Adventures of the Twin Tails Chapter 5-6

You can read more about this session on Thrythlind, our GM’s, blog at: http://thrythlind.blogspot.com.au/2017/09/away-with-team-air...

Chapter 5: Session 2 – Have You Met Lydia? She’s Not the Tattooed Lady.

Lydia stretched, placing her data reader on the bedside table as she came out of her book-induced fugue. A quick glance at her clock told her that she’d been reading for more than a day, so she slid her long legs over the side of the bed and stood. A quick check of her reflection told her all that she needed to, her long blonde hair still sat perfectly in place, framing and accentuating the blue marks on her face. Her clothes were a little wrinkled but not unpresentable, after all she’d barely moved for the last twenty-four hours.

Slipping out into the hallway, she blinked as a small team of panicked engineers ran past her, huffing and puffing. Wondering what was going on, she proceeded down a branching hallway towards a babble of voices. Rounding the corner to the medical bay, she paused when she saw the small crowd haranguing the doctor.

“I demand that you treat this scrape on my arm right now!” an overweight woman wearing the most expensive designer clothes made in her size demanded. “If this gets infected, I’m going to sue the company! This is disgraceful!”

“Ma’am,” the doctor tried to explain patiently, “I have people with burns and broken bones that require treatment now. If you care to wait in your cabin, we will be around as promptly as possible to tend to you.”

“Do you know who we are?” the man standing next to her asked indignantly.

Lydia decided she’d had enough, slipping in between the doctor and the crowd smoothly. “Yes, I’m sure the doctor here is very cognizant of who you all are and your importance to the company. After all, people of your stature shouldn’t be standing in line like this! I’m sure if you wait in the luxury of your cabin, she can come wait on you at your convenience.”

It took a moment for the man to process that. “Oh… Oh, why yes, of course! Come Petunia, we can wait in the comfort of our suite, maybe get some room service.”

“Yes, let’s,” she mumbled, letting herself be escorted away by her husband. Apparently, her scrape wasn’t feeling so bad anymore.

“Thank-you,” the doctor sighed in relief. “I’m sorry but I need to get back to my real patients.”

Lydia smiled at her. “My pleasure, doctor…”

Pausing when she heard a sudden screeching noise coming towards her from down the hall, Lydia turned to find a teenage white-haired kitsune girl running at full tilt past her, yelling into a small digital camera. Behind her, tromping along at a sprint in combat boots, was a handsome black man in a security uniform with a name tag that read ‘Rudyard Holt’ and a college-age girl puffing along weakly some distance behind.

“Hey world!” Akiko yelled frantically into the camera with the screen turned to face her so she could keep herself jerkily in frame. “This is Akiko and I’m currently running towards the kitchen to record another exciting episode of REGULAR ORDINARY SWEDISH KITSUNE MEAL TIME!!! I’m not the cook my sister Amaya is but I HAVEN’T STOLEN FOOD FOR OVER TEN YEARS and MY HANDS ARE SHAKING!!! So I’m going to find everything made of chocolate, throw it together and eat it!”

“That’s my camera!” the college-age girl whined, gasping for breath.

“Get back here, you little scamp!” Rudyard growled.

Lydia looked to the doctor, shrugged and set off running after the group. It looked like they were having some kind of fun!

Coming to a corner, Akiko hopped as she felt the cuffs of her pants slipping under her heels. “Stupid boy pants!” she swore, spinning around as she rolled, pulling them off and flinging them at her pursuers. Rudyard ducked adroitly, while Lydia bobbed to one side, leaving the pants to sail far over them and hit the doctor, wrapping around her face.

“Whoops!” Akiko said, giggling as she continued to run. Hey, Amaya! she called out mentally to her sister. Where the hell is the kitchen on this glorified blimp?

Leave me alone, Amaya moaned.

You’re still sulking? Come on, anyone could have made that mistake! It’s not like we could have killed anyone, right? Akiko paused for an answer that didn’t come. Wait, sis, we couldn’t have killed anyone. Tell me we couldn’t have killed anyone!

