The Grand Pilgrimage 63: Decisive Battle Against Echidna’s Spawn

“Okay, we’ve got the message out for reinforcements,” Inés said. “So, how do we stop them from tunnelling right beneath us and going after the Gods directly?”

“Simple,” Gail said. “We blow the cloud open.”

“Can you do that and transition into helping the rest of us without it being a problem?” Sylvie asked.

“Of course I can!” Gail declared, the annoyance showing in her voice. “It’s not as difficult as holding a solid shield in place while someone fills it with water.”

“Maybe some of us should blast it open and you and Inés can repeat that little trick,” Matthew suggested.

Gail shook her head. “It’s too soon. I can’t maintain that kid of shield for that long two days in a row.”

“I don’t think I could pull off the tsunami spell either,” Inés admitted. “At least, not a sustained one like that.”

“Unfortunate,” Matthew said.

“But that’s the situation regardless,” Sylvie said. “Gail, wait until they’ve reached this point” she kicked the powdery surface. “And then split this thing open. The rest of us will be standing by to charge when they’re exposed and confused.”

“We should be able to put a dent in them before they can pull themselves together,” Matthew said. “I just hope Lady Lyn comes to our aid before things go south.”

“How are you this calm?” Lilac demanded. “These damn things killed Jenna and Wilfred. How can you talk so casually about fighting them again?”

“Stay calm, Lilac,” Sylvie spoke softly.”I know you’re scared. We all are. But we should get reinforcements quickly this time and it would be disastrous if they got past us. So, we have to fight and we  have to hold them at bay.”

“That’s right,” Inés said. “We’re the only ones who can.”

“I’m about to blast these arseholes to the surface,” Gail said. “Better wrap up the motivational speeches.”

The five of them quickly took positions. Sylvie tried her best to reassure Lilac. Gail put her hand to the ground and the surface of the clouds split open, revealing Echidna’s children. Sylvie hurled a burst of lightning magic. Inés and Matthew followed up, leaping inside and taking the battle to them. Serena and Sylvie were next. Lilac reluctantly followed.

Matthew knelt, kicking a chimeras legs and quickly transitioning into thrusts of his daggers. He examined the thin looking cloud beneath them.

“You guys  hold them off for a moment,” He said. “I have an idea.”

Without explanation he hurried to the surface and ran to Gail who was preparing spells to blast the beasts.

“This cloud, can you blast it out from under them?” Matthew asked.

“It’s not a bad idea,” Gail said. “But it won’t work.  These things may float thanks to the Gods, but a divine cloud isn’t easy to just break. They can tunnel under the surface like its dirt and I can blast it open in the same way. but the bottom is a different matter. If there were three of me and we had a fortnight to direct our power on it, we might be able to put a large hole in it. But we don’t have that kind of time and I’m only one.”

“Damn,” Matthew muttered. “I thought that might work. Well, nothing for it but to get back in the fray.”

The two of them hurried into the cavern that Gail had opened up. Matthew dropped near Lilac and brought down a Nemean Lion that was creeping up behind her. Gail hurled spells, decimating their ranks.

As Sylvie had predicted, the reinforcements arrived quickly. Lynde and nine others, certainly from different groups.

The tide turned quickly against Echidna’s children as magic and divine weaponry were brought to bear against them. After a period of fierce fighting, they were dispatched.

“I can’t believe you saved my life again,” Serena said. “Thank you so much!”

“It’s not that big a deal,” Inés said. “You’re my lover and a comrade. It’s my duty and pleasure to protect you.” She winked.

“Remind you of old times, Lady Lyn?” Matthew asked.

“Not particularly,” Lynde answered.

“What do you think the odds are of them striking again?” Sylvie asked.

“It’s hard to say,” Lynde answered.

“No it isn’t,” Gail chimed in. “They’ve been beaten back twice and suffered extreme casualties. They’ll pull back and leave the Titans to their fates. All we have to do from here is sit back and wait for the battle to end.”

“That’ll be nice,” Lilac stated.

“Hmmm,” Inés murmured.

“What are you thinking?” Sylvie asked.

“I didn’t say anything,” Inés said.

“No, but I know you well enough to know when you’ve got a crazy idea in your head,” Sylvie said.

“Those are my favourite kinds,” Matthew laughed.

“Come on, out with it,” Sylvie said.

“Well, since you asked nicely,” Inés said. “I was just thinking. Echidna’s children were trying to get past us to interfere with the war of the Gods, right?”

“That’s right,” Lynde said. “And now they can’t.”

“No, they can’t,” Inés agreed.

“Oh no,” Gail muttered. “You can’t be serious right now.”

“What?” Lilac asked.

“That’s a terrible idea and you should definitely not do it,” Sylvie stated.

“What?” Lilac asked. “What’s she thinking?”

“Inés, are you really sure about this?” Serena asked.

“Seriously, what am I missing?” Lilac asked.

“Inés wants to go battle some Titans,” Matthew answered.

“Not Titans,” Inés corrected him. “But I think the lot of us could probably weaken a single Titan enough to help the Gods.”

“It could help turn the tide,” Lynde said. “And it would be a problem for us if the Titans were to win.”

“They certainly wouldn’t let us live,” Inés said.

“We’ll call the seven groups together,” Lynde stated. “Decide how to proceed.”

“How quickly is this going to happen?” Sylvie asked.

“Two days,” Lynde answered. “That’ll give us time to recover and it will give everyone time to think about the idea. Assuming the Gods don’t win before then.”

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Voyages of the Cerberus 119: Pragmatic Decision

Paul crawled through the tunnels. He was keeping track of the layout as he explored more and more of them, knowing it would be disastrous if he got lost.

He knew the way out, he remembered it very well. But he couldn’t go that way. Going that way meant passing back through the room with the entity. He needed another way out, or a really good plan.

