The Grand Pilgrimage 17:A Fiery Reception

“Be ready,” Max cautioned them. “I’m going to finish the return spell and release the chains. If I fail, it’s going to attack quickly.”

“You don’t have to tell us that,” Sylvie stated. “We know the risk.”

Inés turned to Serena. “Stay behind me, just in case.”

“But you’re…” Serena began.

“Not badly hurt,” Inés stated. “And still a lot better at fighting than you are.”

Serena acquiesced and backed away. Standing very slightly behind Inés.

“Don’t worry,” Inés reassured her. “Max should be able to pull this off.” She looked directly at him. “He’s not that bad of a mage.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Max said. “Remind me why we’re friends?”

“Because I’m delightful,” Inés answered.

Max laughed and began casting. He quickly ran through the spell and dispelled the chains. The Shade stood still for a moment before dashing off. The group immediately chased after it, Max taking the lead after it vanished from sight.

“This way,” he called.

“Just run faster,” Inés called. “”You’re the one with a lock on the stupid thing.”

They ran through the streets and followed its trail all the way to the affluent area. It eventually led them to a large temple with stain-glass windows.

“The monotheists temple,” Max explained. “Just the proof we need.”

“So, let’s go in and deal with them,” Inés said. She made a dash for the door.

“Wait!” Max called. “We’ve got the proof. We don’t need to go in after them.”

“She went in,” Sylvie muttered. “That girl does not listen.”

“Better go after her,” Max sighed. “I’ll do a quick sending spell to get reinforcements and join you.”

Sylvie nodded. “All right. Hurry up. We don’t know how many are in there.”

“Can I?” Serena asked.

“You can, but stay close to me,” Sylvie said. Serena nodded and the two ran for the temple’s entrance. Only to be tossed backwards as they approached.

“What… what happened?” Serena asked.

“Some kind of barrier,” Sylvie stated. “They may be trying to buy themselves time. They might not even know that the mermaid is in there.”

“Or they could be trapping her in,” Serena said.

“That is possible,” Sylvie admitted.

*****

Inés looked around the main  worship chamber. It had a pretty standard design. An altar with room behind it for the priest to stand and some seating for worshippers.

The altar itself was odd. Most altars were built for burnt sacrifices, animal fat and incense for the Gods. This one was More of an opaque box with a slot in the top. That’s when she remembered, they only accepted gold. Undoubtedly, the opening was to allow worshippers to slip gold coins in but designed to be thin to make it difficult to get anything out of it.

The door in the back would lead to the priests’ rooms and living area. She made her way towards it, her staff ready.

“Fireball!”

She dropped and rolled as the flaming ball slammed above her, narrowly missing her head.

She looked around, seeing no sign of her attacker. An invisibility spell, no doubt.

“You might as well give it up,” she called. “The academy has proof that you’re responsible for the disasters you predicted. And they’re coming for you. If you surrender easily, they may just be merciful.”

“Mercy?” the words echoed, making it impossible fr her to tell where they were coming from. “We don’t need their mercy. We’ll steal away in the night. Our followers won’t believe the slander against us. Your death… well, that will just cement our great god’s power.”

“I’m not going to die,” Inés said. “Not against some cowards who hide themselves.” She abruptly swung her staff around in a circle.
It didn’t connect to anything.

“Oh, but you will.”

“Flaming arrow barrage!” a second voice shouted. The arrows flew towards her. She moved. Dodging and weaving, wincing as some of the fiery projectiles hit, burning her skin beneath the armour.

She calmed herself and began chanting. These were fire mages. She used water magic. She could handle this.

“Flash flood!” she cried. Instantly, the room filled with cool, refreshing water. The arrows still heading towards her were quickly overwhelmed and fizzled out.

She looked around for bubbles. Seeing them in three different spots, scattered throughout the room.

She swam for one, moving easily through the water. Her staff brought the first priest down. Then she headed for the next, even as the spell subsided and the water began draining.

“Drought Inferno!”

Upon hearing the command, Inés blocked her face behind her arms. The remaining water evaporated in a sudden, powerful blast of steam. It burned and she found herself suddenly sweating profusely, but she ran to the location of the second priest and swung. Her staff connecting with his skull and sending him careening into the wall.

She ran to the area where she had seen the last set of bubbles and swung away, hitting nothing but one of the nearby seats. Where was he?

“Fireball!”

“Water blast!” she countered. The spray of water fizzled out the fire spell. She ran towards the direction it had come from, staying alert for signs of movement. She heard them, footsteps. They were muffled, but clear enough. She lunged for them and found herself hitting something solid.

“Gotcha!” she declared. The head priest turned visible in her grasp, a look of panic creeping over him even as his mouth rapidly chanted.

“Inferno Blast!” he cried.

Everything seemed to happen at once. Inés quickly moved back. The blast narrowly missed her and hit the ceiling, dropping burning materials down onto the pair of them. The fire spread throughout the chamber, quickly turning the entire building into a roaring inferno. Inés painfully made her way out from the rubble.

She quickly chanted. “Flash flood!” but nothing happened. She was too exhausted and in too much pain. She couldn’t focus enough for the spell and she was surrounded by flames.

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Voyages of the Cerberus 72: The Cerberus Scarpers

Ophelia helped secure Elijah’s spacesuit before re-fastening the cuffs. She turned to Grace, who had been making adjustments to the Radiant Healer’s tractor beam before having to clear the bay for the shuttle.

“How’s it looking?” Ophelia asked.

“Theoretically, it will probably work,” Grace answered. “That’s the best I can give you. No one’s ever tried a stunt this stupid before.”

“I have,” Elijah volunteered. “Not this stunt specifically, but equally stupid things aplenty.”

“That’s… great,” Ophelia said,. “I guess.”

“The shuttle’s in,” Lucy warned.

The four of them went silent. They waited for the bay to fill back with oxygen. Ophelia and Lucy led Elijah inside.

The drothon captain exited the craft with three guards in tow.

“I’ll take the prisoner now,” he said.

“Hold on just a moment,” Lucy said. She held up a data pad. “Please sign off on the exchange first.”