Looking over her shoulder, she saw that Rudyard was falling behind, talking into his radio. Some new blonde girl, however, took the corner with a small leap, hopping off the wall to keep pace. Even worse, she was actually catching up on the straight.

Screaming, Akiko took a chance and barrelled through the nearest door, nearly knocking a woman in uniform over before planting her face directly between another woman’s breasts. Specifically, the woman covered in tattoos that had helped her get onboard. She felt that they were falling as the woman she’d hit let off a high squeak. Just as suddenly, Akiko felt weightless. There was a puff of smoke, a wrenching feeling of movement in a direction she’d never felt before and suddenly she was drifting in a flat grey void.

A grey void without oxygen, that stretched as far as they eye could see in every direction.

Akiko’s breath burst out of her lungs as she peddled her limbs like she was trying to tread water. Looking around frantically, she saw the tattooed woman within arm’s reach and managed to grab her, wrapping her arms around her waist to hold on for dear life. The moment they were touching, she gasped for breath and found she could breathe again. “Are you ok?” the woman asked with a kind of stray detachment.

Looking up into the woman’s face, Akiko blinked. She had red markings on her face, a lot like theirs. “Th-thank you, Sempai,” Akiko gasped, her lungs desperate for air.

“Semp…? Oh, well… Whatever I guess,” she said, turning to look over her shoulder. “I don’t want to alarm you but I think the ship might be about to hit us. Brace yourself.”

“What?” Akiko cried, looking around the woman to see the Sol Suna drifting towards them. She could see Rudyard through the window of the bridge standing next to the woman in uniform she’d almost run over while the speedy blonde woman and the camera girl stared at them in horror. Rudyard said something to the woman in uniform, who seemed confused about what intercom she should be shouting into but whatever she said seemed to work as the ship slowly ground to a halt.

“Well, that’s good. Are you ok? Why were they chasing you?” the tattooed woman asked.

Akiko sighed. “Um, well, my sister Amaya was trying to help. Something about making the hull air tight. But she made some sort of mistake and everyone got mad and now she’s sulking.”

“What kind of mistake?”

“Um, something about taking apart the climate controls? I don’t really know.”

She frowned. “Do you know if they have enough air in there for a while?”

“Air? Um, let me see if Amaya’s talking now,” Akiko told her. Closing her eyes, she concentrated on directing her thoughts to her sister. Hey, pimple-face, Amaya prodded, stopped feeling sorry for yourself yet? We’re in a pickle here.

I do NOT have pimples! Amaya snapped.

I know but at least you’re talking now. Do you know if the people inside the ship have enough air without whatever dingus you tore apart?

Amaya was silent for long enough that Akiko wondered if she were sulking again. They should be fine; the engineers should have replacement parts for the climate controls.

“Amaya says they should be fine,” Akiko finally answered.

“Oh, good,” the woman sighed. “I’m just going to take a nap, then. Once I’m rested up, I’ll get us back onto the ship.”

Akiko squeaked. “Rest? How the heck can you rest out here, Sempai?”

“What? It’s just the void between realities. It’s not like there’s anything else out here. As long as you hold onto me, you should be able to breathe… Well, unless I fall asleep, then you’ll start suffocating again…”

“What? No!”

“Oh, yes, right, that would be bad,” she mused, seemingly distracted. “My name’s Aislin, by the way. Aislin Newell.”

“Akiko. My sister’s Amaya.”

“I see,” Aislin nodded sagely. “How much do you know about magic?”

Akiko smirked. “Well, I’m a pretty good illusionist. Amaya doesn’t pay as much attention to practice, though, she prefers cooking and drawing and fixing stuff.”

Gee, I’m sorry for having, you know, interests outside of pranking people, Amaya grumbled.

“All right, we can work with this,” Aislin said. “I’m going to teach you a little bit of magic. Just enough so that you can keep the spell up that’s allowing you to breathe in the void while I nap.”

Akiko waggled her tails excitedly. “Really? Cool! You’re a mage, then? Like from the families?”