He paused. Footsteps, coming up behind him. He crouched in the shadowiest area he could find, holding his arms over his head, counting on the darkness, the dirt covering him, and the akumillians’ impaired senses to hide him.

*****

“So, what’s the plan?” Allison asked. “Show our legs and hope it gets the akumillians in here?”

“You will keep your legs covered, please,” Yuri stated.

“Jealous?” Allison asked, smirking. “Don’t like the thought of anyone else seeing my legs? Does my beautiful android want all of  this to herself?”

“She’s kidding, Yuri,” Ophelia said. “She  knows that it wouldn’t work.” She examined the chamber. It was cramped with all of them inside, with a heavier, harder covering than the one surrounding the entity seemed to be. “For now we check every centimetre of this cell. Try to find a way to open it.”

“I will begin scanning,” Yuri stated.

“Where the hell is Paul?” Leon demanded.

“A different cell, perhaps,” Ophelia offered.

“Maybe he’s being questioned,” Allison suggested “Or…” she noticed the look on Leon’s face. “Or diplomatically engaging with that thing to negotiate our safe return?”

“It did not seem interested in diplomacy,” Yuri stated.

“Shh,” Allison put a finger to her lips. She tilted her head towards Leon.

“Don’t patronise me,” Leon said. He shuffled past them and punched the plating keeping them trapped inside. His knuckles visibly reddened. “Let’s get out of here and vaporise that thing.”

*****

Paul found himself in a chamber filled with various items, probably things the colonists had on them when they were brought over.

He examined them. there were a lot of personal effects and other things the entity wouldn’t have seen a use for but there was always a chance that there was something… anything that could prove useful. Possibly even a weapon that the entity hadn’t recognised. So, he kept looking.

The problem was him. The very thought of killing something sapient, even this entity, caused him to shake. Rationally, he knew that it might be his only option. That didn’t make it more palatable. still, he knew that he needed some kind of weapon.

*****

“Anything?” Ophelia asked.

“I have detected no structural weaknesses,” Yuri reported. “However, there may still be a way to escape.”

“Showing our bums?” Allison asked.

“Not the time for joking around,” Ophelia chided. She turned to Yuri. “What is it?”

“I believe that this structure is weaker than my body,” Yuri stated. “If I apply enough force for a long enough period of time I may be able to break the seal on this room. However, doing so may cause significant damage to my own body. I can not guarantee that I will be able to assist you any further.”

“So, do it,” Leon said. “We can take it from there.”

“Hold on,” Ophelia said. “If that thing can find a way to control humans, then Yuri may be our only hope. If she’s damaged, it could be disastrous.”

“Do you really want us to just lay back and let ourselves be taken?” Leon asked. “That’s rubbish! If we can get out of here, we can beat that thing. It won’t take us by surprise again.”

“I hate to agree with Leon when it means damaging Yuri,” Allison said. “But I think we probably stand a better chance with three of us moving as a unit than Yuri will stand being surrounded by us and controlled akumillians.” She looked at Yuri. “The damage would be fixable, right?”

“Correct,” Yuri stated. “Grace would be able to repair the damage, given sufficient time.”

“Captain,” Leon pressed.

Ophelia sighed. “I think you and Allison are right. Yuri, I know your repairs just got finished, and I won’t force you, but I’m going to request that you break this door.”

“I will comply,” Yuri stated. “It is advisable that all of you stand back.”

“As much as the space allows, anyway,” Allison muttered.

*****

Paul made his way to the central chamber. “Entity!” he cried.

The creature floated in its mass to face him. A  nearby akumillian spoke for it.

“Doc tor. You will go for joining.”

“I  rather like my individuality, thank you,”Paul stated. He held up two small blasters that he’d found concealed in a parasol. “Release your hold o the akumillians and promise not too force any more joinings or I’ll be forced to fire.” His hands shook as he spoke.

“Doc tor will submit. Doc tor is healer. Does not  take lives. Can’t even aim. Doc tor will drop weapons or companions will suffer.”

“You have my companions?” Paul asked.

“Have all. Submit!”

Paul lowered the weapons, surreptitiously throwing some switches. “I can’t convince you to let them go peaceably?”

“All will join.”

“Very well,” Paul said. He tossed the blasters beneath the gelatinous mass holding the creature  and allowed the nearby akumillians to grab him.

He turned towards the entity as they were leading him away. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry it came to this.”

Nine seconds later, the blasters explosively overloaded.

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The Grand Pilgrimage 62: Friends?

Sylvie observed. Matthew was busy setting up good, heavy sticks with bits of cloth and bells attached to them all around the wall and barracks.

“What’s he doing?” Serena asked.

Sylvie shrugged. “No clue but I’m going to find out.”

She was about to move when Inés strolled over.

Yo,” Inés greeted. “What’s all this junk for?”

“They’re tools,” Matthew answered. “They’ll help me see through the plans of Echidna’s children.”

“How will they do that?” Sylvie asked. She and Serena moved close.

“You’ll see, Boss,” Matthew said. “Trust me. Lady Lyn did not leave you in bad hands.”

“You know,” Inés said. “That’s been bugging me. The way you call Lynde ‘Lady Lyn.’ It’s like, super familiar but also respectful. Do you two have a history or something?”

Matthew smiled. “We do, actually. I fought her once back when I was just a regular thief. Well, as regular a thief as a son of Hermes can be. I figured I could do what I bloody well liked since the authorities were all too slow to stop me. That was when Lady Lyn and her entourage showed up. They needed some information from a scroll I’d stolen. At  first, I figured I’d just run. Always avoid a brawl if possible, I say, but they managed to trap me. Lady Lyn fought me for the scroll, one on one. I didn’t know she was a half blood too and I lost handily. After that I joined her little group. During that journey I learned a lot, and gained a deep admiration for her.”

“I bet it was nice getting to see her again,” Serena said.