He grabbed the pad and quickly read it over. “Everything seems to be in order,” he muttered. He took the stylus and roughly signed on the screen.

Lucy took the pad and made a show of checking his signature. “All right,” she said, nodding to Ophelia.

“He’s all yours,” Ophelia stated. The guards moved over and surrounded Elijah.

“Don’t worry,” the captain said. “We’ll make sure that he never steals from anyone in your sector again. You can be sure of that.”

Ophelia kept her face impassive. “Good. We’ll be counting on you.”

They returned to the shuttle and Ophelia exited the bay with Lucy to allow them to depart.

Leon was waiting outside. Grace had returned to engineering.

“You’ll have one chance,” Ophelia reminded him. “I’m counting on you. I’ll keep our comm channel open.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got it,” Leon said.

Ophelia nodded and grabbed her communicator. “Kat, take the Blazer out first. We’ll follow after.”

“Acknowledged,” Kat said.

“How bad do you think it’s going to be?” Ophelia asked.

“Depends on how quickly they pull themselves together,” Lucy answered. “I’d say we’ll lose at least a tenth of the profits on repairs. Maybe as much as half. Assuming we can even retrieve him.”

“Let’s hope it’s closer to the former,” Ophelia said.

They returned to the bridge. Ophelia guided them past the drothon ships, keeping the Cerberus between them and the Blazer, while Lucy monitored the shuttle.

*****

“You know what happens to punks like you?”

“Won’t make it to trial. That’s for sure.”

“Been waiting for this a long time. After what you did to the Lidegra.”

Elijah ignored them. They hadn’t bothered with space suits. The shuttle was a class that he recognised. The TS-80 series. He quickly located the switch he needed. Too far to just make a run for it.

He waited until one of them finished their taunt.

“Then just finish me now!” he shouted, rising to his feet and turning to face them, his back to the controls. You won’t get any information out of me anyway. Who knows, I may even get free and blow your ship to bits like I did the Lidegra.”

One of them reared up and smacked him, sending him back towards the controls.

“Thanks,” Elijah said.. He quickly slipped off the cuffs and flipped the switch to open the shuttle doors.

*****

“The shuttle’s stopped,” Lucy reported. “Seems to be having problems.”

“Leon, go!” Ophelia ordered.

*****

The Radiant Healer burst from the Cerberus and moved back. Leon quickly identified Elijah’s suit and fired the tractor beam, simultaneously reversing and heading back for the Cerberus’ open bay. He put on the brakes at the last minute, coming in for a rough landing. The doors closed and the Cerberus began moving as quickly as it could away from Drothos.

*****

The Cerberus shook under the fire from the drothon patrols.

“Paul, check on Leon and Elijah,” Ophelia ordered.

“I’m returning fire,” Lucy stated.

“Won’t that just make them madder?” Farah asked.

“Maybe,” Ophelia said. “But it’s also the only way we’re going to slow them down enough to get away. Just buy us enough distance that I can get us to the conduit.”

“I might be able to help with that,” Grace’s voice came in over the comm system. “I’m going to try to send some false positives to their sensors, make them think we’ve got reinforcements moving in. They’ll figure out the trick quickly, but it may make them hesitate for a moment.”

*****

Paul moved in to the shuttle bay. Leon had some new bruises, but looked fine otherwise.

Paul moved over to Elijah and quickly removed his helmet.

“Still breathing,” he muttered. “Fuzzy, help me carry him to medical. I need to check to see what kind of affects being dragged rapidly by a tractor beam had.”

“His stomach is sick for sure,” Leon said.”That’s all I know.”

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The Grand Pilgrimage 16: The Monotheists make their move

Inés spent the night peacefully. “Tonight’s the night, huh,” she muttered. She went out to wander around.

From a safe distance, Max monitored her movements with a scrying spell.

“What’s she doing wandering around town?” Serena wondered.

“Sending a message,” Sylvie answered. “She’s showing that she has no fear of the monotheists or their threat.”

“Which means they’ll be more driven to succeed,” Max stated. He rose. “We might as well get something to eat and rest.”

“We don’t need to keep watching?” Serena asked.

“They said tonight,” Max reminded her. “They won’t make a move before then.”

“I think I’ll see what Illyana is doing,” Sylvie said.

“Is it okay if I stay here?” Serena asked.

“It’s fine if you want to,” Max said. He chuckled. “You really like Inés, don’t you?”

“I love her!” Serena declared.

*****

It was starting to get late. Inés knew that it would be dark soon. she headed back to her Inn.

How would they attack? The question was foremost on her mind. Max had said that they were never seen at the scenes of the incidents. Invisibility spells, perhaps? Intermediaries? Possibly even long distance magic. Whatever it turned out to be, she was confident that she could handle the situation.

She went to her room and sat against the wall, facing the door. She leaned against her staff and waited.

*****

“Another scrying spell is coming through,” Max reported. “I’m going to try to definitively trace where it’s coming from without getting spotted.”

“Can you counter it?” Serena asked.

“I could,” Max said. “but they’ll sense our own if we do.” He shook his head. “No, it’s better to let them see what she’s up to.”

Sylvie put a reassuring hand on Serena’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. She’ll be able to handle herself until we arrive.”

Serena watched the scrying image. She trusted in Inés’ strength, but it was still unsettling to know that malevolent eyes were also watching her.

*****

Inés tensed up. A sensation, like she was being watched. A feeling, like she wasn’t alone in her room. Her hair tingled and her gills spread in anticipation. She kept still, ready to make her move as soon as there was any sign of trouble.

She looked and listened, her instincts screaming at her that there was danger but finding no sign of it with her senses.

That’s when it came. Movement, out of the corner of her eye. She swung with her staff, feeling it connect to something solid very briefly.

She brought her staff up over her head, feeling something solid come down on it. Was the enemy invisible after all. From the right. She moved her staff, saw something black and shapeless collide with it only to coil back and vanish.

Shades. Summoned monsters without form. Deadly and fast. Faster than her. She briefly contemplated what things would be like if she had incredible speed instead of strength. From below. She jumped back, avoiding the dark tendril.

She wouldn’t be hurting them with her weapon, she knew. She needed magic.

