I'm really happy about how this chapter came out, especially since it represents everything I wanted to write about in this story since I finished chapter three. I really need to learn to cut back on the huge narrative super-structures that don't really interest me and focus on these delightful action sequences and re-designs of adorable characters. I wrote this chapter in a hurry and barely edited, so if it won't show up on spell-check, I probably didn't fix it. Sorry in advance.
Chapter 6: Dragon Kin
Above the Battlefield
"Everyone ready?" Will asked, her voice sounding somewhat strange after the transformation. Her words were laced with an edge of static like they were coming through a slightly bad radio broadcast instead of from her lips. Of course, they'd all been changed when the Heart of Candracar touched them, and this change wasn't just the usual bonus cup sizes and curves in all the right places.
Professor Starder had said that the Heart enhanced magic by changing their age to the point where their magic power reached its peak. Always before, that just meant they came out of the transformation voluptuous instead of scrawny as they were shoved into magically mature human bodies. Apparently, now that they were dragon kin, beings of pure energy, magical maturity involved a great deal more than a seismic shift in intimate measurements. A mature dragon kin was an entirely different creature from a juvenile, and the Heart had faithfully pushed their ages forward until they grew into the full bloom of their powers.
In response to her quiet query, Will received a full array of nods.
"Alright then. Hay Lin, Taranee, and I are going to go swat some flying lizards. Irma, I want you to go back up Cornelia. Mop up these 'skull-drone' things. We'll all meet back at the castle and figure out what to do about the Artificers."
No one said anything, but Hay Lin and Taranee linked hands with their leader.
"Guys, I kind of think we're on a brand new power level right now." Will gave Irma in particular a grave stare. "Try not to wreck anything by accident."
With that, the three girls vanished in the same stinging flash of light that had brought them all out of the castle's great hall. Irma was left alone in the sky, a veritable tide of black, humanoid shapes rushing along beneath her now that the Artificer's guns were silent. Any moment, they would clear the force-field perimeter and have free reign to destroy Meridian's people.
"Right," Irma said, flexing her strange new body almost gingerly as she hovered, "don't destroy anything I don't intend to destroy. Let's do this."
Pouring on some speed, Irma flashed down until she stood at the very foot of the castle wall. When she was on her feet, her wings stopped buzzing, and she took one last look at herself.
"Scales," she muttered, watching the light play off her new, thick, full, perfectly interlocking coating of aqua-and-green patterned fish scales, "at least mermaids get to have good skin from the hips up."
In truth, it was a fairly petty complaint, especially since most of the scales were covered by her long-sleeved tights. Her transformation had left her thin, patchy, rather eye-catching coat of scales much thicker and more obvious, yes, but it had given her so much more than that. For example, her brown hair had been completely replaced by a mass of fine, soft, delicate blue tendrils that flowed and shimmered like a curtain of cerulean glitter. Her wings, too, were extravagantly beautiful, their aqua-marbled expanses modeled from the fins of some delightful sea creature, perhaps a lion fish or a sea horse. Her ears were longer, her eyes were solid blue pools that flashed in the sunlight, and her fingers were webbed and bore short talons where her nails had once been. In all, she looked like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, except hot. Along with her guardian leotard, which had thickened to become more like a wetsuit than spandex tights, she felt ready to enter a combined surfing competition and beauty contest in Atlantis.
Cornelia suddenly appeared next to her, flowing slowly and smoothly up out of the ground like she was riding an imaginary elevator. She looked like a dirt statue for a few seconds, but then that façade fell away, revealing her newly transformed body. As soon as she saw it, Irma felt a fresh flash of combined jealousy and admiration. If Irma was a beautiful sea monster, then Cornelia was some kind of dryad.
What had once been greenish-tinted skin with a faint layer of swirling vine-like tattoos was now colored like the bark of an ash-grey sapling, complete with occasional brown swatches, but smoother than even sanding and polishing could normally make wood. Her golden hair had become a mass of braids that seemed to be woven of living yellow grass, and fell to her hips in a sturdy spill that bloomed with dozens of different flowers. Her wings had become a fan of huge leaves, almost like she was a butterfly searching for camouflage, her ears were elongated like Irma's, her eyes were twin eternities of green light, and everywhere on her body was the subtle suggestion of vaguely Celtic patterns just under the surface in a darker shade of grey-brown. With her crown of resplendent hair, Cornelia looked like a cross between a young willow tree and a delicately carved wooden statue of a pagan goddess. Just like Irma's, Cornelia's guardian leotard had also undergone a subtle change, its long, flowing, and deeply-slit skirt embroidered with a pattern of knotted vines and foliage.
"We've got about ten seconds," Cornelia said, smiling over at Irma and showing teeth that were shockingly normal on her exotic body. "Do you want to go first, or…?"
"No, please," Irma gave a flourishing bow, "you go right ahead. I need some time to get my shot going, anyway." With that, Irma transformed into water and collapsed to the ground, splashing wildly and seeping into the soil.
Cornelia's grin widened as she held her hands out with her palms up, as though she were offering an imaginary bouquet of flowers to some conquering hero. Nothing happened at first, but when the leading wedge of the massed skull-drones came sprinting through the barely-visible force field, they were met with spectacular violence.
The only way to describe what Cornelia did would be to imagine a bed of nails being held against a paper screen. The field below Meridian Castle was the paper screen, and with a throb of power that shook the whole world, Cornelia shoved the bed of nails up into the world. A million spears of rock, each one eight feet tall and two feet wide at the base, all exploded out of the ground at the same time, rocketing to their full height in a split second. The oncoming horde of skull drones was shattered in an incomprehensible orgy of destruction, thousands upon thousands rent instantly to pieces as thousands more were tossed skyward.
With the barest flick of her petite wrists, Cornelia forced the spikes to explode like bombs, sending rock shrapnel everywhere in a hailstorm of destruction. Before the dust settled, she gave a twirling motion with one wrist, and the broken soil beneath the skull-drone graveyard began to churn like someone was running a thousand gargantuan blenders just beneath the surface. The wide spirals of debris flipped sharp stone shards and huge clouds of dirt through the wreckage, so that even as the skull-drones replicated, they were destroyed anew or sucked down into oblivion beneath the grinding earth. At length, Cornelia stopped, slightly winded by her efforts, and was dismayed to find a new crop of skull-drones replicating just beyond where she'd been destroying them, quickly building toward the numbers they'd had before she began.
"Don't these chumps know when they're outclassed?" Cornelia muttered, trying to come up with a new way to bury and rend the next rush of killing machines.
"Hey, Cornelia!" Irma suddenly slithered back up out of the ground and reformed herself from the water. "I've got something that'll blow these guys away. Do you think you could give me a nice, tall, multi-tiered cliff?"
"Why?" she asked, even as she began to think of how she would do it.
"Oh, you'll see. Just make sure it's as wide as the front of that bunch of robo-killers and faces toward them. I'll do the rest."
Without wasting any more time on questions or speculation, Cornelia faced back toward the castle. With a sigh and a grunt of effort, she raised a fifty-yard thick, fifth-of-a-mile-long platform some 30 stories into the air, effectively giving the foot of the crag upon which the castle stood a new, plateau-sized wall. As quick as she could, she raised an identical platform in front of that up to 20 stories, then a third in front of that up to ten stories. When she was done, she'd moved enough solid rock to build dozens of super-sized stadiums, and when it occurred to her what Irma was going to do with it, she finished them off with gently slanting tops.
Irma quickly flew over until she was standing at the center of the behemoth earth-wall, way down at ground level behind the tallest slab. Now the prep-work she'd done earlier paid off, and it was only a few seconds of concentration before the vast waterways beneath Meridian's crust bent to her will. She knelt down, calling to the water, drawing it into position, and the earth rumbled in agony. On the other side of the earthworks, a new, enormous mob of skull-drones was coming up fast, and Cornelia was just beginning to contemplate another round of wide-area crushing when Irma's attack began in earnest.