“I’ll bet it was some journey with two children of the Gods involved,” Sylvie stated.

“Four, actually,” Matthew corrected. “And it was a great adventure. Great and terrible at the same time.” A pained look crept across his face for a brief instant, quickly getting replaced by his usual smile. “But that’s enough about me. I’m sure it’s gotten boring.” He finished setting up his last stick. “Don’t mess with these, okay? I need them intact.”

“No problem,” Inés said.

“I’ll let Lilac and Gail know,” Sylvie said. “Matthew, you’re taking first watch tonight along with Lilac. Inés and I will take the second. Gail and Serena will have the third.”

Matthew gave a mock salute. “Roger, Boss.”

*****

Sylvie and Inés kept careful watch over the walls when t was their turn at watch.

“Sorry, for separating you and Serena,” Sylvie said.

“No big deal,” Inés said. “I know you’re worried that we’ll distract one another.”

“We really can’t afford that,” Sylvie said. “Not in this kind of battle.”

“I know,” Inés said. “I know you think of me as being cocky and blithe all the time, but I’m not stupid. I know what my own capabilities and limits are and I know when I’m actually in a troublesome spot.” She looked into the distance and smiled. “I’m just too stubborn to give up when things are troublesome and I refuse to let my enemies see any uncertainty.”

Sylvie stared at her for a moment. “I know that,” she admitted. “At least, I do now. I’ve learned a lot about you during this journey. You aren’t the air-headed girl I thought you were. As much as I hate to admit it, I’ve gained a certain respect for you.”

Inés laughed. “Funny. Truth be told, I’ve also started to respect you. I used to think you were uptight and just the type who always thinks she knows best. But I’ve come to realise that even though you ca be overly serious, you’re also really brave and compassionate and I’m glad you’re the one who took the pilgrimage with me.”

“Likewise,” Sylvie said. “It’s been difficult, but I think if I can get through all this I can do anything. And I think the extra trials have made me better as a person.”

“Now that’s a surprise,” Inés said. “I never thought I’d be having a moment with you. Are we actually becoming friends? Is that what’s happening?”

Sylvie shrugged. “It may very well be. Although I certainly wouldn’t have thought it possible when we started out.”

“Me neither,” Inés said. She held her hand out. “Friends?”

Sylvie clasped her hand and shook it. “Just don’t let it go to your head, Mermaid.”

“I’m gonna start taking that as a term of endearment,” Inés stated.

“Which is how it was meant, that time,” Sylvie said.

Some bells lightly rang on the ground. Matthew quickly emerged from the barracks. He moved over to the sticks  that were ringing, examining the cloth attached to them. Then he put an ear to the ground.

“They’re trying to tunnel beneath us!” He cried. “We need reinforcements!”

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Voyages of the Cerberus 118: Captives of the Entity

“How do you intend to make me join?’ Paul asked. “Your spores won’t work on me. At least, not like they did on them.”

“Modify spores. Match Doc tor brain. Fast. Effective.”

“Then it was deliberate,” Paul whispered.

“Doc tor will wait. Others will guard.”

A pair of akumillians grabbed Paul and led him away from the entity.

*****

“So, the Doc got captured by zombified akumillians and we’ve gotta find the source of this plant network to get him back?” Allison asked.

“They aren’t zombies, they’re being controlled by spores. But that is pretty much it,” Ophelia said.

“Controlled by spores, zombies, close enough,” Allison stated.

“Zombies as generally described in fiction could not function,” Yuri stated.

“Who cares?” Leon demanded. “We’ve gotta hurry!”

“Right,” Allison said. “To the rescue we go.”

*****

The akumillian drones led Paul to a large, green orb. The green enclosure opened as they approached. One of the akumillians grabbed Paul’s filter and lifted it while the other tried to push him inside.

Paul stumbled and fell, just missing falling inside. The akumillians moved to pull him up but he slid between them and hurriedly picked himself up.

“Your trouble is that your control is sluggish,” Paul said. He scarpered.

*****

“It appears to lead underground here,” Yuri stated.

“Then we dig,” Leon said.

“Calm down, Big Guy,” Allison said. “They’ve gotta have an entrance of some kind, right?”

“If they brought Paul here then yes,” Ophelia said. “Leon, you and I will look over there. Yuri and Allison will check there. Allison, Leon, make sure your filters are secure.”

Leon found the entrance first. Ophelia had to stop him from rushing inside before she could call Allison and Yuri over.

The four moved inside. “Hand signals from here,” Ophelia whispered. “Unless someone sees us, in which case, cry out.”

They moved inside swiftly and silently, their pistols drawn.

*****

“There we go,” Grace said. “Shields and communications will both work once the others rescue the akumillians.”

“Maybe you should head back to the ship and I should go find them,” Farah suggested.

“First off, don’t go off on your own,” Grace chided. “It’s super dangerous. You didn’t see any of them going solo. Secondly, I’ve still got work to do.”

“But you’ve fixed everything,” Farah said. “Well, everything you were supposed to.”

“Yes, but there’s something else now that we’ve gotten into it,” Grace said.

“What?” Farah asked.

“I need to set up some kind of filtration system for the shield,” Grace said. “They could clear the nearby trees, but that’s going to be a temporary measure, at best. If we really want to prevent this happening again, we need a shield that filters out the spores effectively.”

“Oh, right,” Farah said. “That makes sense.”

“Good, then it’s settled,” Grace stated. “Hand me my spanner, Dear.”

*****

“Strange,” Ophelia signalled. “No hostiles in sight.”

“Could they be busy with something else?” Allison asked through hand signals.

“Like?” Ophelia asked. Giving the quick hand signal.

“Maybe our friendly escaped,” Allison suggested. “Or caused trouble.”

“Trap, more likely,” Yuri added. Her hand signals were so quick that they were hard to make out.