“The word you’re looking for is magus and I’m a demon,” she answered casually, like it was nothing, “but I work for the gods. It’s complicated. I guess you could call it a family but I’m not sure what that means to mortals. Not that it matters. Did your teacher manage to impart to you the basics of magic or are they just training your natural talents?”

“Um, some of my friends know magic but I never had the knack for it,” Akiko admitted, blushing. “Never was good at sensitive exercises. But I know the basics; manipulation for doing things, sensitive for sensing the world and, uh, metabolic for altering living things.”

“Right, what we’re doing here is a sensitive practice,” Aislin said, taking a lecturing tone. “Magic is the ability to borrow power from someone else, usually a god or demon. There is high magic and low magic but in this case we’re going to be dealing with high magic. Technically, a skilled magus can contact an immortal from anywhere to borrow a bit of their power but, thankfully since you’re a beginner, this will be much easier with us in physical contact.”

“Wait, just anyone can connect with you telepathically and borrow your powers?” Akiko asked incredulously.

“Well, they can borrow the, oh what’s that mortal term… Circuitry, I think? They can borrow the part of my mind that can shape my own life-force and use it to shape their own life-force into the desired effect. I can lend you my ability but you still take the pain. Not that there’ll be much effort on your part in this case, you’re just taking the energy that I’ve already set in motion and maintaining it. Close your eyes, concentrate, centre yourself then push your awareness into mine. We’re in physical contact, so that shouldn’t be hard.”

Nodding, Akiko closed her eyes and concentrated. She could feel her chakra flowing through her limbs, to where her skin came into contact with Aislin. Flowing down through the flood, her awareness slipped into the demon’s mind, which came into her mind as the image of a warm, scaly, cavern filled with brightly glowing circles and runes.

That’s it, Aislin’s mental voice encouraged. It should be easy to find the right rune, it’s the only one currently active.

She was right, Akiko could see it glowing brightly in the middle of the cavern. Found it.

Good. Hold that symbol in your mind. Copy it perfectly and hold it in your memory and keep holding it. As long as you can see that symbol in your mind’s eye, you will be able to breathe. Understand?

Yes, Akiko answered. She stared at the symbol until it was burned into her brain. Amaya’s awareness also watched, mentally tracing every line and contour until it was etched into her neurons. As her awareness came back to her own body, Akiko could see the rune in her head, burning in amber light.

“Good,” Aislin sighed, relaxing, “I’m going to nap for a bit now.”

Akiko nodded, vowing to hold onto that spell forever if she had to.

Chapter 6 – The ‘A’ In A-Team Stands for ‘Away’, Right?

Finally stirring from her slumber after what felt like hours to Akiko, Aislin looked down at the kitsune still clinging to her and marvelled. “Oh, you’re still alive. That’s good, I guess.”

Akiko glared at her, ears flattening to her crown. “What do you mean, you guess?”

“Most people wouldn’t be able to hold on to the spell that long,” Aislin explained. “Honestly I expected you to be dead by the time I woke up. So that’s good.”

“Then why didn’t you teleport us back to the ship?”

“I’ve been holding all the air inside the ship until they could get it air tight,” Ailin answered with a shrug. “Throw in the sudden teleportation and I was reaching my limit. It wouldn’t have done anyone any good if I’d just passed out once we were back on board.”

“Oh,” Akiko grumbled. “Do you have something against mortals, Sempai?”

“Hmmm? Oh, mortals! No, I don’t have anything against them, they can be adorable when they try to visualize four dimensional objects. It’s just that they’re not going to be around long enough to really matter.” She plucked a piece of paper that had been folded into the shape of a butterfly and attached itself to her jacket. Unfolding it, she read whatever message was inside.

“What’s that?”

“Butterfly paper. It’s a way to pass messages, blondie must have sent it. I didn’t realize there was a goddess on board already, that’ll make things easier. Oh dear, they want me to teleport us back to the brig, apparently a Mr. Holt is asking to have you delivered to him.”