First the brook at the castle's feet, and then for ten miles in every direction from the castle, every river, every lake, absolutely every source of water ran dry, sucked into the ground, leaving behind mud and very unhappy fish. Irma went from kneeling to standing in a smooth motion, raising her arms above her head, and all of that water blasted out of the ground and came up beneath her. In the space of a few seconds, millions upon millions of gallons of water rose up along the length of the earthworks like the face of a world-ending tidal wave. At roughly forty stories high, Irma stopped pulling and began pushing.
The leading edge of the water curled over and hit the top of the tallest earthwork with a blow that rocked the world, then blasted down in a tumbling heap until it plummeted off the first cliff. The water gained speed again as it fell a second time, making the landscape buck, and was moving even faster as it shot out off the second cliff. It repeated it all again, and when it finally hit the ground, it was churned into a murderous whitewater and was going at better than thirty miles per hour. Irma floated up at the top, feeding more and more water into the cascade, and was perfectly positioned to admire the destruction she'd wrought.
If it had been possible to load up sixty freight trains, run them up to full speed, and send them hurtling at the oncoming skull-drones side by side, it still wouldn't have come close to doing as much damage as Irma's makeshift flood. The tide came sweeping down the slope of Meridian Castle's great crag in a wide, inescapable deluge, impacting with everything it touched with irresistible force. The skull drone army was swept away as one solid mass, along with all the grass and trees on the hillside, everything crushed together and pulverized into unrecognizable murky debris.
Irma quickly exhausted all the water in the area, forcing her to end the artificial tsunami. But, even as the flood spread out and lost momentum on the flatter ground, the mud and earth it had absorbed kept up its deadly force, leaving behind nothing but a badly-eroded earthworks wall and a scoured hillside.
"Wow, very nice," Cornelia was quick to compliment Irma as she flew up beside her at the top of the huge, temporary waterfall she'd been asked to build.
"Thank you, thank you, I saw that one in a video game once." Irma bore a self-satisfied expression that looked almost predatory on her scaly new visage.
"Great." Cornelia waited a moment for comic effect. "So, how are you going to keep the flood from destroying the city?"
"The city?" Irma's eyes flashed wide, their unbroken blue depths flickering with light in her sudden panic. Sure enough, the unbound flood was now crashing toward Meridian's charming wood-and-stone residences with many times more than enough force to flatten everything.
"Mmm, I didn't think you'd thought that one through," Cornelia taunted her friend without malice. "I mean, if I'd wanted to indiscriminately destroy everything in sight, I'd have just raised a volcano. I'm pretty sure I could pull that off right now. But hey, that's just me! Silly of me to not want to leave thousands of honest, hardworking Meridian villagers homeless and despondent—"
"Would you shut up and help me stop the flood?" Irma griped. Together the two of them dug trenches and diverted waterways at high speed, crushing new pockets of replicating skull-drones all the while. The ground force had been shattered, and what had once covered the landscape in a black-and-white tide had met its end at the hands of a more traditional sort of tide. Still, even the smallest fragment of skull-drone wreckage could replicate into a new soldier as long as they still received super-elemental energy from General Thorngrave's command platform. Even as they slowly won the fight to turn back Irma's flood, the earth and water elementals found themselves under attack by new, growing groups of super-strong, soulless killing-machines.
Elsewhere, the battle to solve that particular problem was taking place on a similarly epic scale.
Above Meridian Forest
The wyrms of General Thorngrave's task force never saw the ambush coming. Of course, they could hardly be blamed for missing it, and it wasn't due to a lack of intelligence on their part. The average wyrm is actually very smart for a vicious monster, and they're all controlled by enchanted amulets embedded in their skulls which let their human masters command them from any distance. No, anyone would have fallen for this particular ambush, because who anticipates that the air itself will strike against him?
Of the original fifteen wyrms that Thorngrave had brought to Meridian, five had been slain in combat, four more had been wounded so badly that they'd had to retreat to Siph, and six remained combat effective. These six were cruising in a flying-V formation toward Meridian Castle for a high-speed breath-bombing run when they were suddenly met by the downdraft to end all downdrafts. One moment all was calm, and the next, they were all struck by a spiraling column of air a half-mile wide and so terrifically powerful that it was like God himself had just taken a ball-pin hammer to the face of Meridian.
All six wyrms went rocketing to the ground like bullets, landing at roughly the same time that the downdraft struck the forest. The resulting chaos as all that moving air hit all that immovable ground was almost impossible to describe. The closest one can come is a combination between a huge bomb and a minor, localized hurricane—the land rocked from the initial impact, and then the true destruction began. For a few seconds, everything was a terrifying chaos of random wind currents strong enough to snap tree trucks or pick up a person and fling him for miles. In mere moments, however, the air pressures equalized, and all that was left was an eerie calm, a crater, and a gigantic section of forest where every tree had been knocked over in a symmetrical spiral formation.
"Okay…" Hay Lin gasped, hanging on Taranee's arm as they observed the destruction from a safe distance, "I think I overdid it a little on that one." It was something of an understatement, because if it weren't for her friend's arm, she probably wouldn't even have had the strength to fly.
As she slumped, the details of her transformed body became evident. It was actually a bit difficult to pin down the exact shape of her body most of the time, because her dragon kin form was something like a swirling cloud of blue-grey smoke contained within clear lusterless skin. Now that her power was flagging, the swirling smoke settled into an all-over mottling of blue and grey spots, as though someone had taken a paint brush of each color and flicked its bristles at the pale canvas of her skin for hours on end. Her long hair was bound in a single ponytail much as Yan Lin's had once been when she was a guardian, only this long bundle of hair was overflowing with interwoven black feathers that actually seemed to be part of her rather than mere decorations. She no longer had wings, and two sets of long, blue-and-grey ribbons emerged from the back of her tiny leotard top, swaying gracefully in the wind like the tail of a fancy kite. Like the others, her ears had lengthened and her eyes were glowing pools of her magic, light blue in her case, but Hay Lin had taken on an ephemeral quality all her own, as though she were weightless, and would be carried away by a breeze. Other than the ribbons replacing her wings, her guardian outfit hadn't changed.
"You did your part," Will hovered around and took up Hay Lin's other arm so she could just hang limp and rest for a while. "Taranee, as soon as Hay Lin can fly, we're going to go mop up down there."
"Are you kidding me?" Taranee glanced from Will, to the destruction, and back again quickly. "That shot was incredible! It would have cracked open a mountain! Those things won't be getting back up!"
"Sorry to burst your bubble, Taranee," Will nodded down at the crater where the dust was only now settling, "but it looks like it'll take more than a little whiplash to keep these things down."
Indeed, beneath them, five of the six wyrms were already crawling back up to their legs and stretching their wings. Their spell-shields had absorbed most of the force of the impact with air and ground, and they'd suffered little more than disorientation from the ambush. Only one, whose shields had been damaged by the battle earlier, had struck the ground hard, and now lay broken and burst to pieces in a forest gully.
"Oh man those things look angry!" Taranee whispered, remembering that the magic they'd been spitting earlier had shattered enchanted flying war machines.
"But they also look disoriented..." Will frowned. "We need to attack now. Hay Lin?"
"I can fly!" she protested, pulling her arms away from her friends and going into a lazy float between them. "I can fight, too. Just… give me a second…"
"Right, well," Will was already ramping up speed for her attack, "don't push yourself," she shouted as she darted away, "but hurry!" Will vanished the next instant, a twinkle of electricity on the air the only thing to mark her passage.