The chant was complete in seconds. “Flash flood!” Instantly, the room filled with water. It poured out from beneath the door The vague outlines of the creatures were visible, their movements slowed by the flooded room. There were two of them.

She had to act quickly, even now the water was draining. Inés hurriedly chanted. “Crushing Wave!” The water rolled back and slammed into one of the creatures, slamming it into the wall. The wall cracked and broke open, tossing the beast and the waters from the flash flood spell into the next room. The young couple that had been sleeping there hurriedly ran out, shocked awake by the sudden deluge and the battered shade.

Inés moved to block the attacks of the second creature. Unencumbered by the waters, its speed had returned. Inés ‘ left arm got torn open when she acted a fraction of a second too slowly. A glancing but painful blow.

“Lightning Lance!” Sylvie’s voice cried out. The creature was vaporised by the blast, leaving ash scattered behind it.

“About time you showed up,” Inés said.

“”Show some gratitude,” Sylvie stated. “I just saved your life, you know.”

“I could have beaten it,” Inés protested.

“Freezing Chains!” Max cried. The second creature, stunned but alive, found itself bound with thick chains of ice.

Serena ran over to Inés and began bandaging her arm. “Are you okay?” she asked. “It doesn’t hurt, does it?”

“Don’t worry,” Inés said. “It wasn’t a solid hit.”

“Good, you can follow me,” Max said. “I’m going to cast a forced return spell. We’ll be able to follow this thing all the way back to its master and I have the feeling it’s going to be another battle.”

Inés and Sylvie looked at one another and nodded.

“We’re ready,” Sylvie said.

“Let’s show those scam artists what for!” Inés added.

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Voyages of the Cerberus 71: Elijah’s Gambit

Ophelia switched on her communicator. “We’ve got a lot of ships heading our way from all directions and I need options, fast.”

“We bring as many people over as we can and destroy the Space Blazer,” Grace’s voice suggested.

“That’s a lot of refugees dead,” Lucy observed.

“I know,” Grace stated. “But it may be the only way to get any of them out of here.”

“We could fight our way past the ones coming from our exit route,” Leon stated.

“No chance,” Kat said. “There are just too many and the others would be on us before we could break through.”

“Damn,” Ophelia muttered. “Farah, go get the shuttle. Cram as many in as you can. Hopefully, we can get three or four trips.”

“Wait, wait,” Elijah said. “I know you won’t like it, but there is another option and I’m the only one who has to take a major risk.”

“You have thirty seconds to explain,” Ophelia stated. “And make it good.”

*****

“The preparations are almost complete,” Kat reported. “Yuri and I will be waiting for the inspection, assuming this crazy plan actually works.”

“Let’s hope it does,” Ophelia said. “Otherwise, we’re going to have no choice but to fight and it won’t end well.” She turned off her communicator.

“You worry too much,” Elijah said. “Trust me, it’ll work.”

“Lucy, hail them,” Ophelia said.

Lucy nodded. “Drothon vessels,” she said. “Special akumillian forces delegates of the Cerberus reporting. We’ve taken a wanted criminal into custody, please grant us passage to Akumil so that we can take him in.”

“And now we see if this might work,” Ophelia muttered.

“They’re hailing us,” Lucy said. “Audio and visuals.”

“On screen,” Ophelia said.

“Cerberus,” The drothon representative said, he scrutinised their bridge, spotting Elijah in cuffs. “That criminal is wanted by the drothon empire. You will turn him over to us for trial.”

“This man stole an akumillian ship,” Ophelia said. “We can’t just turn him over.”

“Hold on,” Lucy stated, interrupting their conversation. “Under regulation 53-TL, we can turn him over to them.” She glanced at the drothon captain. “Provided they allow us to take the stolen property back.”

“We have the superior numbers,” he stated. “You’re in no position to demand anything.”

“And we know that,” Lucy said, smiling. “But, Captain, you have no reason to lay claim to the ship and wouldn’t you rather not further strain diplomatic relations between our people?”

He stopped and gave the signal to mute their communication, quickly conversing with his crew, his back to them. Finally, he turned around. “There may be stolen property aboard that ship. If you’ll allow us to investigate it and remove anything belonging to us, we’ll permit you to take the ship itself.”

“Agreed,” Ophelia said. “I have two of my crew manning the ship to bring it back. I’ll let them know to await you.”

“One more thing,” he said. “He had a coranus accomplice. Did you see her?”

“Vaporised by one of my crew during the boarding raid,” Ophelia answered.

He laughed. “Good. Good. I think we can finish this well. I’ll send my investigation team over right away.”

He cut off communications and Ophelia breathed a sigh of relief. “So far so good,”she said. “Let’s just hope that Kat and Yuri don’t get caught.”

“If they do, I didn’t teach Kat well enough,” Lucy said.

*****

Kat and Yuri waited at the docking bay. The drothon investigation team boarded, a young woman with a clipboard and a couple guards.

“Thilpia Fithul,” she said. “drothon empire investigations.”

“Katie Horne, akumillian special forces,” Kat returned. “Are these plants the goods you were referencing?”

“No,” Thilpia answered. “The merchandise I’m looking for is quite different.”

She headed directly for the cargo bay. When she opened it, there was nothing inside.

“Small cargo space,” Thilpia noted. “You could fit… maybe a dozen good-sized crates. What was this ship used for, exactly?”

“It’s a private cruiser,” Kat answered. “Used mainly for family trips.”

“I see,” she said, jotting down some notes. “Please continue the tour.”

The investigation team quickly concluded their search of the Blazer and Thilpia grabbed her communicator. “Captain,” she reported. “No merchandise was found. I believe that the prisoner probably has a hidden base where he stashes it.”

“We’ll have to get it out of him,” he said. “Good work. You may return.”

The team boarded the shuttle and returned.

“It is fortuitous that they did not think to check the Cargo Bay wall’s thickness,” Yuri observed.

“Very,” Kat agreed.

*****

“As promised, you can have the ship,” he said. “I’ll bring a shuttle over to take custody of the prisoner.”

“We’ll be waiting,” Ophelia said. The communication ended. She turned to Elijah. “It’s all up to you and Leon now.”