Akiko cringed. “Well, better the brig than out here waiting to die.”

“That’s the spirit,” Aislin said, patting the kitsune on the head. “You might just prove to be interesting. If you manage to live long enough to get all nine tails.”

“Um, if she’s a goddess and you’re a demon won’t that cause problems?”

Aislin blinked. “What? Oh, no! Immortals probably aren’t what you think we are, we’re just a highly evolved species with extremely advanced technology and innate psychic abilities. The gods aren’t the good guys and the demons aren’t the bad guys, both sides have good and bad people, just like everyone else.”

Before she could say another word, Akiko felt another lurch of movement in that strange non-dimensional space before alighting on the cool floor of the security station on the Sol Suna. Kneeling she patted the ground thankfully and allowed herself to let go of the spell. “Oh, thank you, sweet artificial terra firma,” she said to the wonderfully solid deck plating.

Rudyard grabbed her by the collar of her oversized jacket and lifted her up to face him. “Remember me?” he asked in his deep, booming, voice.

“Ah-ha-ha… Sorry?” Akiko apologized, ears flat against her head as she gave him her best wide, innocent, eyes.

“Sorry’s not going to cut it,” he said, letting her down on the ground.

Looking around him at the indignant college girl waiting with arms crossed by the door, Akiko skipped playfully over to her. Placing the camera into her hands, the kitsune grinned. “Hi cutie! Thanks for lending me your camera!”

She was so surprised that she almost dropped it. “Wha…? You stole it, you little…” she sputtered.

“No need to thank me,” Akiko interrupted her with a pat on the shoulder, closing her eyes. “I’m going now, catch you later!”

The camera girl swore but managed to get her camera up as Akiko’s hair rippled, darkening to blue-black while the tips of her ears lightened to ice blue. When she opened her eyes again they were vibrant cobalt blue. Amaya blinked a few times, suddenly back in control faced with a camera lens. Looking down, she noticed she wasn’t wearing any pants and squeaked, ears flattening against her head again as she pulled down on the hem of her now oversized shirt to try to cover more of herself.

“Hey there,” a new feminine voice said, “maybe you can wear this?”

Amaya looked around to find a blonde woman smiling down at her. She had long legs, gorgeous blue eyes, perfect hair and lips that begged to be kissed. Her face had blue marks on it that looked a little like Aislin’s. She was holding out a skirt that looked like it would fit, having seemingly pulled it out of thin air. Amaya felt herself turning red, vaguely remembering this woman chasing Akiko earlier. “I, um, ah, gl… I mean… Oh gosh. Ah, thank you,” she mumbled meekly, taking the garment.

The blonde squealed. “Oooh! You’re just adorable! I’m Lydia, Goddess of Desire.”

Blushing furiously, Amaya turned the skirt around in her hands, trying to work out how to put it on. After a minute, Lydia took pity on her and showed her where the snaps on the waistband were concealed. After that, it didn’t take her long to get the garment in place, for whatever good it did. She felt more comfortable and she’d always loved skirts but her legs were still exposed.

“Aw, hell,” Rudyard sighed, holding his face in his hand. “You know what, I don’t even care. Kid, you were the one that disassembled the climate controls. As far as I’m concerned, you’re still under arrest.”

Amaya cringed, looking down at her feet. “I’m sorry, I… I wasn’t thinking straight. It was a stupid mistake and I should have known better, I really don’t know what happened. I just wanted to help so badly and I had this really bad headache. I wasn’t in my right mind.”

Rudyard grunted, pausing to consider his options. “Well you did get the parts to get the hull sealed quickly. Tell you what, we’re going to do a work-release scheme. I’m going to hand you over to the chief engineer, if you do exactly what he tells you I won’t throw you in the brig.”

Amaya looked up, her ears suddenly shooting to the ceiling. “Really? Awesome!” she exalted, hopping into the air.

“WOAH!” Aislin shouted suddenly. “Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop the airship! Full reverse!”