"Okay, so, I guess I'm going first?" Taranee said, not sounding eager in the least. "I just need to concentrate on not setting the sky on fire and setting off a thermonuclear chain reaction, and I'll be fine."
That said, the fire elemental began to power up. Of all the guardians, she was, perhaps, the most changed in this mature dragon kin body, and it never showed more clearly than as she gathered her power and prepared to strike.
Taranee's skin, once an alluring creamy brown, was now black as obsidian and smooth as glass, and the glowing orange cracks that had run through her elemental body were now thicker and more pronounced than ever, making her look like a gorgeous statue molded from fresh volcanic lava. Her hair, usually a misty black color and knotted close to her skull except for a few braids, was now a violent mane of short braids in every imaginable color of fire. Her wings were black and bat-like with vibrant red webbing, her eyes were like twin suns, her ears had grown to points, and she was surrounded by a shimmering of the air as her gathering magic sent out an enormous bloom of heat. The violet of her leotard had been replaced by black and the aqua with orange, making her sleeveless top almost invisible but for its lack of orange fissures and her tights vibrant above red-and-yellow striped leggings. If not for the The Oracle's fireproof glasses still gracing her face, it would have been distinctly difficult to recognize her.
"Let's see," Taranee muttered to herself, as she held out her hands to the sky and brought into existence a small point of intense heat. "Fire pun… fire pun… ug, nevermind." The tiny point of heat bloomed almost instantaneously into a gigantic fireball that hung in the air like a second sun. "I sure hope you homicidal lizards aren't fireproof!" Taranee shouted, and sent the fireball hurtling downward like a vast comet.
The wyrms, in fact, were not fireproof, at least not when this level of heat was involved, and were, as Will had observed, still very much disoriented by their sudden meeting with the ground. Despite their overseers shouting warnings into their brains, the creatures just hadn't yet recovered enough to react to this new attack in time. The blazing comet met the crater Hay Lin had begun and expanded it twofold.
There was nothing fancy about this manipulation of fire energy—it was an explosion of the most ordinary sort, only, well, gigantic. The concussive shockwave rocked Meridian for the fourth time that day, and peeled a layer off of the planet as far as a mile away from ground zero. The wash of wind swept the ground in all directions, still moving with gale-force as far away as the battlements of Meridian Castle. A smoke and debris column reached upward from the point of detonation as far as the eye could follow, and it was unimaginable that anything could have survived. Three wyrms managed it, somehow, and came darting out of the smoke in three different directions, furious and ready to kill.
"Ooof," Taranee moaned as her vision blurred and she began to plummet slowly out of the sky, buffeted by the shockwave of her own attack. "Your turn, Will." Moments later, Hay Lin appeared to catch her and support her through the gale.
The wyrms came out of the cloud and immediately began a spiraling search-and-destroy pattern, unaccustomed to being confronted with dangerous flying targets any smaller than an Artrian destroyer. It's rather ironic, considering that the magical auras the elemental ladies were giving off were enough to make so many trained soldiers doubt their own senses, that the wyrms had so much trouble finding their opponents. In the end, it was just that difficult to spot a five foot tall, three foot wide figure against the open sky at more than two miles away, not to mention that their auras were so overpowering that they weren't all that much help in localizing them to more than a general area. In all, it was enough of a challenge that the three battered wyrms were delayed for a few crucial moments before attacking, and that was all the time Will needed.
The wyrms were prepared for another attack from above, and were searching the horizon for their enemies. Thus, Will made a rather expert tactical decision, and used her teleportation power to outflank them, striking from directly below. The coherent beam of blue light that flashed up from the ground and pierced through the first wyrm, shields and all, like it wasn't even there, actually bore a striking resemblance to the blast of an Artrian battleship cannon. The beam faded as suddenly as it appeared, and there was a thunderclap as air rushed in to fill the space where ultra-intense heat had shoved it aside. Before the first wyrm could start to tumble from the sky, a five-foot hole seared directly through its central mass, the other two traced the beam to the ground and fired a counterattack.
They didn't even turn their long necks before firing, and the blasts of rainbow light that vented from their huge maws described curving paths through the air as they flashed down to the point Will had fired from. The resulting explosion as these battleship-killing blasts converged precisely at the same point was intense, and far more contained that the extravagant affairs the elementals had used against them. There was a spherical flash of light about fifty yards wide, and when it cleared away an instant later, there was a perfectly round crater where a hillside had been. This attack, too, was accompanied by a violent crack of thunder, because even the air had been eradicated from the area of that magical detonation. It was fortunate, then, that Will wasn't there.
The quintessence elemental reappeared directly in the path of another wyrm's flight, completely given over to her elemental nature, looking every bit like a statue of moving lightning. The wyrm barely had time to register her presence before a massive, curving blade of lightning grew in a flash from the side of Will's body of raging blue-white electricity. The cleaver was at least thirty feet long and eight feet wide, and if one had blinked against the glare of its appearance, he or she would have missed its ultra-fast strike. One moment the blade was on Will's right side, the next it was on her left, and a fan of after-image told the tale of its passage through the wyrm's body. A heartbeat later, the great, draconic beast was flying away in two different directions with all the speed it had held before its encounter with Will's magic.
The victorious elemental was a flicker of thought away from teleporting to safety when the final wyrm's breath caught her from the side. The sensation of having her magical essence forcibly rearranged by the explosion was the first thing like pain Will had felt since she'd awoken under Dr. Starder's ministrations, and the sudden intensity of it was almost enough to drive her to unconsciousness. As it was, it ejected her from her interface with her element, and her body became her physical guardian form just in time for the thunderclap of the explosion to snap in on her from all directions. Will went tumbling through the sky like she'd been flicked by a giant, trailing smoke all the way. Another blast came in from the final wyrm, but met only empty sky as Will finally tossed herself through space.
Miles away, she reappeared with all her tumbling momentum still in tow, flying down at Hay Lin and Taranee like a dragon kin cannonball. Hay Lin was caught off guard, but still managed to put up a padding wall of wind to slow her friend's headlong fall and eventually cushion her into Taranee's waiting arms. The creature that the fire elemental caught was nothing short of dazzling to behold, even with a mild coating of soot-like magical residue from her brush with death.
Just like the others', Will's transformation had built upon what began with Dr. Starder's initial reconstruction. Her skin had been alabaster white and lit with its own internal light before, and now it was all that, but with multiple sources for the light. It was as though Will were filled with a thousand arc lamp-bright fireflies, with tiny blue lightning bolts jumping randomly between their swirling clouds inside of her. Her hair, once frizzed with static lift and glowing like neon, was now a deeper shade of ruby and almost ethereal, as though the strands themselves were spun from opaque red light. Her wings were rather angelic, if feathers could be made of transparent diamonds of gossamer and gauze. Her ears came to points, her eyes were wells of brilliant pink, and she was surrounded by a crackle of restrained energy—being near her was like standing next to an electrical transformer or high-tension power lines. Her outfit was the only one to change nearly as much as Taranee's, with shimmering silver re-coloring her violet, baggy-sleeved top, black replacing her aqua skirt, and her leggings redone in black and white stripes.
"Ouch," Will managed to grumble, and the word came out with a wisp of smoke from her lips. She coughed and vented a cloud of glittering dust, unable to do much more than squirm weakly in Taranee's obsidian arms.
"Don't try to move, Will," Taranee advised her with an urgent whisper, her voice heavy with barely-restrained panic and rage at the injury dealt to her closest friend. "You just took a battleship-sinker on the chin."
"No," Will groaned, and forced herself to sit up and snatch Hay Lin's arm from where she floated nearby. "Gotta move!" With a huge effort, she teleported all three of them bare seconds before they were slapped by an extreme long-range blast of wyrm's breath. Such a shot would have been less than useless against a warship's shields, but the three dragon kin would have been badly scorched at least.
