reason to believe that a faction of people who do not wish us to continue trying to cure the Sickness—I suppose you could call them allies of the Sickness—are attempting to stop us. We must board the ship now, and you all are coming with us. You may be in danger if we leave you behind unprotected.”