The woman in uniform that Akiko had nearly run down before running into Aislin looked to the demon. Amaya noted that her nameplate read ‘Cpt. Hattie B. Frye’. “I’m sorry, why?” she asked.

“Didn’t you see that? Please, order the full reverse. Don’t bring her around, just hit the forward thrusters or whatever you do!”

Curious, the captain gave the order through her radio. It wasn’t long before they could feel the ship slowing down, forces pulling them back before slowly changing direction.

The security office stood on the floor overlooking the recreational pool on the top deck of the skyliner. The ceiling itself was a large, oval, glass dome that revealed the grey void outside. Not long after they reversed, the flat, endless, grey brightened to sky blue with fluffy white clouds drifting overhead.

“Full stop!” the captain ordered through the radio. “Is that it? Are we home?”

“Doubtful,” Aislin answered. “Actually, extremely improbable. More likely we’re looking at another shard with an Earth-like atmosphere. Most known shards do, anyway. Besides, as you can see, if we move too far in any direction we’ll lose the… Oh, how can I say this so that you’ll understand. We’ll lose the ‘attunement’ to this shard if we move the ship.”

“Shards? What is that grey void anyway?”

Aislin squeezed the bridge of her nose. “The void is… Well, really this is nice and easy, the void is sort-of-proto-stuff. It’s not even really anything. But if you think of primordial ooze as not-life or something that’s not yet alive, that’s not-thing that can become thing.”

“She’s lousy at explaining things,” Rudyard mumbled.

Amaya nodded. “You should hear her bedside manner.”

“Anyway,” Aislin continued, “this is still good news. I can move small groups of people from the ship down to the shard. Unfortunately, I can only move about six people, maybe some cargo, but I can’t move the whole ship. That means I can’t get us back to Earth easily.”

“Can she help?” Amaya asked, pointing to Lydia.

“While I’d be happy to,” Lydia answered, “unfortunately I don’t have the ability to teleport yet. Much less move a whole ship through the void.”

“Shame. So this ‘shard’ is like what? Another planet,” Rudyard said.

“Not that big,” Aislin said, shaking her head.

“But the other world metaphor is still apt,” Lydia broke in. “There could be nearly anything out there. Alien ecologies, flora, fauna, immortal technology…”

“She’s right,” Aislin admitted, “there might even be maps or directions that will get us back to Earth. I wasn’t expecting to hit one of these so soon, we’ve lucked out this time.”

“Even if there isn’t, we can look for supplies,” Rudyard said. “I’ll go grab some weapons and one of my men to accompany us down to the shard.”

Aislin shrugged. “Sure, it’ll take me a bit to draw the circle I’ll need to bounce us down there. If you don’t mind, I’ll borrow Amaya to help me.”

“I’m coming too,” Lydia, said, stepping forward. “I’m a zoologist, I’d like to examine the shard’s ecosystem and take samples.”

“Oooh! Can I come?” the girl with the camera asked enthusiastically.

“I don’t know, miss,” Rudyard answered in mollifying tones.

“But I’m a journalist…”

“Um, sir,” Amaya interrupted. “If it’s going to be a scientific expedition, if there’s anything down there, Lydia will need someone to document our findings.”

Rudyard sighed. “Ok, yeah, you’ve got a point, kid. What’s your name, miss?”

“Aeryn,” the camera girl introduced herself, “Aeryn Lee.”

“Nice to meet you, Aeryn. Aislin’s taking responsibility for Amaya here. If you want to come, it’s Lydia’s job to take care of you. Deal?”

“Deal,” Lydia nodded.

#

The bay windows of the forward observation deck had a commanding view of the chunk of rock floating in the void like an island in a great, endless, ocean. The flat top of the rock was covered in greenery, forests of enormous trees surrounding patches of clear lawns and the remnants of ancient buildings. As distracting as it was, Amaya focused on drawing the circle just how Aislin had described to her. One little mistake could be fatal.