The girls landed in a stretch of forest about a mile from the explosion, where Will immediately tumbled to her knees in exhaustion. Her glow dimmed to almost nothing, leaving her hair a lank tangle of dull red strands and her skin the tarnished pearl of an unlit light bulb. She took several deep breaths, and her glow started to return slowly, until she finally had the strength to speak.
"Someone go trash that last one," she gasped out between breaths, "before it finds us again."
Taranee and Hay Lin's eyes met, and they nodded to each other with matching smiles.
"I'll set it up," Hay Lin began.
"And I'll knock it down," Taranee agreed, and they lifted off with twin bursts of magical flair as they both merged with their elements at the same time. Hay Lin merely vanished seamlessly into the sky, but Taranee exploded, directing the force of it out in an expanding ring of fire as she launched upward like a rocket.
The last wyrm noticed Taranee immediately, and sent a deadly blast of breath her way. This was, of course, the whole point of her dynamic liftoff, and Hay Lin followed the breath trail back to the wyrm long before the blast reached Taranee. With an effort of will, the invisible air elemental hardened the sky in front of the wyrm into the rough equivalent of thick steel plating. The wyrm struck it at high speed and bounced, destroying its aim and sending it into an uncontrolled spiral. The blast it had sent at Taranee went wildly off course, and Hay Lin quickly caught it inside of a gigantic, swirling vortex before it could recover from its spin-out. The vortex kept it too disoriented to fire, and more importantly, left it relatively still as Taranee lined up a shot from more than a mile away.
The rough human figure of pure flame that lit up the sky so far down-range lifted one hand, and that hand quickly bloomed with red light that was more of a promise of destruction than any particular type of fire. The red light gathered, then contracted to something the size of a baseball. Taranee held out the ball of light in front of her face, aimed it at the spinning wyrm, and blew across it like she was blowing a kiss. The ball took off like a bullet, trailing a cloud of crimson sparkles as it crossed the sky for several long seconds. At the last moment, Hay Lin dropped the vortex, and the red light plowed directly into the wyrm.
This explosion was far more contained than her last one, but was more effective for being concentrated. Rather than a small nuclear device, this blast resembled an extremely large artillery round going off, and when the fireball faded, the last wyrm's remains were plummeting slowly to the ground like some huge, fire-gutted zeppelin.
"Wow, good work, girls," Will said, as she suddenly appeared just behind Taranee's flaming elemental form. She had much of her glow back, but still looked scorched and shaky.
"That was intense," Taranee replied, shifting back to a physical body and adjusting her glasses. "I had so much power that… that…"
"That it was hard to control at first, right?" Hay Lin helped her to finish as she melted back into view, the clouds of smoke swirling strongly under her clear skin. "I just wasn't expecting that much magic to come out—I almost knocked myself silly with that first blast."
"Yeah," Taranee nodded, "but after that, it was easier. You just have to… well… concentrate."
"I think that's a lesson we'll all have to remember," Will sighed, gazing out over the horrific destruction they'd wrought upon Meridian Forest in their clumsy, terrain-altering first blush of power. "Just look at this place! We did more damage than the bad guys!"
"Oh man, you're right!" Taranee was suddenly fretting at the forest fires that swept the landscape, venting huge smoke clouds. Almost a mile-wide circle of forest was now a barren, ash-filled crater, and no trees stood for miles more around that. As many as five miles away, one could still find the occasional tree knocked over or splintered, and the forest fires were spreading quickly. "I haven't seen destruction like this since I watched that documentary on the volcanic explosion of Mt. Saint Helens. Guys, we're like a bunch of natural disasters waiting to happen!"
"Calm down, Taranee," Will chided her, and buzzed forward to squeeze her into a hug until she relaxed a bit. "We've got it under control now, right? Just think, we could be in… what did the doctor call it? E.R.E.? You know, mindless and crazy and wanting nothing more than to get some cheep thrills with our powers. If we did that much damage by accident, think of what we could do on purpose!"
"That's supposed to comfort me?" Taranee said, sounding miserable.
"It's supposed to put things in perspective," Will began, only for Taranee to stiffen suddenly in her arms. Will checked her friend's face in reflexive concern, but relaxed when she noticed the distant look Taranee always got when she was engaged in telepathic communication.
"Didn't the professor say to avoid telepathy?" Will muttered, but didn't interrupt.
"I guess he never told Elyon that," Taranee answered, looking a bit cross as she spit her attention.
"It's Elyon?" Hay Lin's interest was up, and she looked ready to try and concentrate until she could listen in on the conversation.
"She says the battle has bogged down over near the castle," Taranee reported, "Cornelia and Irma were untouchable, and they've contained things for now, but they can't seem to stamp out the last of those skull-drones."
"Right, well, I guess we know where we're heading next," Hay Lin quipped, and Taranee began to answer her when she suddenly stopped, letting out a choked coughing noise instead.
"Are you all right?" Will asked.
"EEEEEAAAAAHHHHH!" Taranee let out a wail of abject anguish as she clutched her obsidian hands to her short, violently colorful braids, shuddering in uncontrolled spasms of agony. The seizure lasted for an excruciating eternity of five seconds, and then Taranee was dropping to the earth like a stone.
Will and Hay Lin caught her well before she reached the ground, lowering her gently until they could lay her upon a bed of grass. Their terror for their friend was written across their faces as they each struggled to find a single word after that awful shock.
"Girls, can you hear me? Are you all right?" an illusion of Dr. Starder appeared out of nowhere, interrupting the terrified silence.
"Doc?" Will gasped, unbelievably happy to have even the shade of the miraculous life-saver on hand. "What happened to Taranee? What's was that?"
"That…" the doctor answered, "was a shatter bomb. I warned you, I know I warned you, but… nevermind."
"I still don't get it, what happened to Taranee?" Hay Lin was on the verge of tears, the clouds beneath her skin becoming deep grey and stormy.
"A shatter bomb sends a pulse of telepathic energy through the world," the doctor said, his voice even and grim. "To you or me, it's like it never happened, but anyone using telepathy has her own powers turned in upon her mind like an attack."
"Will she be okay?" Hay Lin peeped, hardly daring to hope.
"Her mind is strong, and this transformation of yours should have given her some defense besides." At their continued expressions of distraught confusion, the doctor went on, "I'm sure she's just badly stunned. You need to get her someplace where she can rest—"
Doctor Starder stopped suddenly, totally absorbed by something happening in front of him wherever his real body was at, and his expression when he looked back up was mildly terrified.
"Girls, every Dragon King soldier still standing is heading straight for you, including their commander, their wizards, and what looks like somebody with the power of a world's Heart."
"Hmph," Will growled, suddenly incensed. These were the same people that had dared to hurt her friend. "We laid the smack-down on their dragon-things, so let's see how the rest of them like the same treatment. As soon as I drop T off somewhere safe, we'll get the other girls together and go say 'hi' to these Dragon King cronies."
Intent on making words as good as action, Will knelt down and put a hand on Taranee and then took Hay Lin's hand as well. She winced in concentration, and then winced again like she'd been stung.
"What's the deal?" she snapped, "I can't move us!"
"Wait," Starder's illusion said, his hands moving over some sort of instrument panel or keyboard that was not projected along with his image. "Holy hell! Somebody's tossed a spatial lock spell over the whole damn forest!"
"Spatial lock?" Hay Lin asked, frightened that she already knew what it meant.
"It's like a small-scale, heavy-duty veil. No teleporting, no space folds, no portals," Starder almost groaned. "It only lasts for a few minutes, but there's no way to counter it until it wears off or you get outside its area!"