“And your engineer,” Elijah said. “But I’m sure she’ll get the modifications done and this’ll all work out.”

“I wish I shared your optimism,” Ophelia said. “This is a very courageous stunt. Reckless, but courageous.”

“Just promise me you’ll get Ussie and them safely to Earth if it doesn’t work out,” Elijah said.

“You have my word,” Ophelia promised.

“Then it’s worth the risk,” Elijah said. “Come on, you’ve got to get me to the docking bay to turn over to them.”

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The Grand Pilgrimage 15: Inés picks a fight

Sylvie leaned back. She’d listened to Inés and Serena recount what they’d been asked and what they’d agreed to without comment.

“In other words, we find these guys and bait them into attacking us, right?” she said.

“Not quite,” Inés said. “I’ll be the bait myself. You two will sit back with Max and move in when they make their move.”

“That’s a reckless plan,” Sylvie chided. “At the very least I should go with you. We do have to watch each others’ backs.”

“I think they’re more likely to act quickly if they think the target is a lone priestess,” Inés stated. “Besides, if we approach them together they’ll be able to guess that we’re not full priestesses and that could weaken the chances of the plan working.”

“Point taken,” Sylvie admitted. “But why should you be the one to act as bait instead of me?”

“Because I’m good at picking fights,” Inés said. “I’ve done it a lot without even trying!”

“I wish you’d say that without sounding like you’re bragging about it,” Sylvie muttered. “In any case, haven’t most of your fights been with people who were mad about you fooling around with their sisters? That doesn’t seem relevant to this kind of situation.”

“Well if you’d really prefer to do it…” Inés began. “Of course, you’ll have to be able top hold out a bit for backup and it could take days for them to act. So, you wouldn’t be able to see Illyana until it’s all over.”

“Trying to manipulate me like that,” Sylvie scoffed. “Fine, if you want to do it so badly I won’t stop you. Just be sure to hold out until we get there.”

“No problem,” Inés said. “I’ll also be sneaking out of the city early tomorrow and coming back in alone. Just in case they’ve got the gates watched. Their favourite spot to set up, at least according to Max, isn’t far from here. So, you two can watch over me from the roof. Max is going to show up to help maintain surveillance.”

“We’ll keep an eye out for you,” Serena said. “Please be careful.”

“I will,” Inés said. “Promise.”

“Don’t go overboard,” Sylvie said.

*****

Waiting at the city gates had been more arduous than last time. Because last time she’d been with Serena and Sylvie. Going through alone was no fun, but it had to be done. Just as she’d had to draw attention to herself, make sure any spies for these monotheists would remember her.

She started by going to a humble, cheap inn and securing a room.

She moved on to wandering the market district for a little bit. She wanted to move right to it and wandering probably wasn’t necessary, but she was worried that moving directly and purposefully towards the monotheists would rouse suspicion if she was being watched.

She gradually made her way towards the wealthy housing. She spotted the monotheists pretty quickly. There were four of them. One was on a makeshift, elevated stand, preaching. The other three were standing around, wearing what Inés thought were very fake smiles. All four wore light blue robes. There may have been weapons underneath, it was hard to tell.

Even if there were, she was committed. Inés wandered over, picking up a large stone on her way. She listened to hear what their leader was saying.

“God is merciful,” he said, in a loud, clear voice. “When we bring our woes to God, he hears and cares. Unlike some false Gods. We merely have to give ourselves to him, eschew worldly goods and trust in his love and we will be saved.”

“You’re full of shit!” Inés declared. There was silence as the people gathered turned to look at her.

The head priest put on a broad smile. “We bring the truth, Young Lady. It may be hard to accept, but if you open your heart, God will forgive your trespasses and welcome you.”

“And what does this God of yours actually do for anyone?” Inés asked. “You make a pretty little speech about love and compassion, but will any of us see this God of yours come down and help anyone or even just give a speech while scratching his ass?”

“God works in mysterious ways,” he said. “He gives us the foresight to know when disaster will befall so that we might avert it.”

“Is that so?” Inés asked. She hurled the stone she’d picked up. It slammed into his forehead, causing him to drop to the ground in pain. “How odd,” Inés continued. “I thought with your blessed prophetic powers, you’d be able to avoid that.”She turned away from them. “Your God seems pretty useless to me. I’ve seen one of Apollo’s priests stand still while fifty people aimed their bows at him. They released and, miraculously, not one arrow touched him. Apollo diverted every single one so that it couldn’t fly straight. And your God can’t even stop a single rock. How pathetic.”

“You’ll be punished for your sacrilege!” Inés turned. The head priest was pointing at her, his head bleeding and his finger shaking. The kindness in his voice had been replaced by rage. “Tomorrow night, God will send a disaster against you!”

“Why not now?” Inés asked. “I’m right here!” She shrugged. “Whatever, I have a true Goddess looking after me. Let’s see which is stronger, shall we? The great Athena or your nameless God.” She walked away without looking back. They’d come after her, that much was clear. Without their benevolent masks and with the intent to kill. She smirked, it was going to be fun.

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Voyages of the Cerberus 70: Elijah’s Cargo

“Captain,” Yuri said. “Why is it necessary to remove mister Tawaig’s ill-gotten gains?”

“It’s not,” Ophelia said. “But I find it distasteful to help a rich kid plunder things from anyone.”

“Is it not risky?” Yuri asked. “Will he still cooperate with us after the task is complete?”

“He pretty much has to at this point,” Leon jumped in. “Not like we’ll let him return to his ship.”

The shuttle docked with Elijah’s ship.

“Yuri, go first,” Ophelia ordered. “If this Miss Ussie decides to be uncooperative, you’re the only one who won’t be at risk from her fangs.”

“I understand,” Yuri stated. The three boarded and made their way to the cargo hold.

Ussie was waiting for them, slender arms crossed over her flat chest. She had black, red and yellow scales.

“He trussstss sstrangersss too readily,” she muttered. “I’m to let you in.”

She watched them with her dark eyes and opened the hold.

Ophelia’s eyes went wide. Drothons. A whole lot of them. They looked up at the strangers, fear and curiosity vying for the most visible emotion.