They were approaching a large chamber. They looked around to make sure no one was watching before entering. That’s when they saw it, floating inside its gelatinous mass.

“The hell is that?” Leon asked, forgetting about the signals.

“No idea,” Allison muttered, also speaking aloud.

It floated over to them and a voice seemingly came from nowhere. “Companions, surrender.”

“Companions?” Yuri inquired.

“It must have spoken with the doctor,” Ophelia said. She stepped forward. “I am captain Wester of the Cerberus. We demand that you return our doctor and release the people you’ve taken. If you don’t, we’ll be forced to fire on you.”

“Threat, unimpressive. Weapons drop or be ended.”

“Captain, we are surrounded,” Yuri stated.

Ophelia looked around. There were akumillians all around them, holding various weapons, mostly melee, of their own.

“Companions must surrender fast before being ended.”The weapons were raised.

“We can take them,” Leon whispered.

“No,” Ophelia said. “Too many and we can’t be sure how many shots will be enough to bring this thing down. Drop the weapons.”

“But Paul…” Leon began.

“We will likely be taken to the same place that he was,” Yuri stated.

Reluctantly, they dropped their weapons.

“Companions will be led away. Extreme caution, this time. No errors. Stored safely or ended.”

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The Grand Pilgrimage 61: Matthew

Inés had her breakie and returned to Lynde.

“Thank you,” Lynde said.

“You’re welcome,” Inés said. She sat down. “That speed spell you used, you said you learned it from my sister, didn’t you?”

“That’s right,” Lynde said.

“You must be centuries old then,” Inés said.

Lynde shook her head. “Actually, I learned it from her during my adventure with Lina. We travelled to Tartarus, long story, and found her in her prison. I was able to convince her to teach me some aether spells.”

“So, what was that ‘before’ business about?” Inés asked.

“Oh, that,” Lynde said. “Lina and I were travelling with some friends. Shortly after we met Camila, one of those friends lost their life.”

“I’m sorry for bringing it up,” Inés said.

“Don’t worry about it,” Lynde said. “It was decades ago. Besides, I brought it up to begin with. Although, I suspect you brought it up for a reason. Are you looking to learn aether magic?”

“Oh, no,” Inés said. “I don’t think I could. No, I was just thinking about how fast you were. I imagine my sister can’t be seen when she does it either.”

“She can be seen,” Lynde stated. “At least she could when I saw her demonstrate. It’s possible she was holding back. It’s also possible that her magic skills aren’t as honed as mine or that her dual element nature works against her.”

“Oh, she’s a dual element user,” Inés said. “I didn’t know that.”

“Water and Aether,” Lynde confirmed.

“After this whole ordeal is over, you’ll have to tell me all about that adventure,” Inés said. “Sounds like it was interesting.”

“Lina and I live in the Elven city of Lora Gi’mira,” Lynde said. “Stop by. We’ll trade stories.”She abruptly stood upright and waved. “Over here!” she called.

A young looking man with pointed ears hurried over. He had light brown hair, eyes to match and a lithe build. “I’m here as ordered,” he said. “This is one of my new team, then?”

Lynde nodded. “Matthew, this is Inés. Inés, Matthew.”

“Pleased to meet’cha,” Matthew said, extending his hand.

Inés shook it. “Same.”

“Then I’ll return to my post,” Lynde said. “Being down three people will be quite the dilemma.”

“Three?” Inés asked.

“We lost one during the battle,” Matthew said. “With me transferring, Lynde will be down two, but she’ll manage. Besides, I hear you lost two in the battle yourselves.”

“We did,” Inés said. “But won’t this bring you guys down to the same number we’d be at without you?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Lynde said. “My team is all experienced and without any pure mortals.” She waved and hurried off, back to her team.

*****

Inés took Matthew to the base and introduced him to Sylvie, Serena, Gail & Lilac. She didn’t mention that Lynde’s group had less people than theirs due to his transfer.

“Great,” Gail muttered. “Another one to look after.”

“Gail, be nice,” Sylvie chided.

“No need to look after me, Miss Gail,” Matthew said. “Though I have heard of your prowess with magic and have the utmost confidence that you’re capable of doing so, I was sent because I can look after myself quite capably. I’ve proven that enough to Lady Lyn to be entrusted to this very important post.”

“Is this post that important?” Serena wondered.

Matthew nodded. “Of course. Now that the feint’s failed, though not without casualties, Echidna’s children will try an all out attack. An attack concentrated on a single spot. Most likely, this spot.”

“Because of us mortals?” Sylvie asked.

“They do seem to underestimate you,” Matthew said, flashing a bright smile. “But that’s not all. You lost Jenna and, as I understand it, she was taking charge. Adjusting will be difficult.”

“Great,” Inés muttered. “We needed to have a large group of monstrosities march against us again.”

“I doubt it will be that simple,” Gail said. “They might not be the brightest of creatures, but they know something of tactics. They’ll try something sneaky.”

“Which is another reason I was chosen to join you,” Matthew said. “I’m an expert at sneaking. Lady Lyn is counting on me to see through their strategy.”

“Aren’t we the cocky one?” Gail asked.

Matthew kept his grin. “Well, just wait and see. I don’t mind proving myself to you.”

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Voyages of the Cerberus 117: The Entity of Nolillin Eight

“Calm down,” Ophelia said. “The akumillians were fine. Controlled, but fine. I doubt that thing took the Doctor to hurt him.”

“So why take him?” Leon asked. “Why just him and not either of us? If it’s not going to hurt him, what  will it do?”

“I  can’t answer that,” Ophelia said. “But I do know that going in without a plan won’t help him. We need a weapon to use against them. Something that won’t hurt the colonists, but will disrupt that thing’s control over them.”

“And where are we going to get something like that?” Leon demanded. “The alien spore blocking store?”