"This is getting bad, Will," Hay Lin pleaded with her eyes, "I know we're all juiced up now, but—"
"Yeah, we can't chance anything with Taranee down for the count," Will nodded. "Help me fly her out of here. Doc, contact the others on your projector-phone magic and have them meet us on the way out. We'll need someone to run interference—"
The was a sudden, loud beeping noise from the general vicinity of Will's chest, and everyone looked there to find the Heart of Candracar throbbing with brilliant light and an insistent, piercing noise. No one knew what was happening, so they just watched as the beeping and flashing grew in frequency and intensity, and then stopped without warning. The silent Heart was dark, devoid of light and magic, and hung on its chain like a bit of worthless glass.
"Oh crap!" Will shouted, looking down to find herself in her scrawny, fifteen-year-old body again. Her simple white dress hung from her immature frame as her glowing skin flared with her new panic. Hay Lin in her white, ill-fitting, man's shirt and short blue skirt mirrored her look of horror, and between them, Taranee was once again a petite and creamy-skinned teen in her red vest and long, crimson skirt.
"Heart?" Will asked, when she finally had the presence of mind to say anything at all, "what's wrong?" She held it up and found it to be dull and lifeless, and it was one of the most terrifying things she'd ever seen. "Uh-oh… I think we broke it."
Hay Lin just stared at her, too horrified for words, and the blue and grey specks freckling her face faded to almost nothing as she paled with gut-wrenching fear.
"Um, Doc?" Will turned to the illusion of Dr. Starder that was still wavering nearby, finding the man to look, if anything, even more stunned than the girls themselves. "Help?"
Dr. Starder looked pale and drawn, even through his illusionary image, and actually seemed to be shaking a bit. Then he looked around at the three young girls, already battered by combat and now virtually helpless as a huge force of ruthless killers bore down on them in overwhelming numbers. Although it was difficult to tell through his nauseated expression, he seemed to grow some spine right there before their eyes.
"Don't worry, girls. Help is on the way."
Thorngrave's Command Platform, Moments Ago
General Thorngrave watched the last of his mighty wyrm force go down in flames and felt fear and ambition war ceaselessly in his normally cold heart. He'd dealt with dragon kin before, long, long ago, and their power was every bit as terrifying as he remembered. Why, right before his eyes, three of them had obliterated five wyrms without showing the slightest loss of potency. Admittedly, the wyrms were already worn out by the Artificers and had been ambushed quite magnificently, but the principle of relative force strengths was clear. Comparing a full set of these monsters to his own gaggle of skull-drones, wizards, and The Fang was utterly laughable.
And yet, something inside of him couldn't help but find the overwhelming challenge this represented an exciting and alluring prospect. The past centuries in stalemate with Artria had been nightmarishly dreary, an utter waste of his talents as a commander. Now, he faced the challenge of a lifetime, and to simply leave was out of the question. Of course, it also helped that, should he return empty-handed after losing fifteen wyrms, the Dragon King would forget his near-eternity of service and obliterate him in a fit of rage.
"Scan every communication frequency and energy-type," Thorngrave followed a sudden flash of intuition. "I have a feeling these barbarians are a few thousand years behind on information security techniques."
The staff of wizards and elite soldiers surrounding him on the command platform was still reeling from the sight of the distant battle, with all its earth-shattering explosions and the graphic demise of their remaining wyrm force. He had to slam his hands loudly on the flying platform's safety railing to snap them all back to their duties.
"Sir!" a scry-wizard reported seconds later, "there's been some recent activity on the telepathic band. I think I can localize it to at least one of the class five energy signatures."
"Telepathy?" Thorngrave growled out a sinister noise, his voice changing as he grinned under his red plate-helm. "Delightful! Arm a shatter bomb immediately."
"Um, shatter bomb?" the ordinance wizard sounded uncertain. "Why would we have one of those old things? People stopped using telepathy in combat a month after they were invented!"
"We have one because I packed it into the magazine myself," Thorngrave replied, using a tone that would tolerate no further back-talk. The dubious wizard checked his inventory with a small spell, and looked shocked when he actually found it.
"Wow, sir, how did you know we would need it?" the wizard asked, as he hurried to pull the bomb from the magical place where it was stored, making it appear in his open hand. It was an unimpressive device about the size of a grapefruit, and it began to glow as he cast a spell to arm it.
"I didn't, you simpering imbecile," Thorngrave reminded himself that he couldn't kill the fool for incompetence until after he fired the bomb, "it was merely a contingency plan. If you survive a dozen centuries of warfare," 'which I doubt you will,' he didn't add, "you'll learn that fortune always favors he who is prepared for all possible outcomes."
"Sir, more activity on the telepathic band," the scry-wizard assigned to monitor communications reported. "It's the dragon kin again."
"Wait, one of them is a teleporter," Thorngrave mused out-loud, "cast a spatial lock over the area. The minute it's in place, fire the shatter bomb."
No one argued this time. For all his cold distance and bent toward the vicious, Thorngrave was an inspiring leader. He'd already unconsciously convinced these men that they could take on creatures that obliterated wyrms with nothing but skull-drones and The Fang. The rather moronic ordinance wizard had wanted to remind his commander that a spell as powerful as a wide-area spatial lock would drain most of their elemental energy reserve, but some survival instinct forced him to hold his tongue.
"Spatial lock up!" a wizard reported.
"Firing shatter bomb!" the ordinance wizard said. There was no sensation, but the ball in his hand popped open and released a mild white shimmering that quickly dissipated.
"Shatter successful!" a scry-wizard shouted, sounding surprised despite himself. "Two hits—and one of them was a dragon kin! Total cessation of thought confirmed! She's been knocked out!"
"Set course for that element channel! Full speed!" Thorngrave shouted, voice edged with the thrill of victory. "All forces, converge on their position, ignore the healthy channels and capture that wounded dragon kin! If we can capture even one, our Lord will become unstoppable! And of course, the reward will be a king's ransom!"
The platform accelerated to full speed, wind whipping past them as they sped off to the sound of their skull-drone reserve mobilizing beneath them to follow Thorngrave's orders. The crystal ball in the center of the platform showed symbols representing all of the moving forces, and everything the scry-wizards could see with their powers was also fed in. As they watched, the forces spread out into a u-formation that would eventually surround the elementals and come at them from all sides. There would be horrible casualties, of course, these creatures took out wyrms, for heaven's sake. But, skull-drones were almost impossible to put down as long as the magic reserve held out, and the one elemental was helpless. The Fang, too, controlled enormous power, and was indestructible. The chance for victory was still there.
"Unholy Siph!" one scry-wizard suddenly cursed, and Thorngrave turned to find the man gone pale, a bemused expression plastered across his face.
"What is it?" Thorngrave growled, already imagining some creative counter-move from his nemesis, Admiral Straight.
"Sir, I can hardly believe it, but… the class five energy readings have gone back down to their original ratings! They've just… I don't know… vanished I suppose—and just as quickly as they appeared! Whatever was empowering them must have worn out!"
Thorngrave paused at this news, and for a long moment, he was entirely unable to believe his luck. He literally couldn't believe it, in fact.
"There's no chance that they're masking their power somehow?" Thorngrave asked, cautious whenever any situation seemed too good to be true.
"It would have to be one hell of an illusion, to cover up auras like those," the scry-wizard replied, grinning with almost manic glee.
Thorngrave paused a second time, but he just couldn't find anything else to question. With sudden energy, he threw his armored head back and let out a powerful, maniacal laugh. When his energetic mirth was finally spent, he slapped his hands down on the platform's banister railing again and looked out eagerly over the forest.
"Can't this tub go any faster?" he shouted, "we've got a whole cosmos to conquer!"
Meridian Castle's Battlements, Earlier
"—so am I to understand that you were trying to kidnap my friends, guests of my kingdom, even in the midst of this life-or-death battle?" Elyon almost roared, her eyes flashing with anger. She was flanked by Caleb on one side with his boom-stick glowing and Matt on the other, his enormous cannon pointed only vaguely away from the crowd of Artrians she addressed.