“These are…” Ophelia began.

“Sslavesss,” Ussie confirmed. “At leasst, they were. We free asss many asss we can and take them elssewhere to sstart new livess.”

“Captain,” Yuri said. “We can not go through with the plan.”

“I came here to make sure we weren’t smuggling anyone’s property out,” Ophelia stated. “I still intend to do that. However, I see no property here. Let’s return to the Cerberus.”

*****

Ussie waited for them to leave before taking out her communicator. “It wass asss you predicted,” she hissed. “We got lucky. That could have gone horribly awry.”

“Nah,” Elijah’s voice was clear and calm. “It was a good bet. After all, they have an akumillian on the crew and no akumillian would associate with slavers, least not in a positive way.”

“You don’t know that,” Ussie countered. “There are rotten memberss of any sspeciesss.”

“You really are too pessimistic,” Elijah chided.

“No, jusst realisstic,” Ussie said. “What’ss the plan from here?”

“I lead them to the Beta route and we head for Earth,” Elijah said. “I have been away too long, you know. I’ll have to stock up on frozen treats while we’re there.”

“Jusst don’t try to feed them to me thiss time,” Ussie said.

*****

Ophelia returned to the bridge with Yuri and Leon. Allison and Lucy were already there, waiting to get under way.

“Not going to jettison the cargo after all?” Lucy asked.

Ophelia shook her head. “I’m not going to toss people into space or treat them like property.”

“Oh, is that how it was?” Lucy wondered. “Good for him.”

“We’re on course,” Ophelia reported. “We should be at Mister Tawaig’s exit point in less than an hour.”

“What’s bothering you?” Lucy inquired. “Is it that you underestimated our guest?”

Ophelia nodded. “Most of the stories I’d heard made him sound like a rich punk playing around and causing trouble. I shouldn’t have rushed to judgement without confirming the truth for myself.”

“Happens to all of us,” Lucy said. “Sometimes, it’s just hard to tell which stories to believe.”

“I like him,” Allison said. “He’s a relaxed type of dude. Seems like he’d be fun at a party.”

“Please extrapolate on what definition of ‘like’ you are using,” Yuri requested.

Allison winked at her. “Not the same type I use for you, that’s for sure. Why? Are you feeling insecure?”

Yuri looked away from her. “Negative. I am not the jealous type.”

“Not to the extent that Leon is, anyway,” Allison stated. She moved over and hugged Yuri. “You’ve got nothing to worry about. I’d have to be a damned fool to look at someone else like that when I’ve got you.”

“I’m not the jealous type,” Leon muttered. “I just want Paul all to myself at all times.”

“Sounds like jealousy to me,” Allison said.

*****

“Farah and Kat to the bridge,” Ophelia announced over the communication system. It was quickly followed by a second. “Mister Tawaig, please meet us on the bridge.”

Kat showed up first with Farah coming shortly after. Elijah came in third, his eyes slightly reddened. “Hey, nice lipstick marks,” he said.

Farah’s hand reached to her neck and her face flushed.

“We’re about to reach the escape route,” Ophelia said. “I need all of you on standby in case something goes wrong.” She grabbed her communicator. “Grace, prepare the camouflage.”

Elijah grabbed his own communicator. “Ussie, ready the Space Blazer’s decoy.” Ophelia nodded at him. “Fire.”

“Grace, now,” Ophelia ordered. The Cerberus soared forward as quickly as it could with Elijah’s Space Blazer right behind.

“Stop!” Lucy shouted.

“I see them,” Ophelia said.

“What, what is it?” Elijah asked, peeking at the sensors. “Oh, bugger.”

“That’s a lot of patrol ships,” Allison said. “And I doubt they want to play a friendly game.”

“They must have figured out your system,” Ophelia said.

“Guess so,” Elijah shrugged.

“They’re closing in!” Lucy called. “And we’ve got more from behind. I’ve got over thirty patrol ships on scanners. We have about ten minutes to figure something out or we’re going to have some serious problems.”

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The Grand Pilgrimage 14: Max’s Request

“Thank you for the meal,” Sylvie said. “You really are a splendid cook.”

“Oh, not at all,” Illyana said.

“Don’t be so modest,” Luc said. “You are very good.” She turned to Sylvie. “So, how long are you girls going to stay in Wicadia?”

“We were just going to pass through,” Sylvie answered. “But Inés was asked to help with some kind of problem. She and Serena are going to listen to the situation and see if it’s something we should involve ourselves with.”

“If you do stay longer, you’ll have to tell me,” Illyana said. “That way we can talk some more!”

“Sylvie may be too busy with the situation,” Luc said, gently.

“Oh, that’s right,” Illyana stated, sounding dejected. “I didn’t think of that.”

“I’ll definitely find time to speak with you some more if we decide to stay,” Sylvie promised.

“Really?” Illyana asked. “Lucky me!”

“I’ve heard that you’re on the way to Drahaven,” Luc said. “It’s an interesting coincidence. I’ve been teaching Illyana about the draconians lately.”

“Oh, you didn’t mention that,” Sylvie said.

“It’s really not a big deal,” Illyana said. “I was just a little curious about them.”

“I have a splendid idea,” Luc said. “Perhaps Sylvie can return here after her journey and tell you everything she sees at Drahaven.”

“Well… if you wouldn’t mind… could you please?” Illyana asked.

“Absolutely!” Sylvie declared. “The truth is… I had something I wanted to tell you after I complete this journey.”

“Something to tell me?” Illyana asked. “Now you’ve made me curious. I wonder what it could be?” She laughed. “I guess I’ll just have to look forward to that too.”

Luc rose from her seat. “It’s getting a bit late for me. I’ll leave you two alone and retire for the night.”

“Night, Mama,” Illyana said. “Have pleasant dreams.”

“Good night, Headmistress,” Sylvie said.

“Good night,” Luc stated. “Don’t stay up too late.”

*****

Inés led Serena to the big cavern. It had multiple torches placed, a table, some chairs and various items lined around. Serena noticed a deck of cards and a couple books.