“Grace,” Ophelia answered. “we know, thanks to Paul, that the spores are affecting the espels. Grace should be able to whip up something that blocks the signals its sending by disrupting akumillian espel nerves.”

“That sounds like more of a medical thing than an engineering one,” Leon stated, uncertainly.

“Well, we have to ask her,” Ophelia said. “If she can’t do it, we’ll  find another way.”

*****

Paul watched the akumillians walking t his side. They weren’t getting too close, but they were close enough to keep him from being able to slip away. Even assuming he could slip free from the akumillians grasping his wrists.

In truth, he wasn’t sure he wanted to. They were taking him somewhere for a purpose. It might behoove him, and the Cerberus crew, to find out what this entity wanted.

They led him into a cavern. It was surprisingly well lit, with glowing fungus of some kind lining the walls. He could see roots travelling across the ceiling. The epicentre. They were taking him to  the entity.

It made for an impressive sight. The disparate roots running along the cavern congregated and converged inside a gelatinous mass, held in place by what appeared to be a strong membrane. With the roots was a moving creature that closely resembled an eyeball, but with a thorny substance covering its back and underbelly, pincers and far larger than a human eyeball. It was about forty centimetres wide, thirty five centimetres long and thirty centimetres tall. It swam to the edge of the membrane and looked out at Paul.

*****

“Something that’ll block signals being transmitted to espel nerves?” Grace asked.

“Is it possible?” Ophelia asked. “And can it be done quickly?”

“It’s been done before,” Grace said. “The idea was to block the signals to remove the advantage that akumillians have with their whole commanding presences.”

“So, you can build a jammer?” Leon asked.

Grace shook her head. “For one thing, we don’t have the parts. For another, the jamming device that was developed was prohibitively large. Even if I did have the parts I’d need, it would take up a good half of engineering.”

“It couldn’t be miniaturised?” Ophelia asked.

Grace shrugged. “Given time, a research team and the right materials it might very well be. But, I don’t have those things. I mean, I’m good at what I do,  but I can’t just take a complex machine and readily pull a compact version out of my ass.”

“Then we’ll have to follow the root system to its source and hope that’s where Paul is,” Ophelia said. “Leon, let’s go!”

“Finally,” Leon muttered.

*****

“You, here. What are you?” The entity spoke through one of its akumillian pawns. The words were disjointed, accented oddly and spoken slowly.

“I’m a human,” Paul answered. “If that’s what you mean.”

“No! Not like others. Others look. You see. What are you?”

“The scan, of course,” Paul muttered. “I’m a Doctor.”

“Doc tor? Dangerous!”

“No,”Paul shook his head. “Oh no. I’m a healer. It’s my job to protect lives. I don’t take them.”

“Why here? Why find us?”

“We came to find the colonists,” Paul said. He gestured towards the akumillians. “These others  that came before us. Their people, their families… their hive wants them back. Please, you must set them free.”

“Free? Free is service. Free  is collective. We  have made them free.”

“No,” Paul argued, keeping his voice soft but firm. “You haven’t. You’ve taken them from their collective, the place they belong, and forced them into yours. I know, it wasn’t intended. But that is all the more reason why they must be released.”

The entity stared at him for a long time, rubbing its pincers together.

“Seek division? Request, impossible. All who live here. All who come here must be one. Will be one. you as well, Doc tor.”

Several akumillians grabbed Paul, roughly.

“The spores won’t effect me like they did them,” Paul said. He kept his voice calm. “They won’t work on my companions either. My companions are strong. Dangerous. They can hurt you. But if you release these people I will stop them. I will make sure that you and your colony are safe but you must not do this.”

“Will become one! Companions will join. Doc tor will join. Simple.”

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The Grand Pilgrimage 60: Finally, Reinforcements

Inés struggled against the scylla’s tendril. She was certain that she was stronger than a scylla under normal circumstances, but she was exhausted. Having spent so much time fighting and having used so much energy on that last spell. She couldn’t break free. But she still refused to give up. She would continue struggling until she managed to break free or died. The scylla pressed its advantage, tightening its grip.

A burst of lightning slammed into the scylla’s beaked maw. This was quickly followed up by Serena slamming her tonfa into its side and Sylvie lunging forward, piercing its eye with her rapier. It reeled back, dropping Inés.  Lilac moved in, pulling her away from it.

“Never thought I’d be saved by you,” Inés muttered, looking at Sylvie.

“Well, I can’t very well owe you one,” Sylvie shot back. “Although we may have to run for it.”

The injured scylla and its fellows were closing in on the four of them. Inés took quick stock of their chances. Four tired women, one inexperienced in battle and two fully mortal. Gail probably wouldn’t be joining them. Probably couldn’t, after holding the barrier for her attack. They backed away, knowing they couldn’t let the scylla slip by, but also knowing their chances in a battle.

A horn sounded from behind them. “Thank Athena,” Sylvie stated.

“What, what’s happening?” Lilac asked.

“They finally sent reinforcements!” Inés declared.

The four of them watched as an armoured woman leapt over them. She had no helmet and long teal hair tied back in a ponytail. She held out her scimitar towards the scylla. Then, she vanished. Or seemed to, reappearing behind their line. The scyllas’ tentacles began popping off as lethal wounds appeared all over their bodies.

The woman sheathed her scimitar.

“What was that?” Serena asked.

“I… I think it was some kind of rapid movement spell,” Inés said.

“Definitely,” Sylvie agreed. “But a step above any I’ve ever seen.”

The woman turned and smiled at them. “There, you’re safe now. I’m Lynde, daughter of Hades.” Lynde looked around. “I suppose that Jenna didn’t make it.”

“No, she didn’t,” Inés answered. “Thanks for your help. I’m Inés daughter of Poseidon, I guess.”

“I’ve heard of you,” Lynde said. “The girl who brought her mortal lover along for this whole mess.”