"Please, Your Majesty," the haggard-looking Major Letran stood at the center of his forces, "You must understand that the threat the Dragon King represents is bigger than you or me. The only chance to keep this war from spreading all through the worlds is to get your 'friends' into protective custody." All around him, marines in bulky powered armor were hurrying to line up and file onto recovery boats, car-sized flying machines that carried them up to the many boxy pod-carriers above that were waiting to fly them out of Meridian.
"The way I hear it, these goons of yours," she pointed to Lt. Bird and her two muscle-bound associates, who flanked their provisional commander during this diplomatic incident, "broke down the door and tried to place my friends under arrest for no apparent reason. This is while they were receiving life-saving medical care from their doctor, I might add."
"A doctor who is a criminal fugitive from Artrian justice," Major Letran countered. "We're interested in taking him with us, too."
"I was told he fled Artria to escape slavery, and it's a story I find myself very ready to believe," Elyon was using a tone that made her accusations like physical blows against the essentially decent Major. Behind him, Lt. Bird was smirking carelessly and eyeing the Queen and her allies like a cat would watch a mouse.
"Our customs and laws are not yours," the Major didn't miss a beat, "but that doesn't change the fact that Savant Gen Starder is a criminal. Meanwhile, your friends the element channels represent a manifest threat to the peace of all civilization everywhere. The Dragon King will never stop trying to own them, and Artria is the only place beyond his reach. For their own safety and the safety of all peace-loving people, you must convince them to come with us."
This time, the Major scored a hit, and Elyon looked slightly less certain of her righteous indignation. Matt and Caleb just looked even angrier than before, although it was tough to tell past Shagon's golden mask.
"I… I would need all kinds of guarantees on their safety and treatment before I do any such thing," Elyon eventually decided. "Guarantees backed up by the Council of Candracar, at least."
"Perhaps there is some merit in that line of negotiations," the Major didn't let his disappointment show. He had no power to make any such agreements with anyone, but no one here knew that. Lt. Bird leaned in on his side and whispered in his ear.
"We have them surrounded by your forces. Let's just capture them and use them as hostages!"
"That Queen is a full-scale Heart," the Major hissed back, "and that winged guy is no slouch either. It'd get bloody in a real hurry."
"So what? It's our only chance! The mission can still be completed!"
"So the lady with the attitude is still up here?" a new voice came up from beneath their feet. Before anyone could wonder where it came from for more than a moment, Cornelia emerged from the stone of the castle's walls to stand between the two opposed factions.
"Cornelia!" Elyon and Caleb shouted their happiness at the same time, and came up from either side to take turns wrapping her in hugs. They spent some time marveling at her changed appearance as Irma shot up from the courtyard well in the form of water and coalesced into a person next to Matt.
"Hey Matt," Irma said, feeling a bit bad for him as Cornelia did her typically efficient job of stealing the lime light.
"Hey Irma," Matt replied, looking her up and down, "I like your new look. It's very 'Atlantian Princess.'"
"Yeah, I know," she preened, showcasing her scaled hands and face like a jewelry model, "I was a bit ticked at first, but it's really starting to grow on me. I mean, look at the way these scales catch the light—it's like I'm wearing a solid coating of sapphires and emeralds!"
"So…" Matt only hesitated for a moment, "how's Will look?"
"One track mind much?" Irma taunted him, and Matt was glad he had Shagon's golden mask to cover the blush he would otherwise have grown. "Nothing to worry about, Romeo, she looks great. Try to imagine the patron angel of synth-pop and electronica music, if she was also a bit goth. Although you might want to wait to smooch with her until she changes back. I get the feeling kissing her would be like sticking your tongue in a power outlet."
"Isn't that how it's supposed to feel?" Matt taunted her. It was actually not so creepy, despite coming from the gigantic frame of Shagon.
"Aww, that's cute," Irma mimed an episode of gagging, "but also gross."
"Anyway," Cornelia was addressing both sides of the standoff on the castle walls, "we more or less drove off the skull drones, although they're still multiplying out there. When we saw that the fireworks were over and those flying geckoes were all toasted, we came back here to wait for the others. We would have just called them ourselves, but apparently, despite being able to follow us through elemental transformations and high-magic combat, our ear-bug-things weren't waterproof… IRMA," she shot an accusation over her shoulder.
"Hey, I said I was sorry!" Irma griped right back at her.
"Are they here yet?" Cornelia asked, far more pleasantly.
"Not yet," Elyon answered, "I'm going to contact them. Hold on," she began to concentrate on telepathy and several people spoke up at once.
"That's a bad idea," Irma and Cornelia said at the same time.
"It really is," Major Letran added a moment later, shocked that these people would know about modern anti-communication weaponry. "The threat of—"
"Nonsense," Elyon waved them all off, fully distracted, "It'll just take a second."
No one knew what to say. She was the Queen, after all.
"Apparently, they're all okay," Elyon reported as she spoke with Taranee, so many miles away. "Will took a hit from that magical dragon breath, but she was in elemental form at the time, and it didn't do much more than singe her and knock the breath out of her."
"Oh, man," Matt said, his grip on his weapon tightening.
"I'll tell them to—" She was caught up short, her faced creased into a mask of abject agony, and she collapsed to her knees. Cornelia caught her before she could fall further, but Elyon went totally limp in her arms. When the general commotion and shock wound down, they found the Queen of Meridian to be unconscious and unresponsive.
"Sir," an aid shouted down from the garden terrace where the command post was still operating, "we just detected a shatter bomb detonation!"
"Of course," Major Letran slammed a fist into his palm, "those Dragon King scumbags must have been monitoring the telepathic band. Her Majesty here and whoever she was talking to are going to be unconscious for hours. If it had been anyone less than an elemental and a world's Heart, the detonation would have been fatal."
"Someone is going to pay for this one," Cornelia said, finding a quiet, sturdy section of the battle-beaten wall to set Elyon down. "Irma, you know Will is going to be here any second, get ready to roll."
"I'm ready," she said right away, her expression of concern for Elyon becoming a hard look of barely-restrained violence.
"We really can't allow you to run right into the Dragon King's arms," Major Letran made one last appeal to reason. "I'm sure we can work something out if you all stay here and agree to come with us when the battle is over."
"Save your breath, Major," Lt. Bird cut in, "The Dragon King's paltry forces don't stand a chance against these mighty dragon kin. Let them have their revenge for their friends."
"That's the first sensible thing you've said since I met you," Cornelia gave her an arrogant, nasty glare. Lt. Bird just smiled back, waiting for her opportunity to grab some important hostages and radically alter the diplomatic landscape.
"You know, I kind of expected Will to have poofed over here by now," Irma said, after they'd all waited through a long minute of tense silence. "You don't think something hap—" with a sudden rippling of magical forces, Irma and Cornelia transformed back into their teenage bodies. Other than their physical oddities, their gowns made them look like a princess and her handmaiden, with Cornelia in resplendent green and Irma in a menial's browns.
"CRAP!" Irma got out her shocked noise first.
"What the heck?" Cornelia said, a moment later.
"YES!" Lt. Bird shouted, and her blue energy field suddenly flashed to life just seconds before her two goons activated theirs as well. "Looks like the shoe is on the other foot, ladies. You want to reconsider your position on coming along quietly yet?"
"You can't catch us," Cornelia was defiant, but there was no confidence behind her stand. The fact that they'd just reverted with no explanation at all was enough to terrify her.
"Maybe not, but it would be a real shame if something unfortunate happened to your royal friend here while you were hiding," Lt. Bird's voice was dripping with cruelty, and her rush of satisfaction as Cornelia's green features went pale was obvious.