“Circles aren’t really magic,” the demon lectured, “they’re shortcuts to help us focus our life-force in the right direction. Don’t look down on them just because they’re not inherently magical themselves, though, they make doing magic far easier than having to wing it.”

“I read the theory at school,” Amaya said, “but I’ve never heard of a twelve-pointed circle before. Or anything this complex.”

Wiping her brow, Amaya looked at the three-pointed circles inscribed on the walls. The floor was covered in a large twelve-pointed circle that came close to brushing the walls of the room with another four-pointed circle inside it. The points she was referring to were the points on the circle that were joined by lines inside the circle. The classic example Amaya had learned in school was the five-pointed pentagram. Rather than being joined by straight lines, however, Aislin had insisted that the points of the circle be joined by crescents, one tip at the centre with the other tip at each of the points that defined the circle to create a spiral-like pattern or a stylized vortex.

“It’s all about the type of energy, how we need to use that energy and how long we want the circle to last,” Aislin explained. “First, the circle has to be permanent so we can’t take shortcuts. The four-point circle keys to the actual shape of the power we’re using but we’re transporting mortals as well as myself, a demon, and Lydia, a god. That means we need to be able to translate vitae, demonic life-force, mana, godly life-force, and mortal life-force. In this case chakra for you and chi for humans. So, we have to scale Lydia’s mana down by a factor of four to match my vitae’s factor of three, hence the twelve points. The three-point circles on the walls stabilize the whole system to nullify the stress of channelling life-force through the pattern.”

“And the crescents? Wouldn’t straight lines be easier?”

“I’m the Demon of Vacuum. My energy doesn’t like travelling in straight lines, it flows in spirals, like a whirlpool. We work with the energy, not against it. Remember, we’re essentially hard coding a spell into reality, like an electric circuit that we pump our life-force into to power it, but it’s also like a mnemonic. The symbolism is important.”

When they were done, Amaya felt exhausted and they hadn’t even been down to the planet yet. Rudyard was waiting patiently outside the room, double-checking the ammunition in his carbine with one of his men with him, Officer Makon Darring. Lydia, Aeryn and Captain Frye were also waiting, though naturally the captain wasn’t going into danger.

“What can we expect down there?” Rudyard asked, surveying the terrain through the bay window.

“Anything,” Lydia answered, shrugging. “A shard this small could have been built for any number of purposes. The trees are a good sign that there’ll be wildlife down there, though.”

“Built?” Rudyard asked incredulously.

“Oh yes,” Aislin said nonchalantly. “Our species do it all the time. If there’s a gate here to Nirvana or Yomi, we’re saved. It’s unlikely but possible.”

“No time like the present,” he said, hefting his gun.

Aislin shepherded everyone into the four-pointed circle in the middle of the room. “Watch out for the smoke,” she warned.

“Smoke?” Rudyard asked, moments before they were engulfed.

Amaya felt the same wrenching sensation of movement before the smoke cleared, revealing the bright, sunny, green landscape stretching out around them. In the distance high above, she could see the Sol Suna hovering in place, glistening in light that wasn’t coming from any sun. A gentle breeze cleared the smoke quickly and it was nice to breathe in the fresh, pine-scented, air.

“Don’t get distracted,” Rudyard reminded them. “Darring, watch our six.”

The security guy nodded to his boss, turning to visually sweep the forest behind us.

Pricking her ears up, Amaya took a look around. It wasn’t long before she spotted something strange in the grass. “Mr. Holt, sir,” she called, pointing at some strange rock formations near the edge of the clearing, “is that a statue?”

“Let’s check it out,” he said, waving for everyone to advance while he covered the treeline.

Amaya knelt next to the shards of stone. It had been an amazingly realistic statue of a wolf, once. Someone or something had broken it apart and left the pieces scattered around.

“Cockatrice,” Lydia muttered like it was a dirty word.

“Say what?” Rudyard asked.

“A cockatrice is a bird that can encase things in stone,” the goddess explained. “This is how they hunt. Once their prey is trapped, they break open the shell to get at the meat inside.”

Amaya shivered.