Max was waiting for them. “Hey there,” he greeted. He looked over at Serena. “I thought you said that you had two partners?”

“I do,” Inés stated. “But Sylvie didn’t want to come. She said she’d break a tie if the two of us don’t agree.” She sat down and beckoned for Serena to take the seat next to hers. “So, what is this mission that you could use my help with?”

“What do you know of the Monotheists?” Max asked.

“Nothing whatsoever,” Inés immediately answered.

“I’m a bit surprised,” Max said. “They’ve been a big topic lately. They claim to serve the true God.”

“Oh, them!” Inés exclaimed. “Enya mentioned them but even she didn’t seem clear what they’re about.”

“Not surprising,” Max stated. “She doesn’t leave the academy much, except to come here and they’ve been good at keeping their actual beliefs strategically vague. They’ve been gaining quite the following lately.”

“Why would anyone follow people who don’t even explain the core of their beliefs?” Serena asked.

“That’s what my job is about,” Max explained. “They claim that they can grant all kinds of miracles and prevent disasters. They mainly spend their time around the affluent area, offering to help people in exchange for them joining their church and making a sizeable donation. Gold only.”

“They sound like a couple of con-men to me,” Inés stated. “And that doesn’t answer her question.”

“I’m getting to that,” Max said. “When they approach someone, they claim to have had a vision of disaster for them and those visions seem to keep coming true. We suspect that the higher ups in their church are responsible.”

“I get the picture,” Inés said. “But isn’t it kind of transparent? Does anyone seriously believe that these guys are honestly preventing anything?”

“Some do,” Max said. “Others suspect them but, as of this moment, there’s no proof against them. Even with city guards being present during several of the incidents. They asked the Academy for help, suspecting that magic was being used.”

“And you want help catching them?” Inés asked.

“Wouldn’t another mage be more helpful?” Serena added.

“That is a point,” Inés agreed. “The three of us aren’t exactly experts at detecting magic. I can do offensive water spells and Sylvie can use lightning magic. We’re warrior priestesses, not mages.”

“That’s just it,” Max said. “I need someone they won’t recognise to help me bait them.”

“I don’t think we can pose as wealthy socialites,” Inés said. “It would take a lot of gold and time.”

“You don’t have to,” Max said. “A lot of their operation depends on appearances. The more people think that they’re actually foretelling events, the more join them. And the more people they have join them, the more donations they pull in. So, if a priestess were to decry them enough…”

“They’d have to respond,” Serena interrupted.

“Or risk weakening their position,” Max said. He turned to Inés. “In other words, I’m asking you to pick a fight with them.”

“I do love picking fights with terrible people,” Inés said, smirking. “I vote that we do it. What do you think, Serena?”

“I do think that they have to be stopped,” Serena said. “But I’m worried that if we act they’ll take it out on the Kane family.”

Inés put her hand to her head. “That’s right! We’re staying with them!” She paced for a bit before walking over to Serena. “But these monotheists don’t know that. So, if I relocate to some cheap inn before I antagonise them, it should be all right, yeah?”

“That’s… I suppose that’s true,” Serena said. She nodded. “Then I’ll also vote yes.”

 

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Voyages of the Cerberus 69: Elijah J. Tawaig

He leaned back in his chair. There was a fine mist of smoke on his bridge and the temperature was high enough to be slightly uncomfortable for your average human. He didn’t really notice any more.

“Bossss, we have a live one. Minimal essscort. Only four sssmall fightersss and it’sss headed thiss way.”

“Do we know their cargo?” he asked.

“No,” she answered. “Their computer sssecurity isss exemplary. I can’t accesss their manifessst.”

“Then I say we board them and check,” he stated. “If they’ve got the good stuff we can knick it and it should fill our cargo enough for a drop off. Prepare the EMP cannon to disable their fighters. Not too much power. We wouldn’t want to knock out their life support.”

“You’re too sssoft,” she chided. “It’ss going to cosst you eventually.”

He grinned. “What can I say? I like the added danger.”

Their ship closed in on the signal. It was practically a routine at this point, disable the escort ships, keep an eye out for hidden reinforcements, disable said reinforcements and board the main ship.

The escort ships powered down under the volley. Cautiously, they pulled up to the main ship.

“The esscortss sstill have power!” she shouted.

“Pull back!” he ordered. Rear thrusters to full.”

“I can’t!” she said. they’ve fired anchorsss into uss. We’re caught! We need a clever plan.”

“I’ll come up with something,” he said.

“They’re hailing usss,” she reported.

“Good,” he said. “Put it on the main viewer. See if you can stall them. try telling a story, doing a little dance or something.”

Their large screen flickered to life.

“Elijah J. Tawaig, I assume,” the captain said. “We’ve been looking for you.”

“And what do an akumillian, a human and an android want from me?” Elijah asked.

“Impressive,” Ophelia stated. “Most people can’t tell that Yuri’s an android from a glance. I’m Captain Ophelia Wester. These are Luciverianna and Yuri. Your aunts asked us to escort you home. We would prefer that you cooperate.”

Elijah stopped surreptitiously messing with his control panel. “My aunts did?” He shrugged. “All right. I’ll come along with you. As you noticed, I’m Elijah and this is my companion, Ussie. Don’t even try to pronounce her full name. Just release your anchors and we’ll follow you out.”

“Actually, Mr. Tawaig,” Lucy jumped in “We would prefer it if you would come aboard our ship as our guest first.”

“Elijah,” Ussie whispered. “You can’t agree to thiss. It could be a trap.”

“I shouldn’t think so,” Elijah said. “We both know how Akumil feels about Drothos. Besides, their offer to take us out of the Drotor system will make things considerably easier.” He rose. “Captain Wester, I will gladly board your ship.”

“I’ll send Yuri in a shuttle to pick you up,” Ophelia said.

“You’ll have to do an attach pick up,” Elijah stated. “My docking bay doesn’t have room for a proper shuttle.”

“Understood,” Ophelia said. The transmission ended.

“I don’t like thisss,” Ussie said. “At leassst let me go with you.”

“Someone has to stay behind and make sure the cargo’s okay,” Elijah said. “Don’t you worry about me. At worst, I’ll just have to use my wits.”