"You can't threaten foreign royalty," Major Letran protested, finally pushed a bit too far. "Stand down, Lieutenant!"
"I don't take my orders from you, Letran," Lt. Bird turned to spit the words at him, more than fed up with the resistance she'd gotten from the stuffy, higher-ranking officer. Turning her head, however, was quite a serious mistake. She saw motion out of the corner of her eye, but before she could get halfway turned around again, she was punted in the stomach by a full-power blast from a boom stick. Her energy field absorbed the damage, but the force of it was enough to blast her head over heels backward at bone-breaking speed.
"Matt, now!" Caleb shouted, already charging his boom-stick for another shot. The huge, winged frame of Shagon leveled the long, rotating barrels of his weapon at the other two special ops soldiers, drilling one of them into ground with beams from his eyes as the other was staggered back and away by a high-speed stream of bullets that exploded into hot gas as they pelted his powerful shields.
The dozen or so marines that had yet to load up on the escape ships turned and leveled their weapons uncertainly on Matt and Caleb. They weren't really sure what was going on, but they'd just seen Artificers attacked by natives. Only the fact that one of the attackers was giving of the same targeting signal as a friendly soldier held them back.
All three special ops soldiers were up in no time at all, and would have converged on the young men and women with deadly efficiency if not for the sudden thunder of noise from up on the garden terrace. The battle came to a sudden halt as the command drop ship that the Major and his staff had flown in on suddenly lifted off with a roar of blue flame from its engines. Jaws flopped open as it was sent through an ugly, dangerous maneuver that left its huge, open side-access doors level with the castle walls next to Matt, Caleb, and the girls.
"IN!" Irma shouted, shocking her friends into action. Matt lifted Caleb in one hand and chucked him across the twenty-foot gap to the open doors, then lifted Elyon's small form in his free arm and flew across after him. Cornelia stomped on the wall, sending a cloud of thick stones out to make a pathway and dashing over it, the stones falling away behind her. Irma blasted a gush of water from her hands to the open doors, then transformed into water and flowed along the wet path before it could fall, appearing on the other side in a wet explosion.
The next second, before the doors could even close, the ship was flung around through another ungainly maneuver as the afterburners flared, throwing it violently off toward the horizon.
"Someone stole my command ship!" Major Letran was dumbfounded, his jaw hanging open as he watched his own drop ship jetting away without him or any of his staff aboard.
"Blast!" Lt. Bird snapped, collecting her two cronies with a word and zipping over toward the line to board the recovery boats, quickly stealing a ride of her own. With Major Letran shouting threats and imprecations at her back, she and her boys went streaking off after the escaping elementals.
Aboard the Commandeered Drop Ship
"What the heck was that all about?" Caleb asked, once he and Matt had finally closed the open doors and cut off the roaring wind, leaving the ship sealed up and calm but for everyone's ragged breathing. "I thought the Artificers had betrayed us. What are we doing on one of their ships?"
"Dr. Starder is flying this thing," Irma groaned and peeled herself off the floor, stumbling over to find a seat. All the chairs in the passenger bay were lined up against the walls facing inward, where lots of loose straps were lying around. A bunch of equipment had once been strapped down between the passengers, perhaps allowing them to work as the ship flew. "Will and the others are in a bunch of trouble, and we're the cavalry."
"How do you know that?" Matt asked. He'd shed his weapon and was squatting toward the back of the passenger area. The seats were far too small for him. On the other hand, he'd set Elyon's unconscious form in one of the seats and buckled her in to secure her against the bouncing turbulence.
"Because an illusion of him is standing right here next to us, telling us all about it," Cornelia grumbled, finding a seat for herself. Her tone was just sarcastic enough that the boys weren't quite sure if she was serious.
"This is your Captain speaking," a voice came in over the ship's intercom, a bit weak and nervous and everyone jumped a little in surprise. "We're currently flying directly into a force of about a thousand skull-drones, a dozen powerful wizards, and at least one world's Heart. The plan is to get in, grab your friends, and get back out as fast as possible. Now, if someone's available, I could use a co-pilot up here."
"I'm going," Caleb said, before anyone else could answer. He'd noticed the fear in the man's voice, and it made him nervous. "Sit tight and get ready for things to get hairy."
Everyone nodded, and Caleb made his way to the front of the passenger bay, where a series of small alcoves separated the center of the ship from its cockpit. With some difficulty, he managed to scramble up and over a central console and slide into a seat. Every surface around him was covered in glowing and blinking symbols, and a bunch of fully 3D displays hovered above his head and near his knees. He looked over and found Dr. Starder in the seat on his left, a huge, bulky helmet cover his face.
"Hey Doc," Caleb said, a little bit intimidated by all the complex equipment all around him. He'd never even gotten used to Earth technology, much less all of this dazzling magical stuff. "So, you stole this ship, huh? Pretty sneaky."
"The plan was never to actually steal it," Dr. Starder answered, sounding distinctly uncomfortable as he moved his hands over the consoles in what seemed like random patterns. "I figured if I snuck in here, it would be the last place anyone would look for me, and I could use the ship's instruments to help everyone. This whole grand theft warship thing was a desperation move."
"Right, right…" Caleb paused a moment, then added, "you seem kinda nervous Doc."
"Nervous? I'm freaking terrified!" he almost gibbered out the words and was pretty close to simpering once he actually said them. "I'm no fighter, and here I am flying directly into a deathtrap! I've never hurt anybody in my life, the very idea of it makes me ill, but I'm about to be on a battlefield… like… physically on a battlefield!"
"Okay, calm down," Caleb said, his body thrilling with terror as the ship rocked violently in response to the doctor's outburst. "You won't have to hurt anyone, just keep the ship in the air and we'll take care of the rest!"
"It's just," the man was talking to himself now, "I couldn't leave those girls to the Dragon King. This is happening because of me, because I exist, and I knew how to do what no one else could have done. If I hadn't been here, these ladies would have been just five more souls lost to the seduction of elemental existence."
"Hey, now, that's enough of that," Caleb had steel in his voice now, "you saved their lives, Doc, and that was the right thing to do. The fact that this Dragon King joker wants to use them as weapons is not your fault. What those other guys want to do, lock them up in a box somewhere or whatever, that isn't any better."
"Right, well," the doctor at least seemed calmer now, "I'm still responsible in all this. I have to make things right, or at least try to anyway. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't at least try."
"Okay, okay Doc," Caleb tried to change the subject, "why don't you tell me how you managed to steal this thing? Don't ships like this usually have a pilot?"
"Actually, a ship like this practically flies itself," he answered, successfully distracted, "so the pilot is usually just another member of the officer's staff. Of course, I didn't have the codes, but I came to an understanding with the ship's systems. A Savant can break any security that wasn't designed by another Savant, and Savant-designed systems are too complex for regular folks to use."
"Savant… I heard that Major guy call you that, too," Caleb continued to keep the man distracted from his terror as he watched the displays. They were closing on the dots that had to be Will and the others, but so were a whole bunch of angry red dots that had to be the enemy. "What is a Savant, anyway?"
"You see this?" Starder touched his face, indicating the complex tattoo that meandered from his forehead down to his chin. "It's called an eylert. Every Artificer has one. It's like a magical information storage device. If you have one, you can ask it questions, and if the information was put into it in the past, it can answer them. For most people on Artria, that's all it does."
"But not for Savants?" Caleb asked, actually getting a little interested now. He didn't really understand all that well, but it was still interesting.
"A Savant has a special connection to his or her eylert. We can use the stored information as quickly as if it was part of our own minds. It lets us remember everything we see and make connections between information faster than normal people."
"Umm…" Caleb began, completely lost.
"It makes us really smart," Starder said. "Savants can also copy their eylert's information. Basically, parents can pass down everything their family has ever learned to their children, or hand it out to non-Savants like a really, really complicated magical textbook."