“Lovely,” Aislin said, dropping her backpack to retrieve her tattooing needle from inside. “Amaya, you need to tattoo the circle onto my back so I extract us the moment anything goes wrong.”

“Um, ok,” Amaya gulped as she was handed the electric needle.

Taking off her shirt to expose her back for the tattoo, Aislin looked up and around. “Wait, where’s Lydia?”

Everyone immediately turned to where she’d been standing a moment ago to find her gone. “Shit!” Rudyard swore, glancing to where Aeryn was still recording the stone shell. “Darring, stick with the civilians. I’ll find Lydia and bring her back.”

“Roger, sir,” he complied.

While Rudyard stalked off into the bushes, Amaya considered the soft flesh of Aislin’s back and the sharp needle of the tattoo gun. “Shouldn’t I, like, disinfect you or something first?”

“For mortals, sure,” Aislin answered while she finished drawing the circle on a piece of paper, “but I’m a demon. I can’t get an infection.”

“Oh,” Amaya said, taking the drawing and looking it over. It was much like the four-pointed circle they’d inscribed on the ship. Holding the piece of paper next to Aislin’s back, Amaya concentrated on the circle, picturing every detail. Chakra welled up from her core as she held her hand out, allowing the amber energy to flow out of her. A dimly glowing illusory amber circle faded into sight on Aislin’s back. It wasn’t a true circle, just a guide for the ink, but it was better than fumbling about as she set to work.

“Does this hurt?” Amaya asked when she was halfway done.

“Like a cat riding down curtains with their claws,” Aislin quipped.

“Oh, ouch.”

“Wait a minute,” Aeryn said, suddenly looking around, “wasn’t I supposed to stay with Lydia?”

“Actually, as the resident normal, she was supposed to stay with you,” Aislin corrected. “Don’t worry dear, you’ll likely die as a result of the mistake.”

Aeryn frowned. “Miss Newell, you really need to do better on comforting people.”

“Lydia shouldn’t have run off,” Amaya said, slowly completing the circle. “That’s on her. There we are, Sempai, all done.”

“Why’d we have to do that down here?” Aeryn asked, holding the camera on Aislin. “Wouldn’t it have been safer to do that on the ship?”

“It only works for our trip back to the ship from this shard,” the demon informed her, brushing her coat.

“Oh… But isn’t that kind of permanent? We’re not staying here, are we?”

“Eventually, my body will reject the ink. It takes a while, should be plenty long enough for us to explore this place but the tattoo will fade in time. We should track Mr. Holt and Lydia, see if we can join back up before they get themselves into trouble.”

“She wouldn’t have gone looking for the cockatrice, would she?” Aeryn asked plaintively. No-one answered her.

It only took a few moments of searching for Amaya to find Holt’s boot prints. “Over here,” she called to the rest.

“Good work,” Darring congratulated her. “Guess being part fox is worth somethin’.”

“Watch the right flank,” Aislin ordered as she walked past in the direction of the tracks. She had her hexagonal-patterned coat on again. As she walked, a snake-like thing slithered from the left cuff, inserting itself into her palm so that she could grasp it like a pistol. A similar creature slid out of her right cuff, though this one was a finely honed, organic-looking, blade.

“Yes, ma’am,” Darring said, impressed as he kept pace with her on her right.

“Amaya, watch the rear,” Aislin continued. “Aeryn, you stay in the middle.”

Amaya let Aeryn pass before following behind, keeping her eyes, ears and what little extrasensory perception she had alert for anything.

#

Holt sighed in relief when he finally found Lydia kneeling in a small clearing about ten feet across, examining the ground. “There you are, I didn’t think I’d need to tell you not to run off,” he growled.

The far-too-beautiful goddess glanced in his direction and shrugged. “I wasn’t in any danger,” she said dismissively. “More to the point, look at this!”

Rudyard leaned over to where she was holding her hand, fingers spread, in the middle of a small pothole in the ground. It took a moment for him to process that it wasn’t a pothole, it was several large indentations in the dirt, one big one with four smaller ones at the front, big enough that the tips of her pinkie and thumb only reached the edge of the pattern. Then it clicked. That wasn’t a pothole, it was a massive wolf paw print.