“I can fight,” Serena protested. “Maybe not as well as you, but still…”

Lynde held up her hand. “Peace. I didn’t mean anything by it. And it looks like you dealt with most of them. You should all get some rest. I’ll assemble a team from those who came to aid you to keep watch.”

“Wasn’t your group attacked too?” Inés asked.

“We were,” Lynde confirmed. “We dealt with them.” She surveyed the bodies around them. “We didn’t have this many. The spell you used to do all of this must have been very impressive.”

“Oh, no,” Inés said. “It was mainly Gail’s barrier that did it. I just filled it with water. Certainly not as impressive as your speed spell.”

“Advanced aether magic,” Lynde said. “I learned it from Camila before… well, never mind about that. We need to do the last rites for your dead.”

They found Jenna and Wilfred’s bodies and built a pyre for them. Those left alive in the group, and those who had come as reinforcements, said prayers for them. It briefly struck Inés that it was a bit awkward for them to be praying to their parents and those related to them, but she said nothing.

Finally, they went to the barracks to rest.

“I… I don’t know why she sacrificed herself for me,” Sylvie said. “I barely knew her.”

“She liked you,” Inés said. “Had quite the crush.”

“She never mentioned it to me,” Sylvie stated. “Are you sure?”

“She didn’t mention t because I told her you had someone else,” Inés said. “Guess she couldn’t get over it that easily.”

“She should have stayed back,” Sylvie said. “Maybe she could’ve saved Wilfred and…”

“Shut up,” Inés said. “Don’t feel guilty for surviving or ask yourself ‘what if.’ If you’d been killed she may have very well died anyway. Same with Wilfred. For that matter, Serena couldn’t have staggered the scylla by herself so I might have died too.”

“You were great out there, Sylvie!” Serena declared.

“You two…” Sylvie muttered. “Thank you.”

The door opened and Lynde walked in. “It’s settled,” she said. “I’ll be sending you a member of my group. His name is Matthew and he’s a son of Hermes. Very skilled in a fight. Hopefully, Echidna’s children won’t attack you again. They may not even be able to. Not after their numbers were reduced.”

“Do you actually believe that?” Gail asked. “You think they sent their entire force at once?”

“No,” Lynde answered. “But I think they will certainly be weakened and hesitant to move and if you do get attacked again, I’ll come personally. For tonight, you lot rest. I’ll keep watch and leave tomorrow.”

*****

Inés woke very early, before the sun rose, and went out to find  Lynde at her post.

“Working diligently, I see,” Inés said.

“You seem better,” Lynde observed.

“I was mainly just tired,” Inés said. She sat down. ” A little burned too. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have brought Serena or Sylvie if I’d known that I was being summoned for a war like this. I mean, I trust them as comrades and everything, but this is a bit much.”

Lynde nodded. “I know what you mean. Lina wanted to come with me, but I refused her.”

“That your girlfriend?” Inés asked.

“Wife,” Lynde corrected. “She’s an elf. Still relatively young. We met thirty years ago when I was on a journey. When my father came to bring me to battle, she wanted to saddle her pegasus, take up her spear and come along.”

“Because it’s dangerous?” Inés asked.

“Partially,” Lynde answered. “And partially because she’s not suited for fighting. She’s a gentle woman. Only fights to protect others.”

“I can see where that would be a problem in this kind of war,” Inés said.

Lynde nodded. “I’ll keep watching until your friends are up if you want to eat and bathe.”

“All right,” Inés said. “I’ll bring you something too.”

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Voyages of the Cerberus 116: The Root of the Problem

“So, this is the plant?” Ophelia asked.

“That’s it,” Leon confirmed.

“just looks like a regular, gnarled tree,” Ophelia said. “But it deliberately went after both Kat and Lucy when they were by themselves and vulnerable.”

“That’s the curious part,” Paul said. “How did it know they were alone and vulnerable? I don’t see anything that could give it a sense of sight or any other perception that would allow it to know. Of course, that’s just with a cursory glance. I’ll conduct a detailed scan.”

“And we’ll cover you,” Ophelia said.

“Anything, tree or otherwise, tries to touch you and I’ll fecking kill it,” Leon confirmed.

“Well, that’s a relief,” Paul said, beginning his scan. “But I’d prefer you use fatal violence only as a last resort.”

“No promises,” Leon stated.

“I know the feeling,” Ophelia said. “If Lucy’s safety was at stake, I’d gravitate towards the surest method of protecting her too.” She looked over at Paul. “How long?”

“The scan results should be coming in within the next eight minutes,” Paul answered.

*****

“That should do it,” Grace said. “The shields will be able to go back up. Now, we just have to get the communications array back up.”

“Just watch for those spores,” Farah cautioned. “I wouldn’t want to see you hit.”

“We’ll be fine, we’ve got filters,” Grace said. “In all honesty, I’m a little relieved that spores are the culprit. We won’t have to watch out for hostile forces or anything.”

“You think Kat’s okay?” Farah wondered.

“They said that the effect was like being drunk,” Grace said. “And temporary. So, I’m sure she’s fine. The real questions are what the spores did to the colonists and where they went.”

*****

“The structure seems to be that of an ordinary plant,” Paul muttered. “Nothing to indicate a higher intelligence or… wait. That’s… Is that possible?”

“What is it, Paul?” Ophelia asked.

“No, it definitely is,” Paul said. “Curious. Very curious.”

“Paul?” Ophelia asked.

Paul seemingly didn’t hear her, continuing to mutter to himself.

“He gets like this sometimes,” Leon stated. “Just way too invested in his work.”

“Paul!” Ophelia shook his shoulders. He didn’t respond. “How do you get his attention when he’s like this?”

“Stand back and let the pro work,” Leon said. He moved between Paul and the tree. Then he crept closer to Paul, closer. He knelt down and brought his head up between Paul’s head and the scanner. “Pay attention to me, dammit!” he shouted.