"So, why do they try to keep you guys locked up?" Caleb asked, following the natural progression of questions. This time, the doctor hesitated.
"Most Savants…" he began, "aren't really anything at all like me…"
A sudden beeping from the console in front of them saved Starder from having to answer more of that question. He examined a light that looked like any other, and he grew an odd sort of smile.
"We're getting a message!" he said, excited.
"Probably just those jerks wanting their flying wagon back." Caleb grimaced, remembering the naked sadism on that one soldier-lady's face as she cornered Cornelia with a threat on his Queen's life.
"No… it's from the mother ship. What?" he was talking to himself again, "Heart Ship One? That can't be right."
"Whatever, just ignore them," Caleb suggested, not really interested in talking to the soldiers that had abandoned Meridian to those dragon-monsters and tried to kidnap his friends on the way out of town.
"Actually, we can't cut the signal without breaking the device," Starder informed him. "It says the message is directly from Admiral Straight. I hope you're ready to meet a war hero."
Aboard the Artrian Flagship, "Heartbreaker," Earlier
Admiral Straight stared into her holographic view-tank and found her eyes bulging. All six remaining wyrms were obliterated, and the magical pyrotechnics that had achieved that dizzying task had been nothing short of awe-inspiring. That it had been done by only three of the element channels she'd come to claim, virtually effortlessly by these three, was almost more than she could accept at first. After witnessing that, she allowed herself to feel the slightest hope that she would not have to fire the Heartbreaker cannon after all. Too soon, of course.
Minutes ticked by, and everything turned right around again. A shatter bomb detonated, disabling one of the channels and the Heart of Meridian. A spatial lock trapped three of them, including their wounded comrade, miles away from any help. And to put a cap on the disaster, they suddenly reverted from the astonishing heights of class five energy to the very ordinary and unimpressive class two ratings they started with.
"How long would it take to get back down there and give them air support?" the Admiral asked.
"Our fastest destroyers could get down there in six minutes," the tactical officer answered, "everything else a bit later. But, we burnt up a lot of energy getting up here in the first place, even with gravity on our side, the ships would be short on power when they arrived. We need time to charge the energy banks."
"Can we divert the reserve power from the Heartbreak cannon's charge?" she asked next.
"We can, but we would not be able to charge it a second time for a good thirty minutes. That would give this one battleship a few minutes of full-firepower when it got down there some eight minutes from when we start."
"How long before the Heartbreaker cannon is locked on target?" she asked. Once again, a small gasp went around the flag bridge at this question. For a while, they'd all thought they wouldn't need it.
"I'm sorry ma'am," the special weapons technician answered in a tiny voice. "We were tracking our target by her mental signature. We had no way of knowing the shatter bomb would knock her out. We've had to start over—"
"I didn't ask for your excuses," the Admiral's voice was dangerous, "I asked you to give me the estimate."
"T-t-ten minutes," she stammered.
"Mr. Jeffries?" She turned to her intelligence officer.
"Ah… the Dragon King's forces will make contact with the three trapped element channels within the next two minutes. There's no telling how long it will take them to subdue them, lower their spatial lock, and flee the dimension but…"
"It sure as hell won't take eight minutes," Admiral Straight said what everyone was thinking. Skull-drones were fast, and The Fang was down there, and she'd become famous by breaking into a battleship, wrecking its engines from the inside, and then somehow surviving the explosion. "It probably won't take two minutes."
No one knew what to say. There was nothing they could do that would make any difference. Even their ace in the hole was impotent. For just a moment, the indomitable Admiral looked beaten. Then, staring into the holo-tank, she saw one icon far, far out of place.
"Mr. Jeffries, why is that drop ship speeding toward the trapped element channels at full military power?" Everyone looked, and everyone was startled to see what she saw. "And… is that a recovery boat speeding hot on their tale?"
"It must be some kind of malfunction…" the intel officer muttered, and one could tell he was confused if he actually questioned his own beloved sensors.
"I actually suspect shenanigans of some sort are a bit more likely." Admiral Straight now bore a truly cryptic smirk. "Get me that drop ship, right now. I want to speak to whoever is piloting it."
The order was obeyed, and long seconds ticked by in tense waiting. Eventually a square of light was projected onto the thin air, and it showed them all the pilot and co-pilot occupying the ship's cockpit. One was an Artificer, but he wasn't wearing any uniform and had a bizarre smile. The other was some sort of native barbarian.
"My goodness, Savant Starder, what possible chain of events could have lead to you commandeering a marine drop ship and flying into deadly combat?" the Admiral asked. Her eyes were laughing, and it was clearly all she could do to suppress a chuckle.
"Wow, so you remember me?" the Artificer asked, clearly surprised. "Well, I've got a better question. What, in the name of all things good and holy, could have possessed high command to unseal the Heartbreaker cannon?"
"This is a matter of the fate of the cosmos," the Admiral answered, and she wasn't smiling anymore. "I wouldn't expect you to understand."
"What I understand," the Savant was clearly furious, "is that the abomination loaded onto Heart Ship One is the most disgusting weapon my mother ever built! Using the Heart of Artria that way—disgusting! It was sealed for a reason!"
"What does it do?" the barbarian next to him asked, and the Admiral was in the uncomfortable position of being intentionally ignored.
"If you fire the Heartbreaker at the Heart of a world, while that Heart is on its home world, it will destroy the Heart. Then, the magical chain reaction from that detonation will eradicate the entire planet."
"What?" the barbarian shouted. "You mean…?"
"They're probably aiming that god-awful thing at Elyon right now." Starder was glaring directly into the screen, boring the stabbing condemnation in his eyes directly at the Admiral. She looked away, unable to face that stare.
"What are we going to do?" the barbarian asked, "We can't let them destroy Meridian! And Elyon—"
"There's no point in worrying about it," the Savant said, "it's out of our hands. We'll just have to rescue the others and get Elyon off world before they can fire. Once she's someplace else, the cannon will be useless to them."
"I don't understand!" the barbarian moaned, turning the screen with the beginnings of hate in his expression, "You have all that power! Why don't you use it to help us? You're no better than this Dragon King guy!"
"It's a matter of the fate of the cosmos," the Admiral said, very quietly. "It's more important than the destruction of any one world."
"I hope that keeps you warm at night." Savant Starder spat the words like a curse. "Goodbye, Admiral." He slammed his fist on the panel in front of him, and the screen blazed out to fuzz.
"Orders, Admiral?" the tactical officer asked, after silence had held sway in the tense bridge for a good ten seconds.
"I'm going to pray," she said, and leaned back into her command chair. "I'm going to pray that that stupid little genius can save his troublesome creations, and failing that, I'll pray he keeps the Dragon King's boys busy for the next nine minutes. You're going to get me that damn cannon lock so I can end this nightmare, once and for all."
The bridge fell back into silence, and a countdown appeared on the screen, nine minutes until Meridian was erased from existence.
At a Hidden Place
The silver-haired resident of The Between, coated in her glowing armor and skin sprinkled with glorious jewel-like scales, sat quietly behind the illusions that hid her from the eyes and sensors and scry-magic of both armies and gathered her strength. Her sisters had revealed themselves in all their glory, and it was good. Now they were threatened, and the time for hiding and watching was at an end. Soon, they would all know her, and then they could begin to learn of their destiny.
Next Chapter: Dragon King, Dragon Queen, and Dragon Sisters
I'm not sure when I'll get around to writing the next chapter. I hate to say 'the more people who ask me to write more, the sooner I'll get to it' but I would be lying if I said anything else. Even this much is only here because someone wrote me a very pleasant e-mail and reminded me how much I enjoy this storyline. That said, I will certainly write more of this, eventually, even if no one says anything. I just enjoy the potential of these characters that much.