“Lydia,” he said in low, calm and even tones. “I think it’s time we re-joined the group.”

The low, rumbling, growl from behind him made him freeze. Slowly turning his head, he saw an enormous pair of narrow, shining green, eyes glaring at him over a bush. The giant wolf was five feet tall at the shoulder, baring fangs as long as his forearm. There were old scars on its face and its fur seemed to shift colours with the greenery around it as it bowed low, muscles bunching for the attack.

Holt knocked Lydia out of the way as the enormous wolf leapt forward, roaring. Throwing himself down on his back, he whipped his carbine up, unleashing two controlled bursts of fire as the wolf leapt over his prone body. Blinking, he tried to process the fact that the wolf barely even flinched, not even whining in pain as it landed and turned to snarl at him again.

“Watch out!” Lydia snapped, grabbing Holt’s shoulder and dragging him a foot to the right just as a transparent blur of teeth snapped at his left, missing my millimetres. Raising her hand, a four-foot-long glowing blue blade ignited from a strangely shaped bronze hilt that suddenly appeared in her grasp. “Decoy wolf! The image you can see is just an illusion!”

The image of the wolf charged again, bounding for Rudyard, but Lydia wasn’t fooled. She had her eyes fixed on the almost imperceptible blur that was the real wolf, holding her manablade between her and it. Darting forward, she screamed, loud enough to make the beast flinch as she struck, slicing her blade through the earth in front of it. Startled by the sudden flash of fire and heat as the blade ignited the grass and the unearthly screams of its prey, the wolf squeaked in alarm before turning tail and running off into the woods, its illusion disappearing moments before it struck Rudyard.

“Um, wow,” Rudyard mumbled as he breathed from his sitting position. “Thanks for the save there.”

“No problem,” she said with her usual bubbly enthusiasm as she helped him to his feet.

Brushing himself, Rudyard paused for a moment as he considered the beautiful woman before him, looking back at him with an innocent smile on her face and holding what looked like an energy sword right out of a cartoon. Then a noise intruded into the moment. “Uh, do you hear that cracking sound?”

The moment he said it, the ground he’d been sitting on a moment before caved in, spraying dust and dirt into the air. When they were done coughing and sputtering, Lydia held her manablade into the hole, revealing a metallic corridor spotted with corrosion stretching off in two directions below.

Rudyard was still staring at the hole he’d almost fallen into when Aislin and the rest of the group burst into the clearing, puffing.

“I saw a ghost dog!” Aeryn exclaimed. “It ran right through a tree! I saw it!”

Lydia winced. “That was a decoy wolf, not a ‘ghost dog’. Please don’t use that term again.”

“What? Why?”

“It’s offensive.”

“Oh. Okay, I guess.”

“Well, at least you’re both fine,” Aislin said, stepping up next to the hole with Rudyard while Darring kept an eye on the perimeter. Kneeling, she peered down the corridor. “If it wasn’t made of metal, I’d almost say it looked Roman.”

“Yeah,” Rudyard agreed, shaking himself. “Do you think we should take a look?”

“Can’t hurt,” she said, hopping down onto the rubble below. “Amaya! You’re with me, remember?”

“Right!” Amaya agreed, hopping down into the hole as well. Seeing how dark it was, she held up her hand and summoned a ball of amber light, setting it to drift around them as they explored. Immediately, they both caught sight of some writing on a nearby wall.

Brushing the cobwebs and dust away, Aislin muttered to herself for a few moments. “I can’t read it,” she said, stunned.

“Well, ok,” Amaya said, shrugging. “I mean this place looks ancient…”

“No, you don’t understand,” the demon said, wide-eyed. “I’m connected to Ashvattha, the network that pools the collective knowledge of all of the gods. If I can’t read this, no god that exists or has ever existed in the forty-thousand years of immortal civilization can!”

 

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