He left the bridge and made his way to the docking bay. His own ship wasn’t even half the size of the Cerberus so it took very little time.

It didn’t take long for the shuttle to arrive and attach its own doors to the latch. Yuri exited a moment later.

She looked around the docking bay. Under normal circumstances, it could have fit the shuttle, even if it would have been tight. However, it had been re-purposed for growing plants. They were hanging from the walls, planted in pots and with a powered lighting and watering system.

“I had heard that you are a noted horticulturist,” Yuri stated. “Do you actually cultivate anything besides Cannabis Sativa?”

“Nope,” Elijah answered. “The truth, Miss android, is that I’m not much of an expert. I just do some recreational growing. Shall we go to your ship?”

*****

When the shuttle returned, Lucy was waiting directly outside of the bay to greet them.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mister Tawaig,” Lucy said. “We’ve made the conference room available to you for your stay here. I’m sorry that we don’t have anything in the way of guest quarters.”

“No problem,” Elijah said.

“Please don’t smoke that in the common areas of the ship,” Lucy stated. “I’m afraid our engineer is allergic.”

“Oh sure thing,” Elijah said, putting it out. “Will it be all right for me to smoke in the conference room?”

“That’ll be fine,” Lucy said. “We’ll be sure to have it cleaned after you go.”

“Sweet,” Elijah said. He looked around. “If you don’t mind my asking, how are you going to avoid the Drothos patrols?”

“”well, we could leave your companion and ship behind,” Lucy stated “But I’m getting the sense that you’d object. So, we’ll have to come up with something else.”

“I have a device on my ship that sends a false signal,” Elijah said. “If you can mask your ship from their sensors, even for a little bit, we can bounce it somewhere far away from our exit point and gun it.”

“That is interesting,” Lucy exclaimed. “You use it to smuggle your pirated goods out?”

“All the time,” Elijah answered.

“That might be a problem,” Ophelia said, approaching the three of them. “I didn’t come here to help you steal anything. We came to bring you back.”

“You’re saying that you won’t bring my ship?” Elijah asked.

“I’m saying that we may have to jettison your cargo first,” Ophelia explained. “Would you mind telling me where it is?”

“I’ll make you a deal,” Elijah said. “I’ll tell you where to find it, but you have to toss it out personally. If you can bring yourself to do it.”

“Tell me and I’ll go over with Yuri and Leon,” Ophelia said. “Because we’re leaving without it.”

“Trust me,” Elijah said. “You’ll change your mind.”

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The Grand Pilgrimage 13: Nightly Plans

Inés and Serena made their way back to the garden. From a distance, they spotted Sylvie sitting with Illyana. The two were engrossed in their conversation.

“It seems a pity to interrupt them,” Serena mused. “Sylvie has such a gentle expression when she talks to Illyana.”

“True enough,” Inés agreed. “But it’s about time for us to greet the Kane family and see if Astrid’s offer is still good.” She stepped forward. “Hey, Sylvie, you ready to get going?”

Sylvie looked back towards the two of them, startled.

“Sounds like it’s time for us to get to our accommodations,” she said. “I’ll see you for supper and we’ll talk some more.”

“I’ll look forward to it,” Illyana stated.

Sylvie joined the others. “All right, let’s go,” she said, sounding annoyed.

The trio left the garden and were quickly approaching the Academy entrance.

“Did you tell her you love her?” Inés asked.

“What I do is none of your concern,” Sylvie snapped.

“There’s no need to be mad,” Inés stated. “If you need advice, just ask me. I’ve got a lot more experience with girls than you do.”

“I somehow doubt that your advice would do much good for a girl like her,” Sylvie said.

“You’d be surprised by how versatile I can be,”Inés declared. “Oh yeah, I almost forgot. Max wants to meet with us tonight to see if we can help with some problem. I told him that we’d listen and decide whether to stick around for it or not.”

“Very well,” Sylvie said. “You and Serena see what Maxi… Max wants. If you both agree to stay or to leave, we’ll consider it settled by a civil majority. If you two disagree, then you can both present your arguments to me and I’ll cast the deciding vote.”

“I’m a bit surprised that you don’t wanna come along,” Inés said. “Could it be that you have a date?”

“That’s none of your business!” Sylvie declared.

*****

They made their way to the Kane estate. The main house was large with three floors with some smaller buildings around it, presumably to house the servants. It was gated with a couple of guards stationed outside.

“Priestesses,” one of the guards greeted them. “What business brings you here?”

“My name is Inés,” Inés greeted. “My companions and I met Miss Astrid Kane on the road here. She offered us her family’s hospitality.” Inés held out the token she’d been given.

The guard reached for it and looked it over. “I see,” he said. “I’ll go inform Lord Astrid. Please wait here.” He hurried off.

His companion stood in front of the gate and watched them. “He’ll be back soon,” she said, tapping her feet nervously.

“You don’t have to be worried,” Inés reassured her. “We won’t bite you. Well, I might if you asked me nicely.” She winked. The guard’s face reddened and she looked away.

The second guard quickly returned. “Please follow me,” he said. The priestesses complied, allowing him to lead them through the gate and into the mansion where a young butler took over.

They were led upstairs to the first floor. They were taken to a sitting room where a chubby man with greying brown hair was waiting.

“Welcome,” he said. “I heard about you from my little Astrid’s letter. Unfortunately, she won’t be home for two days yet. But please, stay as long as you like. I know she’d be thrilled to see you.”

“Thank you, Sir,” Sylvie said. “We’ll take you up on your kind invitation.”

“Yes, quite good,” he said. “Supper will be in two hours. You’re welcome to join us or to go where you will to sup. Joseph, lead them to their rooms if you please.”

The butler bowed. “This way, Ladies.” He took them up to the second floor and showed them to three of the guest rooms.

*****

Sylvie left first and made her way back to the Academy. She could feel her heart beating quickly and had to try and remind herself that this wasn’t an actual date. It was a meal with her friend. Still, would it hurt to think of it as a date?

She swallowed and knocked on Illyana’s door.

“Coming!” Illyana called. Her door opened slightly.

“Thank you for having me over,” Sylvie said.