“Oh, Leon, I’m sorry about that,” Paul said.

“What did you find that was so engrossing?” Ophelia asked.

“The structure is very similar to a normal plant,” Paul answered. “Where it differs is at the roots. It’s a very subtle, very fascinating difference. One I’ve never even encountered in scientific journals.”

“Paul, I appreciate your scientific interest in it,” Ophelia said. “But give us the short, layman’s version, please.”

“The roots are part of a connected system with other plants in the area,” Paul said. “Very akin to a nervous system but made up of very loosely connected flora. We may well be looking at a colony life form with a centralised intelligence controlling a large number of the plants in the area.”

“And this communal intelligence has the akumillians under its control?” Ophelia asked.

“Presumably,” Paul answered.

“Was it a deliberate attack on them?” Leon asked.

“Probably not initially,” Paul answered. “It was likely a coincidence that akumillians happen to be uniquely vulnerable to the spores. After that, the intelligence was able to recognise the benefits of having humanoids under its sway and it tried to bring Kat and Lucy under its control.”

“Can we meet with this intelligence?” Ophelia asked.

“I should be able to trace the system to the main hub of activity,” Paul said. “Given some time.”

“Good,” Ophelia said. “We’ll get Allison and Yuri and…”

“Mind-controlled akumillians incoming!” Leon shouted.

Ophelia looked up. They were approaching with slow, measured steps. Their eyes and expressions were blank.

Leon aimed his pistol but Paul stuck his hand in front of it. “Fuzzy, they don’t know what they’re doing,” he said. “And there are too many.”

Ophelia stepped forward. “I’m Captain Ophelia Wester,” she greeted. “I desire an audience with the intelligence governing this area.”

The akumillians ignored her. Several moved over to Paul, grabbing his arms and leading him off. Leon and Ophelia tried to follow, but a large group of akumillians moved to block them until Paul was out of sight. Then they hurriedly dispersed in different directions.

“Damn,” Ophelia muttered.

“That thing took my Paul,” Leon muttered, biting his thumb. “That thing took my Paul. That thing took my Paul.” He repeated the phrase, his voice raising every time.

“Leon, calm down,” Ophelia said. “We’ll get him back.”

“Damn right we will!” Leon was shouting at that point. “I’ll get him back if I have to burn every plant on this bloody planet to the ground and salt the earth so they never grow back.”

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The Grand Pilgrimage 59: Fury of the Waves

Sylvie and Wilfred were afforded very little time to grieve or even react. There were more of Echidna’s children. Many, many more.

*****

“Not good,” Inés said. “Lilac, Serena. I want you two to fall back to Gail. I’ll go get Wilfred and Sylvie.”

“Then what?” Serena asked. “We can’t keep going much longer without reinforcements.”

“I know,” Inés stated. “Don’t worry. I have an idea.”

She whistled. Blitz rushed to her side. She mounted the pegasus and took to the air.

“Careful, Girl,” she whispered. Blitz snorted in response.

They flew towards Sylvie and Wilfred quickly. Inés watched as a great dragon’s claws came down at them. Sylvie managed to roll away from the strike. Wilfred was sliced open, the claws very nearly tearing him in half.

Inés knew that Sylvie wouldn’t be able to pull herself up in time. She took Blitz into a dive and scooped her up.

“Hey there, need a rescue?”

“I was doing fine,” Sylvie muttered. “Wilfred?”

“Dead,” Inés answered. “He didn’t dodge in time.”

“I see,” Sylvie said.

“Listen,” Inés said. “I’m going to have Blitz take you to Gail. Tell her to drop the barrier once Lilac and Serena reach her. After that, I need her to recreate it around me and all of these monsters. This time, solid all around.”

“That’s insane!” Sylvie declared. “They’ll tear you apart.”

“Trust me on this,” Inés said. “You’ll see what I’m up to.”

“And how long do you think she can maintain a solid barrier all around the lot of you?” Sylvie asked.

Inés shrugged. “As long as it’s a good five to ten minutes, this will work.”

“This is going to be crazy and reckless, isn’t it?” Sylvie asked.

“Yep,” Inés answered.

“Is there any other choice?” Sylvie asked.

“Not unless we get reinforcements in the next few minutes,” Inés said.

“All right, I’ll tell her,” Sylvie said. “Don’t you dare die.”

*****

Inés concentrated. The only way her plan would work was if she could evade their attacks, or at least take minimal damage, while keeping most of her focus on the spell.

It wasn’t a hard spell, normally. But the scale… That was the problem. She’d never tried it on this scale. She was betting her life that being the daughter of Poseidon would mean that she was strong enough to pull it off. She was also betting on Gail having enough power to keep the barrier up. Not that there was much choice. Echidna’s children were too many and they were too few. At worst, she could buy the others a little time to rest. The barrier went up around them.

*****

“What’s she planning?” Serena wondered.

“No idea,” Sylvie said.

“She’s really good at running away,” Lilac said. “How long you reckon she can dodge like that?”

“I’d say she’s close to her limit,” Sylvie said. “Whatever she’s going to do, it’s gonna have to be soon.”

“Quiet!” Gail snapped. “I need to concentrate.”

The three of them went silent. Sylvie observed. Inés was casting some kind of spell. Did Inés know any attack spells that would be strong enough to really help, she wondered?

That’s when it took effect.

Water spewed up from the clouds. Pouring, rushing, crashing, filling the barrier with tsunami force waves.

“She’s hitting ’em with waves?” Lilac asked, keeping her voice low so as not to disturb Gail.

“Well, they look like really strong waves,” Serena said, her voice uncertain.

“No, the waves aren’t the attack,” Sylvie said, coming to a realisation. “Look! The barrier is keeping all that water trapped inside. Inés is trying to drown them all!”

“Will that work?” Serena asked.

“Not on the scyllas,”Sylvie answered. “But nothing else will survive. If she can keep them trapped long enough. It’ll weaken them even if Gail can’t keep the barrier up that long.” She put one hand on Lilac’s shoulder and another on Serena’s. “Come on. Let’s get close enough to help as soon as the barrier drops.”

*****

Inés evaded some tendrils coming from the various scylla. They weren’t the threat, though. The barrier was full of struggling, flailing, rapidly drowning obstacles to come between her and their attacks. The threat was the other struggling, flailing beasts. They were being tossed all around and it would just take one slow reaction on her part to get a dragon slammed against her or a gorgon looking directly in her eyes.

In spite of the obstacles and the turbulent waters, Inés was confident. She just had to use her natural speed and agility to her advantage. She kept swimming, even as more and more of the creatures around her stopped struggling and the scylla became more capable of tracking her.

Finally, the barrier fell and the waters poured everywhere. Inés relaxed her guard for just a moment and found herself grabbed by the tendrils of a scylla.

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Voyages of the Cerberus 115: The Secret of the Spores

Lucy gingerly touched her forehead.

“Please tell me you weren’t contaminated by the spores,” Leon said. “I don’t need you getting all lovey dovey too.”

“I’m perfectly fine,” Lucy said. “Just have a bit of a headache.”

“I’ve got some acetaminophen,” Leon offered.

“I’m surprised you can even say that word,” Lucy said. “Comes from dating a doctor, I suppose. I’ll have to pass, though. It might be effective for you humans, but it would probably kill me.”

“Shit, didn’t think of that,” Leon muttered.

*****

“Yo, Doc, what’s the good word?” Allison exclaimed.

Paul looked up from his equipment. “Do you need something? Are you feeling ill?”

“I’m perfectly fine,” Allison said. “I heard that Kat was acting funny and came to see.” She looked around. “So, where is she?”

“Asleep,” Paul answered. “I gave her a mild sedative. The effect should be gone, or close to it, by the time he wakes up.”

“Tsk,” Allison grunted. “That’s no fun.”

“Sorry to disappoint you,” Paul said. “If that’s all, please excuse  me while I study these.”

*****

“Strange,” Lucy said. “Very peculiar, indeed.”

Leon looked around. “What?”

“The vine that sprayed Kat is gone,” Lucy stated.

“Maybe  it retracts after releasing its spores,” Leon suggested. “There are some plants that do that, right?”

“There are some in the galaxy,” Lucy said. “But it was stationary the entire time we were talking with Kat after she got sprayed and the species I know of that spray and retract either retract immediately or start retracting immediately, even if slow moving.”

Leon shrugged. “Lots of plant types out there. Not like it’s surprising that one would stand still for a while.”

“Perhaps,” Lucy said. “But there may be another explanation. What if the plant has intelligence? What if it sprayed Kat deliberately to serve some purpose?”

“Now that just sounds paranoid,” Leon said. “With all due respect.”

“I know,” Lucy said. “But we can test it. Let’s see, Kat was around here.”

She stood while Leon watched.

“Nothing’s happening,” Leon said.

“Try going to the buildings to investigate something there,” Lucy suggested. “If it is intelligent, it might want to hit us one at a time.”

“Assuming you’re right we don’t know what the spores might do to you,” Leon said. “Maybe I should take the hit.”

“Don’t worry,” Lucy said. “I’ve got an air filter. Just go.”

Reluctantly, Leon moved off. He kept looking back to check on Lucy until he reached one of the buildings and went inside.

Lucy waited. She pretended to examine the ground. The bark of the tree and a number of other things in the vicinity. The vine didn’t come.

Maybe she had just been paranoid or… was it possible? She touched her air filter. Did the plant know what it was for? She made her decision. One final test. She removed the filter.

*****

It was taking too long. Leon couldn’t concentrate on checking his surroundings. Finally, he just ran outside. He found Lucy lying on the ground, her filter off. She was curled up with her hands on her head.

“Hey, you okay?” Leon asked.

“My head…” Lucy muttered. “It hurts… Feel like it’s going to burst. Ca… can’t even move.”

“Okay, okay,” Leon said. “I’ll carry you back to the Cerberus. Did the vine grab your filter?”

“N… no,” Lucy answered. “I… I took it off. Thought it would attack if I did.”

“Well, you seem to have been right,” Leon said. “Don’t worry, Paul will get you fixed up in no time.”

*****

“It’s a nasty migraine,” Paul said. “But she’ll be perfectly fine. It was a reckless move on her part.”

“Have you learned anything from it, Doctor?” Ophelia asked.

Paul nodded. “The spores have a significant effect on akumillians. With humans, it acts as intoxication. For akumillians, the spores send impulses that effectively control them. Thanks to Lucy’s foolishness, I know that the espel nerves are an essential part of the process.”

“I thought you’d fixed the damage to her espels,” Ophelia said.

“I did,” Paul said. “But I used synthetic tissue in the process. The impulses being sent by the spores are being blocked by those synthetics.”

“Wait a moment,” Leon said. “You’re saying that the akumillians disappeared because they were being controlled by these things?”

“That is likely,” Paul answered.

“How did their survey team miss it?” Ophelia asked.

“I can’t answer that much,” Paul said. “I’ll go out and examine the plant myself. Maybe I can get a clue.”

“All right,” Ophelia agreed. “Leon, you and I  will go with him.”

“I’ll go too,” Lucy said.

“No,” Ophelia said. “You stay aboard.”

“The pain killers are working, I’ll be fine,” Lucy said.

“They’ll also slow you down,” Ophelia argued. “Please, stay here. You can help by sending in a report of what we have so far and watching the bridge.”

“Fine,” Lucy agreed.

“Then let’s go,” Ophelia said. “We’ll solve this case in no time.”

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