“Oh, Sylvie,” Illyana said. She opened the door wide. “Thank you for coming. Mama should be here soon.”

“I look forward to seeing her,” Sylvie said.

“Mama has been a bit needy lately,” Illyana said. “Last week she was contacted by my birth parents. I guess they wanted to see me.”

“You didn’t meet with them?” Sylvie asked.

“No,” Illyana said. “I understand why they left me, but I also have no connection to them, you know?”

“I understand perfectly,” Sylvie said.

“Illyana?”

“Mama!” Illyana greeted. “Come on in.”

“Headmistress,” Sylvie bowed.

“Sylvie, Bastion mentioned having seen you in the garden,” Luc said. “I take it you’re travelling with Inés.”

“I am,” Sylvie said. “She didn’t embarrass herself when she saw you, did she?”

“Not particularly,” Luc answered. “Come, let’s eat together and you can tell us all about your trip so far. I know that Illyana’s anxious to hear it, aren’t you, Dear?”

“Absolutely,” Illyana agreed.

*****

Inés led Serena toward the academy, veering to the left as they approached it, taking them to a stable with a small meadow behind it, patched with trees.

“This is your old hangout?” Serena asked.

“Not quite,” Inés answered. She headed for a large stone and quickly lifted it, revealing a small hole.

“There’s a good sized cavern down there,” Inés said. “We should be able to squeeze through.” The two went inside. The small passage quickly widened. After a couple minutes, they were able to stand. Inés grabbed a torch that was left hanging on the wall and quickly lit it.

“This can’t be a natural cave,” Serena observed. “Did you guys dig it yourselves?”

“We didn’t,” Inés answered. “We just found it. There are actually three entrances. We think it was used for less than legal purposes once upon a time. Come on, the big chamber is this way.”

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Voyages of the Cerberus 68: To the Drotor System

The Cerberus found themselves being approached by two ships once they entered the Drotor system.

“We have an audio transmission,” Lucy reported. “They give us two minutes to patch them through.”

Ophelia nodded. “Unidentified ship,” it said. “We are the official gatekeepers of Drothos. Give your name, affiliation and reason for being here.”

“Captain Ophelia Wester of the Cerberus,” Ophelia answered. “Independent but technically affiliated with Akumil. We’re here to pick up some cargo for Earth.”

The response took nearly ten minutes. “Understood. Be prepared for inspection on your way out.”

“Acknowledged,” Ophelia stated. The two ships backed away.

“They seem to be unusually high strung,” Yuri observed.

“That’s a good way to put it,” Ophelia said.

“It’s to be expected with this system,” Lucy stated.

“For what reason?” Yuri inquired.

“Drotor garners a lot of controversy,” Kat answered.

“Because they still allow slavery,” Alison elaborated. “You get a lot of people coming in to try and smuggle some out. I actually donate to a group called ‘Exit Drotor’ that finances expeditions of volunteers and mercenaries for that purpose.”

“Don’t tell any of the authorities that,” Lucy cautioned. “Or random people you run into.”

“I know,” Allison said. “I’m not an idiot. Well, not a complete idiot, anyway.”

“Is there nothing that can be done?” Yuri asked.

“Trade embargoes and other sanctions from various worlds,” Ophelia said. “But the Drothos Empire spans six inhabited worlds and, right now, they’re still willing to ignore public opinion.” She sighed. “Right now, we have a mission. I’m taking us to Drothos Prime. We’ll try to get a lead on Mister Tawaig. I want you in teams for safety. Kat, Farah and Leon will go together. Lucy, Yuri and Allison will go together. Keep us updated and report anything that you learn or any sign of trouble, no matter how minor.”

*****

Kat glanced through a listing of wanted criminals. “Looks like our boy has quite the bounty on him,” she observed. “And he’s got a coranus with him.”

“Aren’t they basically just snake people?” Leon asked.

“Kind of,” Kat answered. She picked up her communicator. “Kat to Ophelia, we found a last known location for him.”

“And that would be?” Ophelia’s voice asked.

“The asteroid field that separates Drothos four from Drothos five,” Kat answered. “He may have a hideout there. You should also have Paul prepare some anti-venom. It seems that he’s accompanied by a coranus.”

“All right,” Ophelia said. “Return to the shuttle and wait for Lucy’s team. We’ll follow up on your lead as soon as you guys get back.”

“Understood,” Kat said. She carefully hung her communicator at her waist.

“I don’t really get it,” Farah mused. “What’s a rich boy doing robbing ships?”

“It’s probably for kicks,” Leon said.

“The rumour is that he takes their cargo, sells it himself and uses the money for people who really need it,” Kat explained. “But that’s never been reliably confirmed.”

Leon shrugged. “Just ask the bastard when we catch up to him.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t suggest torturing it out of him,” Kat teased. “Whatever happened to your excessive edge?”

“We can’t torture him,” Leon answered. “We’re only allowed to stun him.”

The trio made their way to the shuttle. They were quickly joined by Lucy’s party and made their way back to the Cerberus. Farah noticed that Yuri’s hand was trembling while Allison gently held it. Yuri also had a strange look on her face.

“Yuri, are you pouting?” Farah asked.

“Negative,” Yuri answered.

“She’s upset because some arsehole tried to buy her,” Allison stated.

“He was very observant to notice that she’s an android,” Lucy said.

“He thought that I was a robot,” Yuri corrected her.

“Isn’t an android technically a type of robot?” Kat asked. Yuri glared at her.

*****

“I’m taking us to the asteroid belt,” Ophelia said. “Kat, take the squad out and we’ll link the Cerberus’ scanners to your fighters. Hopefully, that’ll increase our coverage area enough to find this guy.” She picked up her communicator. “Grace, he’s probably got some type of shielding to block scanners. I want you to work on piercing that.”

“It won’ be easy without knowing what he’s using,” Grace grumbled. “But if I check the static I may be able to see some indication but differentiating between that and the regular background noise may be difficult.”

“I may have a more effective method,” Lucy interrupted. “What if we make him come to us instead of spending who knows how long sifting through the scanning noise to find him?”

“I’m listening,” Ophelia said.

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